Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have revolutionized the way we get around. These devices can provide turn-by-turn directions to almost anywhere a driver needs to go. No longer do cab drivers or pizza delivery people need to browse through map books in order to locate a specific address. For individuals who are blind or visually impaired, GPS is even more revolutionary. Not only can this technology provide information about your current location, it can list nearby businesses and assist in planning a pedestrian route to a specific address.
Despite the advantages in travel, the cost (usually between $900 and $1,700) of dedicated GPS systems designed for people who are blind or visually impaired has prevented many individuals from taking advantage of these products. A recent partnership seeks to change that. A mainstream manufacturer of GPS devices, Kapsys, has joined forces with Leader Dogs for the Blind to release the Kapten PLUS personal navigation device. Priced at just $295, and free to individuals who receive a dog guide from Leader Dogs, the Kapten can plot routes to local businesses or a specific address, and provide accurate location information. In addition to being a GPS solution, the Kapten Plus is an MP3 player, an FM radio, and an audio memo recorder.
The Kapten is a small rectangular unit measuring 2.9 by 1.74 by 0.51 inches, and weighing less than 2 ounces. The product is shipped with a rubber skin that protects the hardware and provides a tactile overlay for the controls. The front face of the product contains nine keys rendered very tactually distinct by the rubber skin. The upper edge of the device contains a mini USB port and a switch for locking the keys. Although it's handy to have a locking switch, using the control was difficult for some testers as it's partially covered by the skin. The left edge contains a mini audio jack that can be connected to either the included ear buds or external speaker. Just below the audio jack is a lanyard for connecting the included strap. The right edge features two small volume control keys. On the back of the case is a clip for attaching the product to clothing.
Caption: The Kapten PLUS
The package includes a small round external speaker, a set of ear buds, product documentation, and various cables for getting everything connected. Because the Kapten does not include an internal speaker, either the ear buds or external speaker must be used whenever you are working with the product. Like the Kapten itself, the external speaker contains a rechargeable battery and can only be charged via USB. Both the cable to the external speaker and the ear buds include a small microphone, used to issue voice commands to the Kapten and record voice memos.
The Kapten's rechargeable battery requires four hours to fully charge. According to the manual, the battery will last for approximately five hours of active use. For this reason, the manufacturer recommends that the Kapten be constantly connected to a USB port when not in use. Following this guideline would be much easier if a wall outlet charging kit was included with the product.
The Kapten ships with three discs, all clearly labeled in print and braille. The first disc is a DVD that contains a backup of the Kapten's preloaded maps. The second CD is titled "Key Influencers" and contains a poem about the product, the history of GPS at Leader Dogs, and other promotional materials. The last disc contains an audio study guide written by Pilot Dogs. The guide, which consists of 17 lessons providing a general overview of the product and giving information on its basic functions, is read by the same speech synthesizer used by the Kapten. It would be helpful if the guide were also available as a text file or Word document, so those who wanted to listen to the guide using another synthesizer or read it in refreshable braille could do so. The study guide, along with a more thorough manual written by the manufacturer, are loaded on the Kapten and can be read using the MP3 player functionality.
Talking to Your Kapten
To control the Kapten, you can either press the keys on the front panel or issue voice commands. The external speaker cable and the ear buds both contain a microphone in the form of a small cylinder with a round button. The button is used to get the Kapten's attention prior to issuing voice commands. In quiet environments, the speech recognition was very accurate. In noisier environments, such as on a busy street corner, it was occasionally necessary to repeat a voice command two or three times before it was understood. Some functions, such as checking battery status, can only be accomplished using voice commands.
When using the Kapten, two types of voice commands are supported, passive and active. A passive command is issued when you state a word or phrase and the Kapten responds by performing an action, e.g., asking the Kapten to change its volume or state the current time. When you issue an active command, the Kapten responds with additional options and you can either verbally state your choice or use the menu keys to scroll and select. A good example of an active command is when you ask the Kapten to list nearby points of interest (POIs). The Kapten will respond with a list of POI categories such as hotel, restaurant, or service station. These lists can be rather lengthy, so it's often necessary to use the menu keys to scroll through the available options.
Traveling with the Kapten PLUS
The Kapten has two modes of GPS. The first is called free navigation. In this mode, you use the Kapten to get information about your location as you make your way, without entering a specific route or destination. In free navigation mode, as you approach an intersection, the Kapten will inform you of the name of the cross street and type of intersection. You can press a key at any time to hear the current city, street, and nearest address. The Kapten will also announce any locations you've marked with K-tags (see below) as you approach them.
The second GPS mode uses active voice commands to select a destination. The Kapten will first prompt you to enter the type of route you would like to create. You can choose from pedestrian, vehicle, and bicycle, among others. This selection determines what sorts of streets your route will involve. Once your route type is selected, you must choose if you would like to input an address, go to a favorite, use public transportation, go to a K-Tag, find a point of interest, repeat the last trip, or go to a contact.
Inputting an address can be time consuming and takes more than a little patience. Via active voice commands, the Kapten asks the state, city, and road of your destination. After each response, you must say "yes" to confirm your choice. The number of your destination address can be dictated via voice or entered using the arrow keys on the keypad. During our evaluation, we found it necessary to say "yes" after each digit in order to confirm that number. This made entering a four-digit address rather cumbersome. A little practice makes this process easier, but it's still time consuming.
A K-Tag is a ten-second voice recording that you associate with your current location. For instance, if you are at the entrance to your favorite restaurant, you can mark the location with a K-Tag and dictate its name into the Kapten. Later, when you want to go back to the same restaurant, you can use the K-Tag functionality to plot your route back.
If you select the POI method, the Kapten will prompt for a category and then a subcategory. This process of drilling down can be rather time consuming, because the POI database is rather extensive, so the lists of categories and subcategories are long. It would be useful if it were possible to abbreviate the list to the ten closest points of interest in a given category.
The Kapten can import contacts from Microsoft Outlook or similar applications. Once imported, the Kapten can use this data to guide you to a contact's address. While this is a great concept, we found the PC import interface difficult to use and not very screen reader friendly.
Once you have selected or input your destination, the Kapten asks if you would like to use public transportation to get to this address. If you answer "yes" to this prompt, the Kapten provides walking directions to the closest station with a bus or train that will take you to your destination. You can also select public transportation as a destination and provide a starting and ending station. The Kapten will then tell you the public transit options for making this trip. The Kapten was evaluated in Boston, home of an extensive public transportation system. When the Kapten accurately identified station names, we found this functionality extremely valuable in planning travel. There were, however, several major T stations the Kapten failed to locate.
When you walk with the Kapten, the device gives you turn-by-turn directions to your destination. A single press of a key announces your current city, street, and the closest address. Additional information, such as distance to destination and current GPS signal quality, is available via voice command. When we turned on a new street and asked for our current location, the Kapten did a good job in identifying the new street. This was very useful in confirming that we had, in fact, turned on the correct street. Unfortunately, the Kapten does not announce when you pass a point of interest while walking, which would be a very useful feature.
The Kapten's built-in MP3 player allows you to group music by artist, album, and genre. The Kapten appears as an external drive when it's connected to a computer via USB. You can easily copy MP3 files to a folder on the device, then browse your music using the keypad or voice commands. The documentation included with the Kapten did not provide the maximum storage capacity of the product.
The FM radio is activated by pressing the radio button on the front of the Kapten. As with other functions, the radio can be operated using the keys on the front panel or via voice commands. According to the manual, it's possible to state a station name, such as "WBUR," and have the Kapten automatically select the appropriate frequency. In our tests, we could not get this feature to work. We were able to find a station by stating a frequency, such as "103.5." When the Kapten speaks, it automatically lowers the volume of whatever you're listening to—a very useful feature, especially if you like to use the radio or listen to music while traveling.
You control the voice memos feature with voice commands. When you activate this function, you are asked if you want to record a voice memo. If you respond no, you are asked if you want to listen to a voice memo. If you again respond no, you are asked if you want to delete a voice memo. Answering yes to any of these questions will perform the appropriate task. As individuals often need to record voice memos in noisy environments, it would be useful if this feature could at least be activated via the keypad.
The Bottom Line
The Kapten is an affordable and useful stand-alone GPS solution. It provides location information and does a good job of assisting users traveling to a specific address. Learning to efficiently use the voice input functionality takes a bit of practice, but it can be done. The radio and MP3 player are nice additions, but the primary purpose of the Kapten is navigation. Users of the iPhone and other smartphones may not need a dedicated GPS device, as these products offer more convenient and less expensive GPS solutions. However, for those who want an affordable dedicated GPS product, the Kapten PLUS is a great step forward.
Product: Kapten PLUS personal navigation device
790 Avenue du Docteur Maurice Donat
Le Marco Polo A1, 06250
Phone: +33 4 92 28 88 88
Leader Dogs for the Blind
1039 S. Rochester Rd
Rochester Hills, MI 48307-3115
Phone: (888) 777-5332