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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 May 2009 Issue  Volume 10  Number 3

Product Evaluation

Navigating by Phone: A Review of Wayfinder Access GPS and Mobile Geo, Part 1

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have always intrigued me, going back to when I was a teenager reading about the military applications and through the past decade or so as they have become travel aids for people who are blind or have low vision. I was even lucky enough to have been an adviser on a project to develop an experimental prototype of a laptop-based talking GPS navigation system that was designed by scientists at West Virginia University several years ago. I have also enjoyed being part of a couple of evaluations of some of the accessible GPS systems that have been on the market for the past few years that were reported in AccessWorld. However, I have never used a GPS device in my day-to-day life, mainly because of the bulkiness of it all. Although I have been impressed with the technology, I have never been comfortable walking down the street with a notetaker or other PDA (personal digital assistant) device hanging over my shoulders, headphones on my head, and a GPS receiver clipped to my hat. That situation has all changed recently, though, as accessible GPS technology has moved into the cell phone arena. This article is the first in a two-part series evaluating Wayfinder Access and Mobile Geo, two accessible cell phone-based GPS navigation systems that can be used in conjunction with cell phone screen-reading software.

the author and an AFB TECH intern compare a print map with Wayfinder's directions.

Caption: Putting Wayfinder GPS to the test.

This article presents a brief description of both systems, but focuses on the Wayfinder Access system. My next article will focus on Mobile Geo, with a comparison of the two products' features and functions. I also include my own personal experiences with the products in each article.

What Do These GPS Products Do?

These cell phone-based GPS software products do much of the same things as their notetaker/PDA predecessors have done, but in a smaller, more convenient package. To access the many features of these products, you must also have a screen reader installed on your cell phone or PDA device. Their features include the following:

  • Finding directions and planning routes
  • Learning your current location
  • Giving pedestrian and automobile directions
  • Providing a spoken itinerary and alerts of upcoming turns
  • Announcing and providing directions to points of interest, such as restaurants, hotels, banks, gas stations, churches, and dozens of other categories of places
  • Accessing updates of traffic conditions
  • Providing settings to configure how you want the information presented
  • Being compatible with cell phone screen-reading software

Priced at $399, Wayfinder Access is manufactured by Wayfinder Systems AB, a Swedish company. It is compatible with both the TALKS and Mobile Speak screen readers and works on phones that run the Symbian operating system. Symbian phones run on the GSM cellular network, so you will need to be a customer of a service provider that uses that network, such as AT&T or T-Mobile, to use Wayfinder Access.

Priced at $845, Mobile Geo is a Code Factory product powered by Sendero GPS, the GPS software from the Sendero Group that is used on HumanWare's BrailleNote line of products. It is compatible with Code Factory's Mobile Speak screen reader and runs on Windows Mobile-based Smartphones, Pocket PC phones, and PDAs. Windows Mobile phones run on both the GSM and CDMA cellular network, so Mobile Geo users are not limited to specific service providers.

The interface for both products uses your screen reader's voice to convey information and your phone's keys for input, but the latest version of Mobile Geo also has a voice-command feature for input. Some of the phones with which Mobile Geo and Wayfinder Access are compatible have their own built-in GPS receivers, but others require that you purchase a wireless Bluetooth receiver. One of the main differences between Wayfinder Access and Mobile Geo is the way they access map data. With Mobile Geo, you load maps into your phone's memory or onto its memory card, and you may need to purchase and install new maps if you travel abroad. Wayfinder gets its maps over the air via your cellular connection, so you do not need to install any maps. However, Wayfinder's functions are limited if you are in an area with no cellular service, and you need to have a data plan as part of your cellular service. I pay an extra $15 per month for my AT&T data plan, and T-Mobile charges $19.99 per month. You also need to establish an Internet Access Point on your phone.

Both products allow for a free trial period for you to test the products, and you can access user manuals and learn more about the products, including compatibility with phones and PDA devices, at their web sites. For Mobile Geo, go to www.codefactory.es or www.senderogroup.com. For Wayfinder, go to www.wayfinder.com.

The Wayfinder Access Interface

Wayfinder appears as an option on your phone's menu, and when it starts, the main menu appears with four items that you can scroll through and select with your phone's joystick. Some phones have five-way navigation buttons, rather than a joystick, but both perform the same functions, and I will use the term joystick from here on. The four main menu items are these:

  1. Map: The map is a visual tool that is used to show your current position or to select other positions as a starting point, destination, or favorite. The Map is not compatible with screen readers, but its functions can be accessed via Wayfinder's other tools.
  2. Find: The Find tool is used to conduct a search for a specific location. You can then create a route using your search result as your destination. You can also save the result as a favorite, so that you can navigate to it later.
  3. Favorites: The Favorites tool is like a bookmarking tool, listing the favorites that you have created and storing their GPS locations. You can use the Favorites to create navigation routes as starting or destination points. You can also delete your favorites here.
  4. Services: Services has additional functions, such as information on weather, a currency converter, and information about public transportation in the area.

If you move your joystick to the right from the main menu, you can move through several other tabs. The first is the Info tab, which tells you the current strength of your GPS connection, your longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates, your current altitude, and the speed at which you are traveling. You use your joystick to scroll up and down through that information. To the right of the Info tab are the Vicinity tabs. The first is the Vicinity All tab, which reports all the street crossings, favorites, and points of interest in your area. The next three Vicinity tabs, in order, show the street crossings, your favorites, and the points of interest in your current area.

Wayfinder's interface also uses your phone's soft keys, whose functions change according to what you are currently doing, and your screen reader can tell you their current functions. The Right soft key functions as a Back and/or Exit button. At the main menu, the Left soft key is an Options button, which accesses a list of things to do, including go to the Mobile shop, send a Wayfinder trial invitation to a friend, load and save routes, submit your activation code, connect or disconnect to or from GPS, and more.

Settings is one of the choices in that list, and you can use the Settings to configure how you want Wayfinder to function. There are five tabs in Settings, and the first one is called Phone Settings, where you can move your joystick up and down to move to controls for adjusting the volume, the verbosity, the backlight, and the language. You can also change your Internet Access Point and toggle your GPS connection.

Moving your joystick to the right takes you to the Route tab, which has several settings. You can set your transport mode to passenger car or pedestrian and your distances to be reported as miles/feet or kilometers/meters. You can set Wayfinder to optimize your route for time and distance or to avoid traffic, toll roads, and/or interstate highways. You can also set Wayfinder to reroute you automatically if you go off course, and you can set it to check traffic information and tell it how often to report traffic information as you travel.

The next three Settings tabs to the right are the Nearby tab, the Comm tab, and the Map tab. I did not use these tabs in my testing, and to keep this article from getting too long, I will not go into detail here. You can read more about these tabs in the Wayfinder manual, which is available at www.mywayfinder.com/manual/access/en/main.html.

Testing Wayfinder Access

I tested Wayfinder Access on the Nokia N82, which also has the knfb Reader software installed, and I used the latest version of the Mobile Speak for Symbian software, version 3.6. The Nokia N82 has a built-in GPS receiver, and I also used it with a RoyalTek external Bluetooth GPS receiver that I borrowed from a friend. I tested Wayfinder in both Pedestrian mode and Passenger Car mode in several different scenarios.

I began with downloading and installing Wayfinder, which was easy and accessible. I went to access.getwf.com on my phone's web browser to download the software, followed a few easy steps, and was ready to go with my trial period. If you have purchased Wayfinder Access, you will get an activation code, and it is also easy and accessible to activate your product using the code.

Passenger Car Mode

It was the end of the workday when I installed Wayfinder, and I hitched a ride home with a neighbor. Using my phone's built-in GPS receiver, I set Wayfinder into Passenger Car mode and used the Find application to enter my home address. Wayfinder uses a simple form with edit fields where I entered my street, house number, and town and zip code. I pressed in on my joystick and, within five seconds, it found my house and was providing navigational directions. A clear, recorded female voice announced upcoming turns and the distance to those turns as we approached them, and would say "turn left here" or "turn right here" pretty much precisely when it was time to turn. I could also use Wayfinder with my screen reader's voice to access much more information about my trip home. In addition to the Info and Vicinity tabs mentioned earlier, a Guide tab and an Itinerary tab also appear. The Guide tab informs you of the next road and the distance to that turn, as well as the name of your current street. Moving your joystick to the right takes you to the Itinerary tab, and you can move your joystick up to listen to all your upcoming turns and distances one at a time.

As we made our way home, I listened to the female voice's turn-by-turn directions and the information presented in Wayfinder's Guide and Itinerary tabs and found a high degree of accuracy almost all the way home. However, as we pulled onto my street and in front of my house, Wayfinder wanted to take me a block past my house and another block to the right. I used Wayfinder in dozens of other Passenger Car mode scenarios in my town of Huntington, West Virginia, and found it to be accurate, often taking me right to my destination and at other times to within less than half a block of my destination. However, there were a few times when it gave incorrect directions, most often in more rural areas where map data may not be accurate. Also, a handful of times, it could not find the address for which I searched. In my small town of Huntington, I did not have much problem with "urban canyon" effect, which occurs when tall buildings block your access to the GPS satellites. However, I did get some of that when I tested in Washington, DC, and more in Chicago. My friend's external Bluetooth receiver helped me get better satellite signals.

The female voice tells you only the direction of your upcoming turns and does not tell you the street onto which you are turning. Although it was sufficient most of the time, my driver and I once noticed a potential for anxiety as we came up on a left turn onto an interstate highway. The voice was correct when it said to "turn left here," but the entrances to both the east and west interstate lanes were right beside each other. Although the Guide and Itinerary tabs told me which entrance to take, it would be helpful if the female voice would also announce street names or interstate entrance ramps.

Pedestrian Mode

The recorded female voice does not speak in Pedestrian mode, but your screen reader will speak your turn-by-turn directions, as well as the other navigational information described for Passenger Car mode.

The author, white cane and GPS in hand, argues with a friend about which way to go.

Caption: Choosing the correct route.

I used Wayfinder in Pedestrian mode in a couple of dozen scenarios in Huntington, and I also used it a little bit during recent trips to Washington, DC, and Chicago. I first used Wayfinder's Where Am I feature, which you can get to by pressing the left soft key for Options while in one of the Vicinity tabs. It told me, correctly, that I was on Third Avenue, but it did not give me an address. Third Avenue is more than two miles long in Huntington, so that was not very specific information. However, the information in the Vicinity tabs helped me to pinpoint my location. I then typed the name of the local bus station into the Find tool, and Wayfinder found it in a couple of seconds and began to guide me along my way. It guided me properly along a six-block route, but the announcements of the distance to upcoming intersections were not accurate. As I would approach intersections, it would report that I was 120 feet away; then a bit later, it would say I was 59 feet away. However, at the 59-foot prompt, I would often actually be within just a few feet of the intersection. Also, about 30 feet after turning down the final street, it told me that I had reached my destination. However, my destination was actually on the other side of the street and at the other end of the block. I then had Wayfinder calculate a route back to my office, and although the distances to intersections were still inaccurate, the route was correct. It was also more accurate at my destination this time, telling me I was at my destination when I was close to my building, but still about 50 feet away.

The majority of my test scenarios were similar, with accurate routes but missing my destination from about 10 to 80 feet, with an occasional incorrect road name being included. However, using the external receiver improved the accuracy and helped with the "urban canyon" effect that is common in cities.

Washington, DC, was the first large city setting for my Wayfinder testing, and even though Washington has relatively short buildings, I was unable to connect reliably with my Nokia N82's built-in receiver, so I used the Bluetooth receiver all the time. The first thing that caught my ear was all the information about points of interest near my hotel, so I decided to go on a hunt for a good restaurant. I asked a bellman some basic questions about the area regarding sidewalks and traffic and then used Wayfinder's points of interest Vicinity tab to find a Thai restaurant about two blocks away, and I chose the option to navigate to the restaurant. The sidewalk was busy when Wayfinder told me I had arrived at my destination, so I asked a passerby if the Thai restaurant was near, and she told me the door was about 15 feet away. I did the same to find a nearby bank and then go back to my hotel, and Wayfinder's routes were again accurate, but I was about 30 and 40 feet, respectively, away from my destinations when it said I had arrived. The announcements of the distance to intersections were again often inaccurate. I had similar experiences during short excursions in Chicago, but the urban-canyon effect was more of a problem, even with the external receiver.

Low Vision Accessibility

In addition to the TALKS and Mobile Speak screen readers, Wayfinder Access is also compatible with the ZOOMS and Mobile Magnifier screen magnifiers. ZOOMS is packaged with TALKS from Nuance, and Mobile Magnifier is a Code Factory product that can be activated along with Mobile Speak. Along with Lee Huffman, our low vision technology expert at AFB TECH, I took a look at how Wayfinder works with both products. The magnification and other features of the screen magnifiers did work to enhance the visual appearance of Wayfinder. All the menus and other informational screens performed as expected when manipulated by the screen magnifiers. However, as was the case when testing Wayfinder with the screen reader, the Map feature was not something that we found to be practical to use with screen magnifiers. Although you can magnify and change the color of the Map, you cannot really get much useful visual information that way. In addition, although the menus and other navigational information presented by Wayfinder were compatible with the screen magnifiers, it was not practical to use screen magnifiers outside in daylight. We found that there was too much glare, and the ambient light worked to wash out the screen, making it difficult to see anything on the screen. Overall, a person with low vision will generally have to rely on a screen reader's speech output to use Wayfinder.

Documentation and Other Resources

As I mentioned earlier, Wayfinder's user manual can be found online. It is in html format and is fully accessible to both screen-reader and screen-magnifier users. I was able to read it on both my computer and my phone's web browsers. In addition to finding information about Wayfinder at www.wayfinder.com, you can listen to several Blind Cool Tech podcasts about Wayfinder and other GPS products at www.blindcooltech.com.

Built-In versus External Bluetooth GPS Receivers

I have mentioned that the Bluetooth receiver I used was more accurate than my phone's built-in receiver, but another important advantage is in battery use. When using my phone's built-in receiver, the phone's battery completely drained in fewer than two hours, which could have been a problem if I had gotten myself lost while testing these products. The external receiver has its own battery, so it does not affect your phone's battery. Of course, an external receiver does mean another gadget to purchase, and you have to keep it charged and carry it around with you in addition to your cell phone. I looked at a few external receivers on the Internet and found prices ranging from $60 to $150. The external receivers were around 2 inches by 1 inch by a half inch in size and weighed a couple of ounces. Their added inconvenience is far outweighed by the battery issue alone. The receivers that are built into today's phones are a generation old, and the latest state-of-the-art technology is found in external receivers. Although you do have to have external receivers exposed to the sky to establish a satellite connection, you can then put them in a pocket or bag, so you do not have to have them clipped to a hat or lapel. You may want to check the Wayfinder or Mobile Geo web sites to find suggestions for external Bluetooth receivers.

Has the Author Been Converted?

I opened this article by saying that I was intrigued by GPS technology but had not decided to use it in my daily life. However, after my experiences using GPS on my cell phone, a device that I always carry with me, I think I will now be a user of the technology. I especially like the Passenger Car mode because my wife and I do a lot of traveling. I can use my phone's car power adapter to avoid draining the battery. My wife is a top-notch driver, and I would put her up against Mario Andretti any day. However, I will admit that she is among the directionally challenged, and we have occasionally had some directional problems while traveling. Now, in addition to going over maps and planning routes the old-fashioned way, Wayfinder provides the extra information to keep us on course. Wayfinder's traffic updates have also come in handy on more than one occasion. I can use Wayfinder's Information tab to find our current speed and let my wife know when she is speeding. However, to preserve marital bliss, I have learned not to do so too often.

I also enjoy using the Pedestrian mode, but I have a solid mental map of the areas of my hometown where I live and work, so I do not use it every day. However, it is great when I am traveling in other cities, and I particularly like the Points of Interest feature and ability to search for nearby stores, banks, and restaurants when I travel.

The Bottom Line

Overall, Wayfinder has an accessible interface, and it is easy to learn and get started using it as long as you are already familiar with using your phone's screen reader. It is also fast, finding searches usually in fewer than 5 seconds. It is responsive to keystrokes using your screen reader, but I found that when scrolling through the Favorites that I had bookmarked, it was verbose when describing each one. Also, I could not scroll quickly through the Favorites to the one that I wanted because I had to listen to all the information about each Favorite. One thing that took some getting used to is the way Wayfinder gives you the location of points of interest using degrees to point you in the right direction. For example, it may say, "Marriott Hotel 350 degrees, 200 feet." If you remember that 360 degrees makes a complete circle, then the Marriott should be in front of you and a little bit to the left. However, I noticed that the degrees that Wayfinder reported were sometimes upside down, adding to my confusion. In noisy areas, my phone's built-in speaker was usually sufficient, but you may want to use headphones or a wireless Bluetooth headset for clarity and privacy.

Although GPS navigational tools are nice ways to plan routes and to learn about your surroundings, they certainly do not replace a cane or dog guide. I wholeheartedly agree with the statement on the Sendero Group's web site that says, "Use of this product when traveling independently is recommended only when the blind user has received training in the skills of orientation and mobility." A similar warning may be appropriate for traveling in a passenger car. GPS systems should be treated as an additional navigational aide and not relied on entirely.

Stay tuned to AccessWorld for my next article, which focuses on Mobile Geo, with some more comparisons between Mobile Geo and Wayfinder. In the meantime, you can take advantage of the products' free trial periods and test them out for yourself.

To try the Wayfinder Access free 14-day trial, go to access.getwf.com in your mobile phone's browser and download Wayfinder. You can go to www.codefactory.es for information on trying out Mobile Geo. There is also a free shareware cell phone GPS product for Symbian phones, called Loadstone, and you can learn about it at www.loadstone-gps.com.

Product Information

Product: Wayfinder Access.

Manufacturer: Wayfinder Systems, Kunsgatan 5 S-111 43, Stockholm, Sweden; phone: 866-467-4761; web site: www.wayfinder.com.

Price: $399.

Product: Mobile Geo.

Manufacturer: Code Factory, S.L., Rambla Egara, 148, 2-2 08221, Terrassa (Barcelona) Spain; e-mail: info@codefactory.es; web site: www.codefactory.es.

Distributor: Sendero Group LLC, 429 F Street, Suite 4, Davis, CA 95616; phone: 530-757-6800; web site: www.senderogroup.com.

Price: $845.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail us at accessworld@afb.net.

Related Articles

Going New Places: Bringing Sendero GPS to the Cell Phone by Deborah Kendrick


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