Over the past two years, Google's Android operating system has quickly risen to become a major player in the mobile phone arena, becoming available on phones from every major carrier. Compared with Apple's iOS for the iPhone, however, the accessibility that is included in the Android operating system is not as refined. But, with recent improvements and an ever-changing number of third-party applications (apps), Android is quickly becoming a viable option for many mobile phone users who are blind or visually impaired.
In the May 2010 issue of AccessWorld, we posed the question "Can an Android Make Your Mobile Phone Accessible?" Since that time, further enhancements and new applications have opened up greater accessibility choices for these devices.
One of the areas where Android excels is with global positioning system (GPS) navigation. And considering Google's strengths lie in the search and retrieval of information, this should come as little surprise. As with the iPhone, access to navigation and position information has not reached the level available with products like Sendero GPS for the BrailleNote or the Trekker Breeze. That said, there are a host of tools available for travelers and virtual tourists alike, most of which are available for free. We tested out several apps that will explain or give you clues about your surroundings, as well as assist in getting you to a destination. All of these apps are available from the Android Market, the operating system's built-in method for downloading and installing applications.
The Basics of GPS on Android
Most Android phones available today include a built-in GPS receiver. Unlike GPS receivers on older off-the-shelf cell phones, built-in receivers on phones today are more sensitive and are often sufficient for navigation. This is in part because of the additional data provided by nearby cellular towers. Modern technology allows for GPS information to be obtained from satellites as well as by calculating the distance to your nearest phone tower. This gives you the greatest accuracy while outside, but allows for a rough estimate of your location while inside most buildings. This, combined with the improved battery management available with today's internal GPS chips, makes an external Bluetooth receiver less of a necessity.
All of the programs discussed below were tested with TalkBack and Spiel, two freely-available screenreaders for Android phones. Both give similar results when working with these applications.
Learning About Your Surroundings
Before traveling to a destination, you will often wish to learn more about where you are currently, especially if in an unfamiliar location. Using the touchscreen or keyboard, you can have your location spoken, explore nearby streets, or find a restaurant, hotel, or other location to travel to.
Getting Your Current Location
The quickest way to learn your current location may be through the use of the Eyes-Free shell, an alternative homescreen program. From this screen, there is a built-in command that will give your current street, city, and compass direction. The latter is quite reliant on the quality of the built-in compass on your phone, however, and we often were told the compass needed to be calibrated. The address is given as a range, such as near "100-199 Main Street," so this method cannot be used to find out how far you are from the corner. This would, however, be an excellent tool for gaining a quick view of what's nearby, but it lacks the consistency we would hope for from a command of this nature.
A more accurate and useful option called "Intersection Explorer" has recently emerged from the Eyes-Free group. This program provides a way to virtually navigate a map using the touchscreen, learning about nearby streets and the distance between them. Intersection Explorer divides the screen into nine sections, similar to a tic-tac-toe board. The center of the screen is considered "home," and tapping this section will speak the current intersection. You can slide your finger in a circular motion around the screen to explore nearby intersections; releasing your finger allows you to virtually travel in that direction. The distance traveled and the new intersection is then spoken. This interface provides much of the same functionality as Sendero's virtual navigation modes, and allows users to learn the layout of nearby streets and perhaps form a mental map of the area. One can also input an address or location in another city to virtually explore that area before traveling.
For a slightly different approach, try out the VOIC. This program provides an augmented reality view of your physical surrounding through sound. It can identify colors and light patterns, tell you your direction of travel and nearby streets as you travel, and provide additional audio clues about your surroundings. It may be difficult to use this program while traveling, however, because it works best with headphones, which may severely limit your ability to listen to the sounds around you.
Finding nearby points of interest is one of the simpler tasks on an Android phone, with several available apps to choose from. One of the most accessible programs we tested is the Places Directory, also from the Eyes-Free team. The main screen presents the user with a list of popular categories, such as restaurants, banks, and hotels. Simply select one of these categories to receive a list of nearby points sorted by distance. After selecting a location, you can receive driving or walking directions, call the location, or see a map of the location.
You can also type in the name of a place to search for. This can be a category like "pizza," or a specific business like McDonalds. If you find yourself searching for the same places often, you can save your search as a favorite for easy access in the future. Using this app, we were able to successfully locate nearby places of interest and contact the business or navigate to the location.
Foursquare is a social-networking, location-based game where users can "check in" to locations they visit to gain points and badges. After signing up for a free account, one can use the Foursquare app to check into a place that is nearby and view tips left by other users, perhaps including food specials or particular items of interest. Since the app is location based, it's another simple way to see what is popular and close to your current location.
Other apps provide similar services for various types of locations. For example, the GasBuddy app will show you the nearest gas stations and also display the cheapest prices reported by users.
Navigating with Android
The built-in navigation in Android is based on Google's map and direction-based services, which have been available on the Google website for several years. Both driving and walking directions are available to specific addresses or points of interest. Android will use the built-in text-to-speech on the phone to speak turns as they are approaching, and it offers a way to view a textual list of the directions for a given route. These services are available in the built-in navigation app, as well as from other apps, such as the Places Directory.
From an accessibility standpoint, the built-in navigation was quite useful. One has the choice of either typing a destination or speaking into a handset. Once directions were generated, we were able to view the list of directions for the route and be given spoken feedback as we navigated. It is possible to place Navigation in the background and run another program, such as Intersection Explorer, while traveling.
That being said, users of other accessible GPS solutions, such as Sendero GPS or the Trekker Breeze, may miss the ability to hear specific information while traveling, such as the businesses they are passing, the speed of travel, or the distance until the next turn. Android's GPS solution would be greatly enhanced by the inclusion and availability of this information on-demand.
The WalkyTalky app for Android provides additional voice feedback for walking directions, including the announcement of nearby addresses and an audio tone when it is time to turn. While the tones and spoken directions were quite accurate, many of the enhancements seemed overly verbose, especially the constant announcement of the current street and address range.
Android's built-in GPS solutions provide many options for users who wish to navigate their surroundings and travel independently, and there are many more accessible applications beyond what we have mentioned in this article. We appreciated the number of programs available for free, which contrasts with offerings for other operating systems. Some of the applications tested were a bit rough around the edges and could use some improvements and additional functionality to make them truly useful. That being said, we certainly see a lot of potential with the Android operating system and look forward to following new developments in the coming months.