Polk Boom Bit Bluetooth Speaker Review

There are many uses to which vision impaired people put their mobile phones.  One of the most exciting of these is the ability to find their way around independently using GPS navigation.  There are a number of apps that can help with this including Blind Square, RNIB Navigator, Google Maps and Apple Maps to name just a few.  The subject of which GPS app is best definitely deserves to be discussed in a separate article.

Many visually impaired people do not have enough sight to use the IPhone comfortably for map reading so spoken announcements of current location and what is nearby as well as turn by turn directions can be extremely helpful.

One of the greatest difficulties visually impaired people experience when using a smart phone for navigation is being able to hear what the phone is speaking while still being able to hear sound of things going on around them.  Most headphones are not ideal for this since they reduce the sound from outside sources which can make walking somewhat unsafe.  There are headphones such as the AfterShokz Trekz Titanium which cost around £90 which conduct sound through the skull rather than covering the ears, but these are much more expensive than the Boom Bit.

The Polk Boom Bit is a very small wearable speaker with a metal spring clip that can attach to clothing such as a shirt collar, a coat or a t-shirt.  It connects to your phone by Bluetooth so there are no trailing wires.  The Boom Bit measures 7.5 x 3.5 x 2 centimetres and it weighs 36.3 grams.  It is controlled using 2 small rubberised buttons which are easy to feel, though some may find it difficult to press both buttons at the same time.  This is necessary to turn the speaker on and off.

Despite its small size and weight, the Boom Bit has surprisingly loud sound.  It’s not great for music, but it’s fine for speech.

The Polk Boom Bit does have a speaker phone built in. This works okay when taking calls but it’s not really up to the job when it comes to working with Siri or dictating text, so if you need to do this you can easily turn off the speaker.

The Polk Boom Bit Bluetooth speaker costs around £25 on Amazon and it can be found for as little as £15 on eBay.

Here’s the Amazon link to the Polk Boom Bit Bluetooth speaker:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Polk-BOOM-Clip-Bluetooth-Speaker/dp/B01HIS5O7A

Polk Boom Bit
The Polk Boom Bit Bluetooth speaker in different colours, including cyan, black, white & pale green, red and yellow.

Written Graham Page, ELVis Assistive Technology Adviser

 

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‘In Your Pocket’ Review

In Your Pocket, which used to be known as RNIB In Your Pocket, is a device which allows the user to listen to content from RNIB including talking books, national and local newspapers and magazines and podcasts.

In Your Pocket is based on a mobile phone, and recently, it has become able to make and receive phone calls, send and receive text messages and store contacts.  A key concept of In Your Pocket is that it is primarily controlled by the user’s voice.  It is the first device I have come across which will let the user add a contact by voice, only resorting to an on-screen keyboard if a name has an unusual spelling or if a word is consistently misrecognised.

This device is ideal for someone who wants to read a lot of books and newspapers as well as the basic mobile phone functionality.  The device is supplied with an O2 data plan giving 3 gigabytes of data per month; enough to listen to a talking book everyday for 4 hours over a 1-month period.  This means that In Your Pocket is ready to use as soon as you take it out of the box and turn it on.  There is no setup procedure necessary.  In Your Pocket can also be connected to Wi-Fi rather than using up your quota of mobile data.

The In Your Pocket package is available on a 24-month contract for £22 a month.

Initially this was an RNIB project, but it is hoped that more sources of books and other reading and listening material will be available in the coming months.

All this functionality can be achieved using an IOS or an Android phone and joining the RNIB talking book library and paying £39 a year for access to the RNIB Newsagent service.  You then need to install at least 1 book reading app for newspapers, learn to use the RNIB Overdrive app for listening to talking books and use a podcast player for listening to your chosen podcasts.  This requires you to have a good knowledge of your mobile device as well as the ability to use it with the built in screenreader or screen magnifier as required.  This can prove rather technically challenging for many people.

In Your Pocket offers an all-in-one ready to use solution which can be operated using natural speech.  You are talking to a machine not a person, so while you can use natural language, you must be specific about what you want.  If you have used the Amazon Echo or Google Home smart speakers, using In Your Pocket should be quite straight forward.  I have found that most people pick up the idea of controlling devices by voice quite quickly and naturally.

For more information about In Your Pocket visit the website –http://www.inyourpocket.org.uk or contact the In Your Pocket helpline on 0333 772 7708.

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Photo of Graham holding an In Your Pocket device.

Written by Graham Page, ELVis Assistive Technology Adviser

Amazon Echo vs Google Home: Which is Better for a Blind Person to Use?

In a previous blog post, I talked about the skills available on the Amazon Echo range of smart speakers.  The Amazon Echo first appeared in the UK in late 2016, and in April 2017, the Google Home range became available.  These smart speakers are a real challenger to the Amazon Echo and they have their own strong points.  Deciding which to buy can be tricky, so I will be comparing both smart speakers.

Like the Echo, the audio version of the Google Home is available in two versions; Google Home and Google Home Mini.

The Google Home and Google Home Mini both have the same features but the Google Home is larger than the Mini and it produces more bass.  At first glance, the Google Home range and the Amazon Echo range are quite similar in functionality but there are a few differences to consider when buying.

The Amazon Echo works with Amazon services such as Audible books and the Amazon shop.  Google has just introduced Audiobooks in the UK, but the service is not as well-known or extensive as Audible.  Also, although Google does have the ability to shop, it’s not in the same league as Amazon!  In general, the Amazon Echo and Google Home do not interact with each other, so you must choose whose services you prefer.

The set up process for Google Home requires either an android or an iPhone.  Access to a smartphone is essential to register the Google Home and connect it to Wi-Fi.  You can use any computer with a web browser to connect the Amazon Echo.  However, I feel that the set up process for the Echo is not as easy as the Home.

Moreover, you’ll need to consider whether and how you intend to connect your smart speaker to other speakers for improved sound quality.  Both systems benefit considerably by being connected to higher quality speakers such as a Hi-Fi system.  The Google Home can connect wirelessly via Bluetooth or by using Google’s own wireless connection system called Chromecast.  You can’t however, connect the Google Home to speakers with a cable such as a 3.5 mm stereo jack, typically used for headphones.  This is a real disadvantage for those who might want to connect to older systems which need a wired connection.

With the Echo, you can connect to other people with an Echo by using your phone’s contact list.  At present, the Google Home does not have the ability to let you talk to others with a Google Home.  Instead, you can ring anyone in your contacts list whether they have a landline or a mobile phone.

Both the Echo and the Home can have apps written for them which give increased functionality but they take a different approach.   Anyone can write an Amazon Echo app and publish it.

These apps are called skills.  To enable skills, you ask Alexa to enable a skill name.  For example, there is a skill to find out if there are delays on the Tube and to enable this I can say “Alexa, enable fast Tube status.”

Google does not have skills but they work with an increasingly wide range of partners, so you can now shop with supermarkets such as Asda because Google has partnered with them.  You don’t get individuals writing skills for the Google Home but the partnerships with other services that you do get tend to be higher quality.

Moreover, Google tends to be smarter when answering questions than Amazon, particularly when you want to ask related questions.  I can ask Google “How many hits has Elton John had?” followed by “How old is he?” and Google will understand I mean Elton John in the second question, whereas the Amazon Echo will forget the first question I asked.  In conclusion, Google tends to be that little bit smarter but it’s a close run thing.

Amazon Echo & Google Home
Photo of the Google Home and the Amazon Echo Dot

Written by Graham Page, ELVis Assistive Technology Adviser

Using a Smartphone as a Light Detector

As a blind person, there are often times when I need to be able to detect sources of light.  This may be to see if it is light outside, if an electric light has been left on, or if the power LED on an electronic device is on.  In the past, RNIB sold a device about the size of a marker pen which gave out a sound that changed according to the level of light that it was pointing at.  Sadly, RNIB no longer stocks this device, but fortunately it is possible to use a smartphone to do this.

Recently everyone in the building I live in got new door phone systems allowing people to call the flat they require from the outer door and be let in.  This door phone system has a privacy setting so you can choose not to hear if someone rings your door.  When privacy is switched on, there is a LED that glows to indicate that it is on but there is no other way of knowing whether privacy is on or off.  The button that turns privacy on and off is like a doorbell so you can’t tell by the position of the switch.

Fortunately, there are a number of apps which turn a smartphone into a light detector.  I have used two of them on the iPhone and both these apps are free.  Both detected the presence of the privacy LED on my door phone.

There is a standalone app called Boop Light Detector.  When in this app the phone emits a tone which changes according to how much light there is.  It can also vibrate and the vibration gets faster the more light there is.  This can be useful if checking for light in noisy environments.  The App Store link to this app is https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/boop-light-detector/id1134857212?mt=8&ign-mpt=uo%3D8

Some time ago I reviewed the Seeing AI app from Microsoft which you can read here.  This app has been updated and one of the new features is the light detector channel.  This produces a tone which increases in pitch the more light there is.  At this time there is no vibration feature but if you are used to using Seeing AI then this could be a good choice.  The link to Seeing AI in the App Store is https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/seeing-ai-talking-camera-for-the-blind/id999062298?mt=8&ign-mpt=uo%3D8

I have been advised that there is an Android light detector app called Free Motion Light Detector.  The Google Play Store link is https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.visionandroid.apps.motionsensor&hl=en_GB

Written by Graham Page, ELVis Assistive Technology Adviser

Graham’s Top 3 Amazon Echo Skills

There has been great interest in the Amazon Echo since it has been launched and the Echo can do many things out of the box when it is set up such as set timers and alarms and play radio stations.  It is also possible to extend the functionality of the Amazon Echo by enabling its skills.  There are thousands of these, but many are experimental so I thought I’d suggest a few that are really useful.  Here are 3 skills that I have found useful or entertaining.

‘My Talking Newspaper’ skill.  This is a skill that lets you listen to local talking newspapers that are available in the UK. It also lets you listen to the Infosound magazine, the Dot to Dot podcast which has hundreds of reviews of skills and RNIB Connect radio.  To enable it say “Alexa, enable My Talking Newspaper skill” after this to use the skill say “Alexa, open My Talking Newspaper”.

‘The Daily Log’ skill allows you to make notes with your voice.  You just speak the note such as “Here is John Smith’s phone number. It’s 02073331333”.  You can then use your voice to search for John Smith once the skill is open by saying “Search for John Smith”.  You can search for recordings on a particular day or for particular words.  This is a powerful skill, particularly for recording notes longer than a sentence or so.  To enable it say “Alexa, enable Daily Log Skill” then to use it after that say “Alexa, open Daily Log”.

The third skill I want to highlight is called ‘Path of Discovery: Europa’.  It’s an interactive Sci-Fi game.  This skill demonstrates great use of sound effects to enrich the experience of using the Amazon Echo.  The tasks are not too hard and there is plenty of help through the game. So even if Sci-Fi is not your thing, this skill is worth giving a go just for fun!  Like all the skills mentioned here, it’s free so there’s nothing to lose.  To enable it say “Alexa, enable Path of Discovery: Europa” and then to open it say “Alexa, open Path of Discovery: Europa”.

I have written a full review about the Amazon Echo Dot in my previous blog post.  You can read it here: http://bit.ly/2o8uHoW

Lastly, if anyone has come across Amazon Echo skills that they find useful, feel free to tell us by leaving a comment below.

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Photo of the Amazon Echo Dot. It has a round shape and four buttons on the top.

Written by Graham Page

The Seeing AI App Review

Many smartphone apps are now making use of Artificial Intelligence to help recognise products, people, locate and read text or barcodes and describe photos.  The app which has recently grabbed a lot of attention from the blind and partially sighted community is called Seeing AI, produced by Microsoft.  This app has a lot of functionality which is available in other apps though often at a cost.  Seeing AI is free and it works properly on the iPhone SE or the iPhone 6 and above.  Sadly, Seeing AI is not currently available on Android.

Seeing AI has various functions, but in my opinion this app is particularly useful for recognising short pieces of text, scanning bar codes and recognising faces.

When you open the app there is a listing of channels which give access to the different parts of the app.  The Short Text channel is the default when you first open the app and it reads text live as the camera sees it.  This can be useful for reading labels, but I personally find it particularly useful for reading computer screens when there is no speech e.g. during parts of a windows update process.

The Long Document channel is used when reading a document such as a letter or a book.  An internet connection is required for this channel to work.  You need to take a picture of a document for this and some guidance is offered to help the user find the correct distance away from the text to get the best results.

The Product channel allows you to recognise bar codes and have them read out to you.  This is a great way of identifying products providing they are in the bar codes database.  This works well and it is easily the best app I’ve come across for finding and reading bar codes.

The fourth channel is the Person channel which lets you recognise faces.  For me this is more fun than anything but it does work quite reliably.  You can scan your environment for faces and give faces names so they can be recognised in the future.

There is also an experimental Scenery channel.  This does not work well at this stage and there are better apps for this.  The Scenery channel is designed to tell you what is around you.

In general then, the Seeing AI app is high quality and free.  Other apps such as TapTapSee are good for telling you what is in a room and can be useful for recognising products if the barcode is not in the Seeing AI database.  Seeing AI should be absolutely fine for most casual document readers.  For those with greater needs such as recognising image files, the KNFB Reader app might be useful.  This is available on both iPhone and Android phones and it costs around £79.00.

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Photo of the ‘Seeing AI’ app showing the Short Text channel.

Written by Graham Page

Why the Snapchat Spectacles Are No Ordinary Pair of Sunglasses

You’ve probably have heard of Google Glasses, but have you heard of the Snapchat Spectacles? If you’re familiar with social media then you’ve probably come across Snapchat which is a popular social media platform (which can only be accessed on smart devices) that allows users to share messages, photos and videos with other users.

Aesthetically, the Snapchat Spectacles look pretty cool, but don’t let its appearance fool you as they are unlike any ordinary pair of sunglasses! You can use these sunglasses to record videos to share on Snapchat. All you have to do is connect them with the Snapchat app via Bluetooth on initial set up. So whenever you record your videos (by pressing the top right-hand button) they will automatically download on to the app when your sunglasses and smart devices are connected via Bluetooth. Then, you can start sharing the videos.

As I own a pair of these glasses (which cost me £130) I’m probably being really bias by saying they’re amazing. Not only do they protect your eyes from sun damage (UV protection), but they can also take away the hassle from having to open the camera app on your smart device and pressing record. This is great when you’re taking part in on-the-go activities like canoeing, riding a rollercoaster or when you’re hot air balloon. However, there have been concerns which have been raised about these glasses in public including invading the privacy of others. There are many places where wearing these glasses would be inappropriate like in public toilets and changing rooms.

Furthermore, if you’re looking for a pair of glasses which record long videos then the Snapchat sunglasses are probably not for you as they only record 10 second videos. However, you can stitch them together to create a longer video. You can also download the videos on to your smart device like a phone or tablet and start sharing them on other social media sites like Instagram.

Let me know what you think of the Snapchat Spectacles– are they’re a good thing, and would you consider buying one? If you have one let me know what your experience is like using them by leaving a comment below.

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Photo of a pair of Snapchat Spectacles in its yellow case.

Written by Ray Calamaan