October 2014 Issue  Volume 15  Number 10

App Access

Getting Around with Nearby Explorer for Android from APH

The day I bought my iPhone 4, one of the very first apps I purchased and installed was the Navigon GPS app. It wasn't long before I retired my trusty Trekker, and as time passed I think I downloaded and tried every new GPS app, including BlindSquare, which I reviewed recently for the July issue of AccessWorld .

Recently, I was given the opportunity to check out another GPS app, this one for Android. Nearby Explorer is available from the American Printing House for the Blind for $99.

Installation

Nearby Explorer requires a device running Android version 2.3 (Gingerbread) or later, at least 3.7 gigabytes of storage, and either a built-in GPS chip or the ability to connect an external GPS receiver.

After installation, the first time you open Nearby Explorer you are presented with the license agreement. Next, you are prompted to turn on location services, if they are not already enabled. After that it's time to download the maps.

Nearby Explorer installs the full set of NAVTEQ maps on your device. This allows most of the app's features to work, even without a data connection. It also occupies a lot of storage space, over three gigabytes, so you will probably need a Micro SD card installed on your phone. In order for the maps to download, you need to be on a Wi-Fi connection.

I tested Nearby Explorer on an LG Optimus F3 running Android version 4.1.2. At first the maps refused to install on my SD card. I had to wait for an app update, after which the maps installed fine. I am told that prior to KitKat, Google's support for downloading maps onto SD cards was problematic. The developer plans to update this critical ability on Android versions KitKat and later. For now, before purchasing the app, you will probably want to subscribe to the Nearby Explorer Support List (see instructions under Product Information at the end of this article), and make sure your phone model and Android version are supported.

The Nearby Explorer Main Screen

Nearby Explorer's main screen offers a number of different checkbox options you can adjust for voice monitoring. Each of these options will self-voice whenever its value changes. For example, if you check the City option, Nearby Explorer will speak the name of the new city you just entered, then remain silent until the city changes again. The enabled items will continue to voice, even with your screen locked. I definitely enjoyed this way of doing things, as it allowed me to set Nearby Explorer to give me just the information I wanted, without voicing information I consider extraneous, such as the number of satellites in range, or repeating the same information, such as the street name. Running the app with the screen locked also stopped the voicing of other Android alerts, which otherwise had a tendency to interrupt app voicing.

Many of these monitoring options offer extra functionality if you perform a touch-and-hold gesture. These are described below.

Nearby Explorer offers 20 monitoring options, which are listed below with descriptions provided for those that are not self-evident.

  • Provider
    Announces whether the app is currently obtaining location information from your device's GPS, Network, or Compass, or if you are currently in Virtual Mode (described below)
  • Country
  • State
  • County
  • City
  • Zip Code
  • Heading
    Announces any change of direction. It compares your last position to your current position to determine direction, so you need to be moving in order for this control to report a change of direction. You can also instruct Nearby Explorer to announce the direction you are facing. Simply hold your device vertically, as though you are taking a picture. Nearby Explorer will buzz, speak the appropriate direction, and, optionally, announce nearby streets and points of interest (POIs) to be found in that direction. Note: Nearby Explorer will need to be the active app for this feature to work.
  • Street Number
  • Street Name
  • Approaching
    Announces upcoming intersections. It will speak the distance to that point, and update this information as you near the objective.
  • Guidance
    Announces the next turn you need to take in order to reach your destination.
  • Nearby
    Reports the name of the next POI. This information is obtained from the maps database and from POIs you have created using Nearby Explorer.
  • Nearby Distance
    Announces distance to the next POI.
  • Watch
    Nearby Explorer allows you to set a Watch point--your destination, perhaps, or the front of a campus building, or the entrance of a parking lot. The Watch feature is described below.
  • Speed
    Announces how fast you are walking or driving.
  • Latitude
  • Longitude
  • Altitude
  • Accuracy
    Announces the accuracy of your GPS positioning.
  • Number of Satellites

Check the monitoring features you wish to enable, and only that information will be auto-voiced. The rest of your location data is always available, but you may need to use Explore by Touch to access it; I found it nearly impossible to swipe my way through these fields. Invariably, one of the fields would change, and I would be returned to the top of the screen and the app would re-announce the Nearby Explorer title bar. Read to End also failed to get much further than the first few fields. I am told these issues have been mostly fixed in Android versions 4.3 and 4.4, so other users may not experience these problems.

Getting Oriented

When you launch Nearby Explorer it announces your current position, along with the nearest POI. Then, as you begin to move, the app announces direction, speed, nearest address, and other monitoring elements you have checked on the main screen.

If you'd like to browse the immediate area and learn which streets are nearby and in which direction, press the Menu button, then invoke the Explore option. Nearby Explorer displays a list of nearby streets, along with their distance and compass direction from your current location.

Geo Beam

If you'd like a more precise view of what's around you at any time, use Nearby Explorer's Geo Beam. Hold your phone with its screen facing flat and skyward, and its top edge facing forward and begin slowly to move in a circle. When you're nearest favorite or POI is directly ahead of your phone, the device will vibrate and announce its name and distance.

For an even more detailed look about, hold your phone with its screen facing left, as though you were about to shake hands. Now, as you slowly circle, all available POIs and favorites within your search radius will trigger audible and haptic feedback.

This is an excellent way to hone in on a location. Reach the parking lot entrance and use Geo Beam to get a more precise fix on the store you wish to visit. You can then make a beeline for your destination, assuming, of course, there are no parked cars or other obstacles you need to circle around.

By default, Nearby Explorer creates a search radius of 170 yards, but it's easy to shrink or expand this distance. While your phone is in "handshake" Geo Beam mode, your device will display two buttons, "Increase Radius" and "Decrease Radius." You can also change the radius using a touch-and-hold gesture on the main screen's "Nearby Distance" button. I found the first of these methods much easier to use.

Map View

An additional way to explore your surroundings is via Nearby Explorer's "Map View." Invoke this option from the main screen's Menu control and the app will display a map of your immediate vicinity. Use a two-finger swipe to scroll the map in any compass direction. Touch or slide a finger on the screen to have Nearby Explorer voice streets and POIs.

You can also use the Menu button to access several Map View features. You can search for an address, a favorite, or a POI, and have your map move to that location. I was pleased to discover that Geo Beam worked in this mode. So I could locate City Hall, then use Geo Beam to have a look around.

Navigation Mode

If you perform a touch-and-hold gesture on a road, after three seconds you will begin to receive haptic feedback. The phone will vibrate slightly as you trace the road's path, and stop whenever you veer off course. This takes considerable finesse and practice. I found it much easier to use the app's Navigation Mode. This option is available through many of the main screen's touch-and-hold menus. Invoke this setting, and a map of the area is displayed, along with buttons to move in all four compass directions: North, South, East, and West. Each press moves you one search unit, and there are Move More and Move Less buttons to adjust this distance.

Of course streets and highways do not always move straight along a compass direction. I usually found it preferable to enable the Follow Roads checkbox, which does just that.

You can shorten your movement distance down to five yards--when I did this I was able to follow streets in my neighborhood by address, and then-by-turn.

Unfortunately, in Navigation Mode the intersections did not announce. Usually the app reported "Near 120, Near 122," announcing address numbers continuing up or down depending on the distance you are moving. It only offered the street name when you were at an intersection, with no information on if the street is a two way, or if it only heads off in one direction.

Getting Going

As mentioned earlier, when you turn on Nearby Explorer and begin to move, the app will announce your position, direction of travel, nearby POIs and any other elements you have enabled on the main screen. Intersections will be announced in advance, with "Ahead" for cross streets and "To the left (or right)" if the intersection only goes one way. All streets I tested using Nearby Explorer reported accurate intersection names, though the distance varied in accuracy, depending on the accuracy of the GPS readings and the number of satellites in view.

Nearby Explorer will continue to announce the intersection name and distance until you have reached it. To turn off these alerts, perform a tap-and-hold gesture on the "Nearby" option on the main screen, then uncheck the "Continuous Distance Updates" option. This can be tricky, especially if there is a lot of satellite drift and the app is updating your position frequently. For me, the Nearby control could become quite elusive, requiring me to stop and focus my attention. This was also true for other controls on the app's main screen. Proficient Android users are doubtless much more adept at negotiating the main screen, but for the rest of us, perhaps the developer should consider a touch-and-hold gesture on the app's title bar that would temporarily stop all updates.

By default Nearby Explorer attempts to calculate street numbers by dividing the block into sections. Though you do not need a data connection to obtain addresses this way, it can be inaccurate. For example, when walking along a short street with no houses or businesses the app continued to report addresses that didn't exist. If you have a data connection, a far better approach is to enable the "Use Google for Street Addresses," option in the app's Menu/Settings control. I found this way considerably more accurate. So much so, often I could walk on the east side of the street and Nearby Explorer would announce the odd number addresses, then, when I crossed to the west side, it would announce only even numbered addresses. Very impressive.

Favorites and Watch Items

A favorite is a POI that you create for yourself. Your house or apartment might be one of your favorites, or the bus stop nearest your doctor's office, or the entrance to a park or hiking trail--once you turn these locations into favorites, they will be easy to quickly access for orientation and navigation.

You can create your own Favorites at any time. Like most people running a new GPS app, the very first Favorite I created was to my home. I did so by tap-and-holding the Nearby control on the main screen, then choosing "Save Location as Favorite." Nearby Explorer placed my address in the Name field, but I changed it to "Home Sweet Home," before tapping the "Save" button to add it to my Favorites list.

Now, before heading out for a walk, I could access the Menu/Favorites option, select Home Sweet Home, and add it to my Watch List. During my walk, Nearby Explorer kept me updated on how far I was from home, and in which compass direction my home was located. Creating a watch point can also be an excellent way to navigate to a campus building, or impress your spouse because you know which way to go to find the car in that vast parking lot.

You can create a watch point from either your current location or one of your Favorites. We've described both of these above. Now let's move on to a third way to set a watch point, by using a search result.

Searching Points of Interest

When you press the "Menu" button, the first item that appears is the "Pause" button, which can be used to shut down GPS tracking when you don't need it (this will help save battery power). Alternatively, you can press the "Back" button from the main Nearby Explorer screen to shut down the app.

The second Menu option is Search. There you are offered a number of options. You can have the app display all points of interest inside your search radius, and use the "Increase Search Radius" and "Decrease Search Radius" buttons to adjust the search results from 25 yards to nearly 30 miles.

If you're looking for someplace in particular, or a location further away than 30 miles, you can use the Search Nearby Places, Search Nearby Streets, or Search City/State Code controls. Searching City/State Code requires you to enter the city name followed by a comma, followed by the two-letter state code, for example: Miami, FL.

If you find the POI or street you're looking for, tap it and you are offered a number of choices:

  • Add to Favorites
    Adds the POI to your Favorites list, so you can find it quickly, without needing to perform another search.
  • Get Directions
    Calls up a list of turn-by-turn instructions to get you from your current location to the chosen POI.
  • Set as Destination
    Prompts Nearby Explorer to begin offering spoken turn-by-turn directions, announcing the direction of each turn before you reach it. You must have the main screen Guidance control checked for this to work. You can lock your screen at this point and the turns will still be announced. You can also use a different voice to speak the directions.
  • Go To
    Moves you to that place, creating a virtual position. From here you can access the Map View to touch navigate the area, or the Navigation mode to follow streets by cardinal directions, as described above. You can even do another search for nearby places, and Nearby Explorer will offer up a list of POIs surrounding your virtual position. I found this to be an excellent way to explore the area surrounding an unfamiliar destination before I traveled there. To end the virtual mode, press the Menu key, then "Resume."
  • Open in Browser
    Opens the POI website, if available.
  • Add to Watch List
    Adds the POI to your watch list.
  • Call
    Calls the POI phone number, if available.

Traveling with Nearby Explorer

Once you access a Favorite or a search result, you are given the option to get directions as discussed above. I found this very useful when starting out a journey, reviewing in advance the streets I would travel and the turns I would have to make. You can also "Set as Watch," which keeps you updated distance to and direction of your destination relative to your moving position.

Pressing "Set as Destination" before beginning my trip instructs Nearby Explorer to begin offering me spoken turn-by-turn directions. As I travel, Nearby Explorer announces upcoming intersections with their distance, turn-by-turn instructions on how to proceed, and updates for distance and direction.

You can set Nearby Explorer to create routes for either walking or driving trips and optimize your route for fastest time, shortest distance or fewest turns. Additionally, you can check whether or not to include highways, toll roads, unpaved roads and ferries. You will only receive a single travel route at a time. The route Nearby Explorer proposed for one trip I make on a fairly regular basis is faster, shorter, and requires fewer turns, but it also requires walking along a busy street with no sidewalks. My preferred route is a bit longer. To travel this way I have to set my destination to a POI about midway along the alternate route, then set my ultimate location from that place to complete the journey. I would like to see this app offer route alternatives, or else the ability to set a single destination with way points so I can route my travel around road was that are difficult to travel.

Transit

Nearby Explorer offers public transportation schedules for many large metropolitan areas. Select this option from the main screen menu button and Nearby Explorer will download the latest information. The app will download any new updates before you can access the routes and schedules. Consequently, I would advise users to access this option before leaving the house so you won't get caught having to use a data connection ifthere isn't Wi-Fi available at your nearest bus stop.

Unfortunately, my town's transport system is not listed. I am told that this is because my municipality has not published a General Transit Feed Specification (GTF) file.

Here is a link to a list of cities that Nearby Explorer does cover, but I am not sure this list is updated on an ongoing basis. If your city is not on the list and transit directions are critical for you, contact your local transportation authority and inquire if they have published a GTF file.

I was able to set downtown Miami as a virtual position and obtain transit options for this location. The screen offered up the location of all stops within 300 yards of my virtual position. Tapping one of the stops called up a list of all buses that service that stop, along with route names and the time of the next arrival of that bus. This is useful information, particularly if you are on familiar ground. If you are traveling to an unfamiliar city, however, you will probably not know the name of the bus route that will help you reach your destination.

The transit information Nearby Explorer provides is comprehensive, but not as useful as the information provided by Google Maps using my iPhone. Using Google Maps, I can set my destination before I call up the transit menu. I am then shown the nearest stop, and the time and route name/number of the next three buses that will allow me to reach that destination. Perhaps a future update to Nearby Explorer will include this feature?

Final Thoughts

At $99, Nearby Explorer seems a bit expensive at first. A sizeable portion of these proceeds go to NAVTEQ map data licensing, and unlike the Seeing Eye GPS app for iOS which costs $129 for a three-year license, this is a one-time payment--app and map updates are free.

I have never felt so coddled and in touch with my environment while traveling alone as I do when using Nearby Explorer. I wish the app offered alternate routes, more transit information, and a way to more easily touch-locate information on the home screen. These are all minor quibbles that could likely be easily added or fixed in forthcoming updates, however. In the meantime, I have to say Nearby Explorer is without doubt the best GPS mobility app I have ever used, and I give it my highest praise and consider it an absolute must-have app for any and all Android users with visual impairments.

Product Information

Nearby Explorer for Android
Price: $99
Available from: Google Playstore
Publisher: American Printing House for the Blind
1839 Frankfort Avenue
P.O. Box 6085
Louisville, Kentucky 40206-0085
Phone: 502-895-2405
Toll-Free Customer Service and Technical Support: 800-223-1839
(US and Canada)

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