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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 November 2006 Issue  Volume 7  Number 6

Product Evaluation

Finding Your Way: A Review of Sendero GPS 3.5 for BrailleNote with a New Training Guide from De Witt and Associates

When the notion of using the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system as a navigational tool for people who are blind first garnered public attention, it sounded to many like science fiction. At best, some speculated at the time, it might be a tool that could be used by Michael May (then vice-president of Arkenstone and the leading proponent of the GPS as a wayfinding device), but not by anyone else. That was only about a dozen years ago. Today, there are three competing GPS products on the assistive technology market and murmurs of more to come. This article is a twofold evaluation; it reviews the Sendero GPS 3.5 that is used on HumanWare's BrailleNote products and a new tutorial from De Witt and Associates that is designed to assist trainers or individuals who are learning to use the product.

Identifying the Players

Michael May, president and CEO of the Sendero Group, drew considerable media attention in the early 1990s with the GPS software that he was able, as a blind person, to run and access on a laptop. The prototype was tweaked for years, and in 2000, it was made available for purchase from the Sendero Group as GPS-Talk. But only in 2001, when the Sendero Group and HumanWare (then Pulse Data International) collaborated to run the Sendero GPS on the BrailleNote family of products was the GPS actively marketed and widely available to consumers who are blind. The Sendero Group is one company, and HumanWare is another. The product is referred to by either name--Sendero GPS or BrailleNote GPS--in this article and elsewhere.

What Is GPS?

Initially intended for military purposes, the 24 satellites that circle the Earth send information on latitude, longitude, and altitude to receivers to pinpoint an individual location. When this technology was released for commercial purposes in 2000, companies developed maps and databases that identified streets, businesses, and other points of interest corresponding to these positions. A person who is blind who uses the Sendero GPS software on a BrailleNote or VoiceNote can hear all the information that these maps deliver spoken or read on the braille display.

With the Sendero GPS and other such software, the person who is blind who is walking in a familiar or unfamiliar location can identify streets; intersections; and 50 categories of businesses and landmarks, including restaurants, shops, banks, ATM machines, parks, zoos, and schools. The landmarks are referred to as POIs (points of interest). The software can tell you the direction in which you are heading; the nearest address, intersection, or point of interest; or what city you are in. In a vehicle, the software can tell you all the same things, as well as the speed at which the vehicle is traveling. In either mode, it can tell you how far--in feet or in miles--you have traveled or, on a predetermined route, how far you have yet to go.

What is perhaps most amazing to a person who is blind is the liberating ability to "look around," whether he or she is actually navigating or sitting still, to see all the streets and POIs within a designated range. For example, sitting in my kitchen, I learned from a few keystrokes that there were 863 POIs within one mile of my home--59 of them restaurants and 173 of them shops. As many other users who are blind have commented, it was astonishing to learn how many streets and businesses were in my own neighborhood that I had never known were there. With another keystroke, I could discover the address and phone number of any of these businesses. In other words, the software allows the BrailleNote user to gather the information on surrounding environments that sighted people take for granted and, as a bonus, serves as a virtual on-tap yellow pages, too.

For this evaluation, a BrailleNote mPower running KeySoft 7 was loaded with the Sendero GPS 3.5 with the Holux Bluetooth receiver. The software can, however, run on any of the BrailleNote, VoiceNote, or BrailleNote PK models. Running it on the BrailleNote PK is perhaps the most appealing, since this option gives you a personal digital assistant and a GPS system all in one unit weighing less than a pound. The software and documentation are contained on a 1GB compact flash card. If the BrailleNote and GPS are purchased together, the card will be in the slot with the software, and maps for the customer's location will already be loaded. If the two are purchased separately, installation is simple and straightforward. The compact flash card contains the user manual, command list, and online Help. A braille command summary is also included. The commercial maps and POI databases for the United States are included on CDs, packaged in a small CD album, and are labeled in both print and braille. To load any of these files into the BrailleNote, it is necessary first to transfer them, using a computer, from the CD to the compact flash card. Then, once the desired maps are on the card and the card is in the BrailleNote, maps can be accessed at any time.

Photo of a woman walking outside with a dog guide. She is wearing the BrailleNote PK slung across her shoulder on a strap.

Caption: Running the Sendero GPS 3.5 on the BrailleNote PK gives you a personal digital assistant and a GPS system all in one unit weighing less than a pound.

It should be noted that using the Bluetooth receiver was particularly welcome, since there were no wires from the receiver to get in the way while I was walking or traveling in a car or bus. Although I used a traditional headset or earbuds for listening to the speech output, a Bluetooth headset could also be used, thus eliminating the inconvenience of wires altogether.

Learning to Use It

De Witt and Associates is a New Jersey-based company that provides assistive technology training and publishes training materials. Its newest courseware title was Teaching and Learning the BrailleNote GPS: A Training Guide; consequently, I decided to review both the product and the tutorial together. (It should be pointed out here that Michael May is listed as an editor on the acknowledgments page of the guide, indicating that the De Witt and Associates editors, Kay Chase and Richard Fox, clearly collaborated with and received approval from the Sendero Group.) De Witt and Associates' courseware materials are available in print, braille, DAISY, and text CD formats. The braille and print versions are both spiralbound. The braille is in four small (8.5 by 11-inch) easily handled volumes and was the version that was primarily used for this review.

In its promotional literature, De Witt and Associates says that its aim is to enable assistive technology trainers and training centers to provide consistent training experiences. The quality of these materials will definitely help ensure that consistency. Although the guide's target audience is instructors, it can also be used by individuals who are teaching the software to themselves.

The material is divided into 11 lessons that are arranged in a logical progression. Each lesson contains learning objectives, a list of terms that are used, shortcut keystrokes for both the BrailleNote BT and BrailleNote QT (these are models with a Perkins-style braille keyboard and a QWERTY keyboard, respectively, so that keystrokes are often different), handouts and activities for students, and an assessment tool for measuring students' progress. Lessons are clearly and concisely written. Each segment of each lesson is short enough that it is easy to locate desired material for a reference point when you are working outside the sequential lessons format.

Planning Routes

With the BrailleNote GPS, you can sit in your office or living room and plan a route for walking or driving anywhere within your state. Similarly, if you are planning a trip to another state, you can load that state's map and plan routes to already-known addresses or use the POI database to determine which tourist attractions, hotels, or restaurants you may want to visit while in the area. One particularly helpful feature is that you can set any address as a starting point and another as your destination and thus determine the distance between two places before you actually set out on your walk or drive.

With the De Witt tutorial, learning the many, varied, and rich features of the Sendero GPS software is a fairly easy and straightforward process. Lessons literally have you walk before you run (or, in this case, "ride" in a rapidly moving vehicle) and, in fact, instruct you to practice some of the techniques in a quiet place before you venture outdoors.

Saving Routes

If you want to plan a route for walking or driving, the tutorial shows you how. You can then examine the route waypoint by waypoint or turn by turn. Reading the route from waypoint to waypoint is an extremely detailed, sometimes tedious, mode of examination, while putting the unit in Turns mode enables you to examine the actual route itself--much like the directions obtained from MapQuest or other online mapping services. Routes can easily be saved to be called up at a future time for study or following. Unlike some GPS products, the Sendero GPS makes a clear distinction between pedestrian routes and vehicular routes. In other words, it will not direct you to walk up the ramp to the freeway.

One of my favorite exploits with the Sendero GPS--one that is not really addressed in the tutorial--was simply to "walk around" a map while in Virtual mode. I went to my childhood hometown--a place that I have not been to since high school--and put in the address of the home where I lived as an adolescent. From there, I "walked" the route to my high school, discovered that my favorite ice cream shop is still listed as a POI, and was surprised to learn that a good friend who seemed to live far away in my childhood really lived only 9.97 miles from my family's home. I did all this while I was sitting in a comfortable chair and using simple keyboard commands to go left, right, or straight, with the software telling me all the while the names of intersections, announcing every church and pub and barbershop along the way, and even telling me when a street came to a dead end. At various points, I could check the distance to see how far I had "walked" or how far there was yet to go. The pedometer, in either pedestrian or vehicular routes, can be reset to zero at any time in either the Virtual or the GPS mode. (The GPS mode may be thought of as "live" mode, that is, when the receiver is activated and satellites are detected.) In either mode, you can ask for the current direction of travel. Of course, certain information is available only in the GPS mode--the speed at which you are traveling, for instance, the number of satellites that are currently detected, or the altitude of the current location.

With the Sendero GPS, you can record your own POIs, which can mean that the heretofore inaccessible freedom of traveling without sidewalks is now possible. You can record a tree, a park bench, or a playground swing set as a POI and, with the GPS software guiding you, come within 30 feet of the designated spot. Often, the distance is even more accurate.

Glitches

Sometimes, the maps are wrong. Minor examples may be that while your town calls a particular route High Street, the GPS maps refer to it as Highway 65. Or maybe your GPS identified Andy's Book Shop at the corner of Main and Maple, when you know (or find out by traveling there) that it was sold last year and is now Maria's Beauty Salon and Spa. Slightly more aggravating errors are when the system simply does not recognize an address that you know exists. For instance, the street where my doctor is located did not go beyond the 5500 block in the GPS maps, although her address is 7710. At another time during this review period, while planning a college visit for my daughter, I discovered the absence of an entire town! Still, with a little creativity, there are work-arounds for such problems. To map a route to the 7700 block of the street that would not allow me to go beyond 5500, I asked the system for POIs within two miles. From the 50 categories, I chose Medical. Then, when my doctor's name came up, I marked it as my destination. The system then accurately mapped the route. Similarly, to find the way to an address in the unnamed town, I went to a nearby town and searched for POIs within 5, 10, and 15 miles. All the POIs and streets of the unnamed town were actually there, and the resulting routes, with this work-around, were reliable.

Charles LaPierre, chief technology officer of Sendero Group, the man who wrote the software for the Sendero GPS, informed me that many of these problems are with the maps themselves, provided by Tele Atlas, and that many such errors will be fixed in this year's release. He also indicated that one future plan is to enable a user to search within a specified zip code, which will provide another work-around for locating items that are omitted in the map.

Errors in the De Witt and Associates tutorial were negligible--a few typos or braillos and, in one instance, two pages out of order--but, overall, the materials are extremely well organized, professionally presented, and thorough. When you are searching for POIs in a given area, you can select "All" and read all the POIs in the area or select 1 of the 50 categories. If you press Enter, the entire list is presented. The tutorial instructs that if you know the name of the desired POI, you can enter the first three letters and be presented with all the names that contain these letters. What it does not tell you is that you can also enter the entire name if you know it and thus quickly locate the desired landmark.

The Bottom Line

The Sendero GPS software for BrailleNote products is a wonderful navigation aid and resource for computer users who are blind. It is the oldest GPS tool in the assistive technology market, developed primarily by people who are blind, and thus has addressed many of the issues that other tools still face. It has some minor flaws, but its overall usefulness far outweighs their significance. Many people have reported that they purchased this software but did not use it, fearing that the learning curve would be too great. The De Witt and Associates training guide has organized the learning steps in such a friendly and facile manner that learning should no longer be difficult for anyone who is able to operate a BrailleNote and who has appropriate mobility skills.

GPS software is intended for navigation, wayfinding, and identifying landmarks and street names. It should not, however, be viewed as a replacement for the traditional mobility tools of a dog guide or a white cane. Happily, the De Witt and Associates tutorial emphasizes this point and other safety precautions repeatedly. The BrailleNote GPS can tell you which streets to walk and when to turn to arrive at a never-before-investigated Italian restaurant, but only the proper use of a white cane or a dog guide can tell you if there is an open hole in the road, a construction site, a low-hanging branch, or another obstruction along the way. Only the use of orientation and mobility skills can tell you if the street can be safely crossed. With this caution in mind at all times, the Sendero GPS software is a remarkable enhancement to independent travel if you are blind, and the De Witt and Associates tutorial enhances the teaching or learning experience.

Manufacturer's Comments

The Sendero Group

"In addition to what you have read in this article, the Sendero GPS has powerful manual route-recording features that enable you to plan custom routes across campus or off-road in the woods. We have acquired databases of bus stops for three cities so far, as well as for talking ATMs for three bank organizations. Users are sharing thousands of personal points via the Sendero web site.

"After 12 years working on accessible GPS, we are pleased that the technology has come so far, from 12 pounds to 1 pound. At the same time, as the article points out, there is room for improvement in the Sendero software, with GPS and map accuracy. Our map and GPS hardware suppliers are constantly improving their part of the equation. Sendero will continue to implement changes that hundreds of blind users request, as well as to develop new wayfinding technologies for outdoor and indoor environments."


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Product Information

Product: BrailleNote GPS.

Manufacturer: GPS software: The Sendero Group, 1118 Maple Lane, Davis, CA 95616-1723; phone: 530-757-6800; e-mail: <gps@senderogroup.com>; web site: <www.senderogroup.com>.

Manufacturer: BrailleNote: HumanWare, 175 Mason Circle, Concord, CA 94520; phone: 800-722-3393 or 925-680-7100; e-mail: <info@humanware.com>; web site: <www.humanware.com>.

Price: $1,599, for version 3.5 with a 1-GB compact flash.

Manufacturer: Teaching and Learning the BrailleNote GPS: A Training Guide: De Witt and Associates, 700 Godwin Avenue, Suite 110, Midland Park, NJ 07432; phone: 201-447-6500 or toll-free 877-447-6500; e-mail: <sales@4dewitt.com>; web site <www.dewittassociates.net>.

Price: $129.

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Copyright © 2006 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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