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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 January 2003 Issue  Volume 4  Number 1

Product Evaluation

Are We There Yet? Another Look at the MobilePal+GPS


Funding for this product evaluation was provided by the Teubert Foundation, Huntington, West Virginia.


In the May 2002 issue of AccessWorld, we reported on five off-the-shelf global positioning satellite (GPS) products to see how well they worked as orientation aids. We concluded that they had great potential, but were not yet user friendly to people who are blind or visually impaired. Some of the devices use a GPS receiver combined with a laptop and mapping software to display and tell you your location and how to get to your destination. A major problem with these laptop-based systems is that they are not convenient to use as you travel because of the weight and bulkiness of most laptops. In addition, they use interfaces that vary from totally inaccessible to difficult and complicated at best, which is not surprising because they were not designed with blind and visually impaired people in mind.

We also looked at two cell phone-based GPS systems that are small and convenient to use. Of the two, the MobilePal+GPS by RemoteMDX was the more promising because of the simplicity of its user interface. The MobilePal+GPS provides a one-touch connection with a personal-assistance operator who is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In an emergency, the personal-assistance operator can perform tasks like dispatching police, fire, ambulance, or roadside assistance anywhere in the United States. Since the operator has your GPS position, you can also get travel directions. Although the MobilePal+GPS was designed to give driving directions, we wanted to find out if it could also assist with walking directions for travelers who are blind and visually impaired.

Hello, Operator?

In our original evaluation, we were unable to test how well the MobilePal+GPS might work for blind and visually impaired people because we had problems getting connected to an operator. Since then, Remote MDX has worked on fixing the problems we encountered. The company also approached us after the AccessWorld evaluation was published and indicated its interest in learning what it would need to do to make the product accessible and attractive to people who are blind or visually impaired. We agreed to the company's request to take another, more detailed look at the MobilePal+GPS. See Figure 1 for a photo of this device.

Figure 1.

Caption: Figure 1. MobilePal+GPS.

How We Tested

We tested the MobilePal+GPS in various outdoor travel environments. One team, based in Huntington, West Virginia, a small city of about 50,000 people, traveled with the device and used it to find various destinations and get information on their location as they were traveling. A log of what happened was kept. Two other teams did the same in Chicago and New York City.

When Things Go Wrong, Push the Big Red Button

The MobilePal is marketed to the general public as a travel tool to summon assistance in case of an emergency. It uses ordinary cellular technology to connect you to a personal assistant, who then uses GPS technology to pinpoint your location for the purpose of sending emergency assistance or to provide driving directions. To use the MobilePal, no dialing is required, you simply press the big red Call button until a tone is heard, and after a few seconds, you are connected to your personal assistant, ready to access the services that are offered. The MobilePal also features a distress signal. After you press and hold the test button, it emits a loud siren sound to attract attention during an emergency. It uses long-lasting lithium ion batteries that do not require charging and last for two to three hours of talk time. The microphone and speaker are built in for hands-free use.

The MobilePal costs $150 plus a $30 setup fee. To access the MobilePal services, you must also pay a monthly subscription rate of either $9.95 or $16.95, depending on the level of services you desire. Further costs of 99 cents per minute could also be incurred for "concierge" services (such as asking for directions), which are offered in the $16.95 plan.

For $9.95 per month, MobilePal's Personal Security Plan offers the following services:

  1. Mobile emergency assistance 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
  2. Dispatch of police, fire, and ambulance, anywhere in the United States.
  3. Dispatch of your roadside service provider (towing, lockout, and so forth).
  4. Location of the nearest hospital or veterinary services.
  5. Free mobile calls for emergency or roadside assistance.

For $16.95 per month, Mobile Pal's Personal Security Advantage Plan offers the following additional "concierge services":

  1. Virtual Switchboard Services: They reserve up to 10 numbers to connect you to your friends and family and provide nationwide 411-directory assistance and auto accident assistance with connection to your insurance provider.
  2. Driving Directions: You can find out your location; get directions to your destination; and get assistance finding points of interest, such as the nearest hotel.
  3. Health Services: Registered nurses are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Getting Started

The MobilePal looks like a stripped-down cell phone. Beneath a flip-down cover are two buttons recessed into the unit, making them easy to locate and distinguish. The top button is the large red Call button, used to initiate and terminate calls to the personal assistant, and the lower button is a slightly smaller, gray Test button. The battery compartment is on the back panel of the MobilePal, and it is much easier to open than the previous version we evaluated.

The MobilePal comes with a print manual in 12-point font that does do a good job of describing the features and functions of the phone. However, the manual should be made available in large print and at least one additional alternative format, such as an audiocassette, electronic text file, or an HTML document on the RemoteMDX web site. The documentation should include a brief textual description of the phone with the locations of its two buttons, as well as an explanation of the clues the phone provides via audio tones. A description of how to attach the belt clip to the unit would also be helpful.

How Accessible Is It?

In addition to activating the distress signal, the Test button is also used to check battery strength and to store your GPS location when you go indoors out of view of the satellites. In most instances, there are both LED and tone indications to prompt you. However, when you store a GPS location, you are limited to LED feedback to know when to release the Test button. If you hold it too long, the siren will sound. In addition, at the end of the process, there is no tone accompanying LED indication to verify that the location was successfully stored. There are also a few other instances of LED feedback without accompanying tones, but they are not essential to operating the unit.

Can you Count on MobilePal+GPS?

In Huntington, New York City, and Chicago, we were able to connect to an operator both outdoors and indoors. The average connect time was under a minute. There was one instance during overcast weather conditions in Huntington that we did not get through to the call center. We were told that if it happens again, we should disconnect after a minute or so and immediately try again. In another unusual case, we lost the connection when a low-flying helicopter passed overhead, but we were automatically reconnected a few seconds later. Once connected, we found that both the volume and clarity of calls were good. However, under windy weather conditions and when we were near noisy traffic, it was sometimes difficult to hear the operator. We did find it reassuring to speak to a live person who was courteous, confident, and patient.

In Huntington, MobilePal+GPS also did quite well in getting our outdoor GPS location within a few minutes and was able to locate us in the rural outskirts of the city. We did have a problem once when we tried to get our location on a heavily overcast day. Getting travel information we needed was a different story. While it usually did not take more than a few minutes for the operator to determine our location or get us directions to a destination, we found that the accuracy of the position was not what it needs to be for travelers who are blind or visually impaired. For example, during our tests, the MobilePal+GPS operators were able to provide accurate walking directions to the Amtrak train station, but could not correctly pinpoint exactly where the station was located. Similar limitations applied to New York City and Chicago.

In New York City, we knew MobilePal+GPS might have problems getting our GPS location because of the "urban canyons" created by tall buildings. In New York, our approach was to try and find an open area as best we could; get directions to a destination; and stay connected to the operator, who regularly attempted to recalculate our position as we walked. While this approach would be prohibitively expensive for a user, it was one way to find out if and when we would lose a signal in a city. The results were mixed. In a number of instances, the operator could not get our starting location. Other times, when our starting location had been acquired, it was lost en route, probably because of tall buildings and overhead scaffolding. However, we found the operators to be of assistance even when the GPS signal was lost. Since they have access to a map of the area you are traveling in, it is possible to get general walking directions. This was particularly helpful when our destination was a subway station.

The results in Chicago were also mixed. Notes from one trial in Chicago illustrate the problems and possibilities of the "concierge" service:

MobilePal+GPS was used inside an office building at 401 North Michigan Avenue to seek directions from the nearest bus stop to the corner of Diversey and Sharaden Road. The operator did some checking and was able to determine that there was a bus stop near my current location, but was unsure which bus route I would need to take to reach my destination. The operator offered to connect me to the Chicago Transit Authority, which would be able to provide this information. I was connected, but this number relied heavily on the use of touch tones to provide automated information to callers. This was impossible to do with the MobilePal+GPS.

The Bottom Line

Getting connected to a personal assistant was as reliable as any cell phone, but the precision and reliability of the GPS technology was not what we would have liked. We found that being located by the GPS in a city was a hit-or-miss proposition. Mapping out your location and how to get to a destination also needs improvement.

Operators are a valuable asset, but they need to be trained to provide information to blind or visually impaired travelers. While the MobilePal+GPS interface is simple, there are relatively minor aspects of it that need to be made accessible. The manual also needs to be made accessible.

The MobilePal+GPS has great potential as an orientation aid. It was much improved since our last evaluation, and we hope that the manufacturer will continue to improve the device. However, as it stands, it still has a way to go before we would recommend it as an orientation aid for blind and visually impaired travelers.

Furthermore, although this evaluation was focused on wayfaring, we were impressed with what we discovered about the personal-security features of the MobilePal+GPS. It offers a peace of mind that many people may appreciate.

Manufacturer's Comments

"We would like to thank AccessWorld for reviewing the MobilePal+GPS again. As you noted, we have worked very hard over the past year to improve both the MobilePal phone and the associated Personal Assistant Link (PAL) Services. Our ability to determine the exact location of users and to direct police, fire, and medical assistance to them in the event of an emergency has proved to be a valuable, potentially life-saving, service for our customers.

"We appreciate the feedback that was given by your 'testers.' As a result, we will create a new User's Guide with a larger font, which should improve both reading and scanning capabilities. Our latest User's Guide that was just recently released now provides text instructions for installing the belt clip. It should also be noted that we plan to continue to add new PAL services in the future and will explore adding the kinds of services that were listed as important by your testers. The databases required for many of the services mentioned, such as 'sidewalk navigation,' do not currently exist, but as GPS mapping continues to improve, we hope to be able to obtain data that will allow our PAL Agents to further help blind and visually impaired individuals better navigate their way around any city."

Product Information

Product: MobilePal+GPS

Manufacturer: RemoteMDx; 10404 Jackson Oaks Way, Knoxville, TN 37922; phone: 800-960-7849; web site: <www.remotemdx.com>.

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AccessWorld, Copyright (c) 2003 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved.

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