November 2016 Issue  Volume 17  Number 11

Product Reviews and Guides

The Nearby Explorer Blindness-Focused Navigation App from APH Comes to iOS

For iPhone users, it has been a longer than two-year wait for Nearby Explorer, the navigation app from American Printing House for the Blind (APH). Unaccustomed to cooling their heels while Android users put new apps through their paces, fans of iOS can finally add Nearby Explorer to their navigation toolbox. The question is, was it worth the wait?

Nearby Explorer combines GPS navigation, turn-by-turn directions in pedestrian and vehicle modes, points of interest, and transit data. The app aims to be a one-stop navigation solution, whether you're plotting a route from point A to B, getting oriented to your environment, or searching for a place to grab a cup of coffee. Using licensed maps, public data sources, and software developed in-house at APH, Nearby Explorer offers an unusual level of flexibility with a focus on the needs of blind travelers.

The Nearby Explorer Home Screen: Getting the Lay of the Land

The Nearby Explorer home screen layout is clean and logical. Like other blindness-oriented navigators, the Nearby Explorer home screen does not feature a map, instead providing text-based information about your surroundings along with options for customizing what you hear as you travel. The home screen is topped with a row of buttons you use to stop and start the GPS receiver, enable the Geobeam and Compass features, and adjust the radius of your surroundings that will be described. Most of the screen (scroll to see everything) is taken up by a series of toggles that let you choose the data points that will be voiced while you travel. These range from the high-level (country, state, county), to the ground level (street name and number, along with altitude and vertical accuracy). Item organization makes it easy to find the item you need, whether you're exploring by touch or flicking through your options. You'll also find some special settings that place you in the environment: heading, speed, guidance, and watch. Current information for all data points updates onscreen as you move around. Select any item, open the rotor, and choose Show Menu for a context-sensitive list of ways you can interact. Save a location as a favorite, watch this location, or pick it as a destination. I'll have more to say about menu options a bit later. When you turn a toggle on, the app provides spoken updates for that item. Nearby Explorer is a self-voicing app, meaning that you can assign any installed voice to the app, and it will speak, independent of VoiceOver. This also means you will hear updates from the app even when the iOS screen is locked and VoiceOver is unavailable. Here's an example of how this works in practice: use VoiceOver to choose the data points you want Nearby Explorer to track -- heading, street name, and street number, for example. The app updates this information using the voice you choose for it. If you explore the screen with VoiceOver, you can also hear current information about items you didn't enable, like County, City, and Zip Code.

Getting familiar with Nearby Explorer means deciding how much detail you want the app to provide about your surroundings as you travel. There's a lot of information available, especially if you're in an urban area. Your needs will certainly be different as a pedestrian than as a bus or car passenger. It took a couple of lunchtime walks in the downtown area of my city to decide which toggles to turn on to get the level of information I needed. The choices I made were different when I boarded a bus and was less interested in nearby lunch spots, and more interested in upcoming cross-streets and transit stops. Though Nearby Explorer detects when you've switched from walking to riding and adjusts its information delivery accordingly, the category of information offered is controlled by toggle switches, so it's necessary to "tune" Nearby Explorer a bit when your travel situation changes. A great option would be to have the ability to save a group of settings that could be enabled together, based on the kind of environment, or travel experience you need.

Below the toggle switches on the home screen are two rows of buttons. The upper row, with text labels, leads to lists of nearby streets, the search function, favorites, and transit. The traditional iOS button bar, below, takes you to an Apple Maps-based map, app settings, and the Nearby Explorer user guide. These two rows of buttons are always visible even when scrolling the other parts of the screen.

Nearby Explorer Setup

You can install Nearby Explorer on an iPad or iPod touch running iOS 9 or later, but since these devices don't contain GPS receivers your usage will be severely limited in comparison with the iPhone. The app uses its own set of onboard maps, licensed from NavTeq, a company that produces GPS maps for cars and other GPS applications, downloadable when you launch Nearby Explorer for the first time. Because the maps are contained in a single download, rather than split up by state or region, you'll need approximately 4.2 GB of free disk space to load them. If you have a 16 GB iPhone, it's unlikely you will be able to free enough space to install the map file. The maps cover the United States and Canada. APH says you can use Nearby Explorer without the map download, but your navigation experience will be slower and less accurate. Downloadable maps also allow you to use Nearby Explorer without an active Internet connection and the corresponding hit to your cellular data plan and battery usage. If you are connected to the Internet, you can take advantage of points of interest (POI) data from Google or Foursquare (choose the one you like best). We recommend that you download Nearby Explorer maps while connected to a Wi-Fi network, since the size of the download will tax your cellular plan's data limit. The download will probably be faster over Wi-Fi, too.

Nearby Explorer can also download up-to-date local information for each public transit system you encounter. These downloads are not large, but you should factor the time they'll take into your setup process when opening the app for the first time.

The Nearby Explorer Toolbox

Whether you're using turn-by-turn directions or simply walking or riding with Nearby Explorer active, there are nice touches in the app's narrated navigation. If you've turned on the Approaching toggle, you'll hear the names of upcoming cross-streets, and on which side of the street they occur. A typical announcement is, "Harris Avenue, left side, 50 yards." Street side information is a useful data point that most other apps don't provide. By the way, distances from your position to an upcoming intersection can be expressed in whichever measurement system you like, and accuracy seems to improve as you approach, especially in pedestrian mode.

The Geobeam and Compass features take Nearby Explorer beyond the realm of street maps, and give you the ability to interact with your surroundings by pointing your device. Using vibration, tones, and voice, Nearby Explorer identifies points of interest and how far away they are from your current position. With Geobeam active, hold your device horizontally in landscape mode, and point it in one direction, then another, to hear and feel information about your environment. Geobeam remains active as long as you remain in landscape mode, or don't turn it off on the home screen. Similarly, Compass, which operates when you hold the phone vertically in portrait mode, identifies your heading, along with nearby streets. You may only use these features occasionally, but they're a great way to get oriented in an unfamiliar area, or when you want to ensure that you're proceeding in the direction you intend to go.

Virtual navigation is one of Nearby Explorer's most useful and fun features. It allows you to simulate a trip or "look around" a destination before you go there. You can even use Geobeam and compass in virtual mode. To use virtual mode, begin by searching for a place, or selecting one that you've designated a favorite. Use the rotor to open the context menu, and choose Virtual Go To. From this point, Nearby Explorer, and all its tools, behave as though you're at the new location. Turn on Geobeam or Compass, or select the Streets or Transit button to see what's around you. You can also use Virtual Navigation, a subset of Virtual Go To), to take a walk around the location you've chosen. When you enable it, the bottom third of the screen displays four directional buttons you can use to move north, south, east, and west of the location. You can even choose the distance each move takes you, and tell the app to follow roads, rather than simply moving in the cardinal direction indicated. Other mapping apps offer virtual modes, but the clever implementation of "look around" features in Nearby Explorer makes this tool extra useful for travelers scoping out unfamiliar surroundings.

If you use public transit, chances are you can obtain local schedules from Nearby Explorer. APH gathers data from a national database of transit information, and provides schedule for more than 60 transit systems. When you select the Transit button, the app downloads information for your transit system. You can obtain additional transit info when you travel to a different city, or with Nearby Explorer's virtual navigation feature. APH says it updates transit information regularly, and that if yours is out of date, it will be labeled "expired," indicating that you should seek information from another source. Once you have downloaded transit data, Nearby Explorer lists nearby stops or stations on the Transit screen, along with the scheduled time of the next bus or train and distance from your current location. Select a stop to see a list of routes that use it, along with more departure times. You can drill down again to see stops made by a given bus, or select the stop's context menu to work with it like any other point of interest: get directions, save as a favorite, or navigate there virtually. Nearby Explorer's transit tool is not a trip planner with the ability to recommend a transit route to a destination to which you navigate. You can, however, locate transit stops near a destination you choose. Search for your destination and activate Virtual Go To. Now, when you select Transit, Nearby Explorer shows you stops in relation to the virtual destination, not your current location. This is a great feature. Use it to mark a transit stop as a favorite so you can find it easily when you need it.

Learning Curve

Select the Help button to see Nearby Explorer's 60+ page user guide as an HTML document. Unfortunately that arrangement makes it a challenge to search the document. APH does makes the user guide available online, in HTML format, but it would be helpful to have quick access to a downloadable version, which could be opened and read in an app of the user's choice. The guide functions as a comprehensive reference, and effectively enumerates Nearby Explorer's features. But this is a dense app with many features, and some of the terminology may be confusing to new users. A quick start guide, or, better yet, a tutorial document, would be a great addition to the current documentation, as would a glossary within the user guide.

The Bottom Line

Nearby Explorer is a full-featured app, with enough options to make it your only navigation tool, whether you're walking, using transit, or riding in a car. The use of third-party data sources for points of interest and transit information goes a long way toward future-proofing the expensive app. Finally, Nearby Explorer's offline maps, which account for a large part of the app's cost, are actually a good thing, allowing users to conserve cellular data, as well as providing robust offline simulation capability. Users who are new to navigation apps, or who don't relish having to learn a lot of app-specific terminology, may be overwhelmed by Nearby Explorer's many options and somewhat opaque naming conventions. In its 1.0 form, the documentation doesn't to make the learning process easier for newbies.

If you have already invested in a blindness-specific navigation app, or don't do much walking in urban environments, Nearby Explorer is overkill. But if you travel a lot, particularly in unfamiliar or complex environments, the app is an essential tool, whose responsiveness and attention to the specific needs of blind travelers make it worth the price.

Product: Nearby Explorer 1.01 for iOS, from American Printing House for the Blind (800-223-1839)
Price: $79.99
Available from: Apple App Store

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