July 2003 Issue  Volume 4  Number 4

Product Evaluation

Getting from Here to There: A Short Review of Trekker

The search for a useful, portable tool to assist people who are blind or have low vision to get from one place to another has yielded few results for many years. Such a tool must be small and lightweight, and provide a significant amount of information in addition to what people get from a cane or a dog guide. This article presents a short review of a promising new device, Trekker, VisuAide's new orientation tool based on global positioning satellite (GPS) technology.

Physical Description

Trekker consists of an off-the-shelf personal digital assistant (PDA), a GPS receiver, a speaker, and a battery pack. These four pieces are attached to a strap that is worn around the neck. Trekker weighs 1.3 pounds, and comes with complete documentation and accessories, including a PDA charger, a PDA cradle or base, PDA styli, keyboard static stencils (for the braille keyboard), and a user guide.

The on/off button for the PDA is located above the PDA screen. There is no audible feedback to tell you whether the PDA has been turned off, although pressing the button that runs the Trekker program also turns the PDA on. Trekker is a self-voicing application that runs on the PDA, using Eloquence as its synthesizer. No other applications on the PDA are accessible.

Trekker's controls consist of four buttons, two on each side of a much larger, oval-shaped Navigation key. The Navigation key serves as a cursor cross and is used for navigating Trekker's menus. To the right of the Navigation key are the Enter button—used for running the Trekker program, opening menus, and responding to queries from Trekker—and the Where Am I? button, which provides current information about your location. To the left of the Navigation key are the Escape button and the button that toggles between the reading and browsing modes.

GPS receivers have to have a direct line of sight with one or more of the 24 GPS satellites in orbit around the Earth to receive GPS data. The devices will not function indoors or when surrounded by tall buildings. When you turn Trekker on, it begins searching for satellites to provide the information needed to announce your location. You hear a series of beeps during the satellite search.

When a GPS signal is received, usually in two or three minutes, Trekker announces the name of the street on which you are walking. When you are about 30 feet from an intersection; Trekker describes the intersection; for example, "Four-way intersection, Queens Boulevard crossing 70th Road." The unit contains points of interest from a commercial database, including restaurants, banks, schools, and gas stations. When you arrive near one of these points, Trekker announces it; for instance, "Citibank, on your right." You can add your own points of interest to the list using the microphone built into the PDA. You press the Record button, on the left side of the PDA, and speak your message. You must make the initial recording at the location—outside your favorite bakery, for example. You can then edit the recording later to provide a longer description of the location. Recording and editing points of interest worked well.

During testing, announcements of points of interest were inconsistent. Typically, a point was identified once out of every two times I passed it. Announcements of intersections were more consistent. However, Trekker sometimes announced the "next" intersection after I had begun crossing the street or even after I finished crossing it. Both these problems may be explained by the fact that, for civilian use, GPS is accurate only down to several feet. But this fact reemphasizes the point that GPS devices are just a supplement to a cane or a dog guide.

Figure 1: Photograph of the four pieces of the Trekker attached to the Trekker shoulder strap.

Caption: The Trekker

The Menus

You open Trekker's menus by pressing the Enter button and move from menu to menu by pressing the Navigation key. The Points of Interest menu allows you to search for, create, edit, or delete points of interest.

The Search function lets you type in the name of a point of interest or select from a list of 51 categories, including restaurants, tourist attractions, banks, hotels, and bowling centers. Typing in a name requires the use of a keyboard composed of 12 buttons, in 3 vertical rows of 4 keys each, on the front panel of the PDA. VisuAide has adapted these buttons so that 3 buttons in the left-most column represent dots 1, 2, and 3 of a braille cell, and 3 buttons on the right represent dots 4, 5, and 6. So, to type the letter R, you press dot 1, dot 2, dot 3, dot 5, and then the Enter button in the middle column on the braille keyboard. No contractions are allowed. Needless to say, this process is tedious, especially for typing long names, and is one of the drawbacks of adapting an off-the-shelf PDA. If you do not know braille, you can switch the braille keyboard to a phone keypad to enter data.

In the Info menu, you can find out how many satellites your receiver is currently tracking, hear the current time, and find out your current location, which you also get by simply pressing the Where Am I? button.

Figure 2: Photograph of Jay Leventhal using the Trekker outside of a subway station in Manhattan.

Caption: Navigating in New York City with the Trekker

The Settings menu contains options to turn the GPS on or off and to adjust the amount of information and prompting Trekker provides, general settings, and volume. There is also a volume control on the speaker on Trekker's strap. Unfortunately, you cannot adjust the speed of Trekker's voice, which most synthetic speech users will want to increase dramatically.

In the Help menu, you will find Getting Started and Quick Reference files. These files do a good job of orienting a new user and getting you going with Trekker.

The Bottom Line

GPS technology has the potential to be helpful in answering the orientation needs of people who are blind or have low vision. Trekker has put the necessary pieces into a small, easily portable package for the first time. Issues that need to be addressed include providing confirmation that the PDA is turned off and the batteries are not being run down, the ease with which components can become disconnected (the speaker from the PDA, for example), and the method for entering data to search for a point of interest. Trekker currently does not tell you in which direction you are heading, and it will not work while you are riding in a car. We look forward to another trek with Trekker when more functionality, including the ability to plan and follow a route to your destination, has been added.

Manufacturer's Comments

"We are very honored by the interest shown by AccessWorld in our new Trekker orientation system. We appreciate the assessment, which is accurate and objective.

"It is important, however, to point out the present context and emphasize that it represents the very first version of a new product. We enthusiastically welcome feedback from Trekker's initial users and are continually working to correct issues raised and develop new functionality for upcoming versions. In addition to improvements, new versions will be enhanced with new functionality, such as route planning and recording as well as operation in a moving vehicle. At the same time, we are actively working to develop accessibility to other PDA applications."

Product Information

Product: Trekker

Manufacturer: VisuAide, 841, Jean-Paul-Vincent, Longueuil, Quebec, Canada, J4G 1R3; phone: 888-723-7273 or 450-463-1717; e-mail: <info@visuaide.com>; web site: <www.visuaide.com>. Price: $1,595.

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