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.
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.
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.
Written by Graham Page, ELVis Assistive Technology Adviser
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 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.
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.
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.
Photo of a pair of Snapchat Spectacles in its yellow case.
As the Assistive Technology Advisor at ELVis I am often asked about access to radio and television by people with varying degrees of visual impairment.
In many ways, access to electronic products by visually impaired people has improved considerably over the last 10 years or so. Smartphones and computers in particular are now accessible out of the box and third-party products exist so that Apple, Android and Microsoft devices are really pretty accessible.
Most of us would like to spend at least some of the time listening to the radio or watching TV. In this blog I will discuss some of the ways of accessing radio. I will cover Television in my next blog entry.
In the 1980s, most radios had an analogue tuner. You twisted a knob to tune the radio and used another control to change wave band. The list of bands might include AM, FM, longwave and shortwave. Most people I knew got used to the order of the stations in their home area so they could use the radio pretty effectively.
Since then, things have moved on. There is still AM and FM radio and you can buy radios with a tuning knob so many national stations and a few local stations are still available as they have been for the last 40 years or more. However, many stations now use a system called DAB which stands for Digital Audio Broadcasting. The radio can be tuned automatically and, if you can see, information such as the name of the station and the song being played is automatically shown on the radio’s digital display so you always have details of what you are listening to. This is very convenient if you can see the display. If you do not have enough sight to read the display however, finding out the details of the station is harder. There are many more stations than there used to be and some even have no DJs so song titles and artists are never announced.
In the past, Pure, one of the largest DAB radio manufacturers, produced a radio that was accessible. It wasn’t perfect for various reasons but it did allow the user to hear details of the current station as well as using features such as the wake up alarm independently. Development of this radio never continued despite reasonable sales and manufacturing ceased some years ago.
Unfortunately, there is currently no truly accessible DAB radio available to visually impaired people without enough sight to read a display and this is clearly quite disappointing. Many people feel that more legal pressure is required to force manufacturers to make their products more accessible. If you have sighted assistance, and you only listen to a few stations, most radios have presets where each preset has a button like on an old car radio. These can be used to listen to the radio though sighted assistance will probably be needed setting them up.
For accessible products it is necessary to turn to internet radios. Most stations now broadcast online and some only broadcast online. These stations can be played using accessible mobile phones or computers, but many people want a device which looks more like a traditional radio. Many manufacturers such as Roberts and Pure offer devices that look like a radio but they can access radio stations that are online. As unlimited internet has become more affordable listening to the radio in this way has become more viable.
The internet radios are sadly not accessible but there are some solutions.
I have recently being demonstrating the Amazon Echo and the Google Home smart speakers. These can both be told to play particular stations using voice. I can say “Alexa, play Radio 5” and Radio 5 Live will start playing. The amazon Echo is available for £50 or £150 for the larger version of this speaker. Google also makes a smart speaker called Google Home for around £129.
Manufacturers such as Apple are also bringing out high-end smart assistants so there is likely to be increased choice in this field over time.
Devices such as the Victor Stream available from www.humanware.com also have a very good internet radio built-in. This pocket-sized device also plays audio books and music and it’s primarily designed for personal listening. It costs around £250.
Lastly there is the British Wireless for the Blind fund at www.blind.org.uk they offer easy to see DAB radios but they also offer a specially designed tablet called Bumble Bee which allows users to access radio and podcasts. Until recently they offered a device called Sonata which had buttons rather than touch controls but Solutions Radio in Holland are not developing this further so while it still works, it’s not available to new users.
So, there are accessible internet radios available and DAB radios can have presets programmed so they are useable by a blind person with some sighted assistance. More needs to be done for sure, but it is good that there are now some viable choices in this area.
Listen to Graham talk to the Thomas Pocklington Trust about accessible radios.
Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of trialling out smart glasses, which are being developed by technology company OxSight.
Partial sight is required in order to benefit from wearing the glasses. I live with an eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa which means I have no useful vision in one eye and less than 1% in the other eye, in addition to also having Cataracts in this eye. Therefore, I was in doubt whether the glasses would work for me.
However, after a quick demonstration on how to use them, I tried them on and I immediately noticed the massive difference wearing the glasses made to my vision. I was able to see my surroundings, including a television screen, and a man walking into the room and sitting in the chair opposite from me. Also, wearing the glasses outside, I could see the contrasting colours of the pavement and roads. I even noticed some people whizzing past on bikes, as well as identify lampposts which I wouldn’t normally see unless they were detected by my cane.
I was very ecstatic and thrilled that the glasses could help me see again. Moreover, I felt delighted to be able to see my wall clock at home, which I haven’t done in over 4 years when my vision began to rapidly deteriorate.
In my honest opinion, I believe these glasses will greatly assist partially sighted people. These glasses have various settings to cater to different visual impairments. For example, changing the colours to black and white, or switching to use inverted colours. However, the glasses are slightly heavy, and you do feel the weight if you were to wear them all day. Also, the battery pack which is attached to the glasses overheats quickly.
Other slight issues, which I’m sure will be fixed in the final model, are firstly, it is difficult to use when reading printed material as text appears blurry. And secondly, if you’re looking at a group of people, the glasses sees one very large person instead.
Overall, the glasses do take some getting used to, but they are a great help. I’m looking forward to trialling them out in social environments, like walking to my local shop and navigating through the aisles and seeing if I can identify products. I’m also really interested to try them whilst trying to make a cup of tea with them and other daily tasks.
Check out the video below where you can see me trialling the glasses!
For more updates and to follow my journey using these glasses, please visit my Facebook page ‘RP Awareness & Fundraisers’ by Bhavini Makwana by clicking on the link below. Thanks!
Every now and again, smart devices are introduced without needing modification for vision impaired people to use because they function by using other senses. An example of this is the smart speaker/voice assistant. Smart speakers are screenless and can only be activated by voice.
A smart speaker which I highly recommend using is the Amazon Echo Dot, which is a speaker with a microphone that connects to the Internet. You use your voice to speak to the device and Alexa, the voice assistant, will talk back to you.
The range of skills Alexa has includes:
Finding out the current time
Setting timers and alarms
Playing radio stations
Getting a local weather forecast
Controlling lights, mains plugs with timers and other smart home devices
Planning journeys on public transport
Creating to do lists and calendars
And much more!
Before you can use the Echo Dot it requires setting up, which you will only ever need to do once. You will need a smartphone, tablet or computer connected to the internet in order to link the Echo Dot to your Amazon account. If you don’t have an Amazon account you will need to sign up on the Amazon website prior to setting up. After you’ve completed the setup process you’re ready to use the Echo Dot.
As a blind person the Echo Dot has been extremely useful in assisting me with my daily routine. I’m surprised at how much I use the device to perform the aforementioned skills, as it is a lot quicker to use voice commands than using my computer, even though I am a competent computer user.
The Echo Dot costs £50 on the Amazon UK website, although Amazon has regular sales so you can probably buy it for less. It is also available as the Amazon Echo with a bigger speaker which costs £150. Moreover, Google has recently launched its own smart speaker called Google Home with voice control. Both products can be purchased online but are also available at retailers like PC World and John Lewis.
In conclusion, smart speakers are beneficial for vision impaired people, however I recommend that you research thoroughly which product is able to meet your needs before buying one.
Here is a YouTube video demonstrating the Amazon Echo which is definitely worth watching!