If you're like me, you have several different GPS navigation apps on your iPhone, some free and others rather expensive. You may even be paying a monthly or yearly subscription fee to ensure you have the latest map and place data. If that is the case, here is a less expensive alternative you may wish to consider.
BlindSquare from MIPsoft uses data from Open Street Maps to provide street names and intersection alerts on iPhone 4 and later, or an iPad with either 3G or 4G data connection and service plan. The app then combines this map data with a treasure-trove of place names and other information crowd-sourced by millions of Foursquare users around the world. The result, BlindSquare, is a VoiceOver optimized app that offers accessible travel directions, along with the names and locations of millions of "points of interest" (POIs) including restaurants, banks, grocery stores, subway stations, and almost anywhere else you need or wish to go. In this article I will take you on a guided tour of this app and demonstrate how to make use of its many powerful features. First, though, let's take a quick look at the app's building blocks: Open Street Maps and Foursquare.
Open Street Maps is a crowd source project that was founded in 2004 with the goal of providing accurate mapping data that wouldbe available without charge to individuals, app developers, and technology solutions around the world. Craigslist uses Open Street Map data, and if you've ever used MapQuest to get directions you've also made use of Open Street Map data.
Foursquare is a social connector, a way to keep track of where your friends are and what they are doing right now. You can post your current location by "checking in" using a smartphone app so your friends can also find you. Frequent check-ins garner points and badges. Increasingly, businesses are offering discounts to those who check-in frequently, and if you are the person who checks in most at a restaurant, bookstore, or other location, you may even be designated the "mayor" of that location.
Along with the Open Street Maps list of points of interest (POIs), Foursquare also allows users to create their own check-in venues, comment about existing POIs and report outdated or non-existent listings. Someone in my neighborhood, for instance, has geotagged our community pool, and about a mile from my house someone else, the Connors, presumably, have dubbed a stretch of woods "Connor's Campground."
The BlindSquare App
Open Street Maps and Foursquare are both available on a number of platforms, including iOS and Android. For now, unfortunately, BlindSquare is iOS only. I tested version 2.2.1, which is available from the App Store for $29.99.
This price compares quite favorably to mainstream navigation apps, such as Navigon and TomTom, and there are never any map update charges or subscription fees, as is the case with other accessibility-optimized navigation apps.
You can use your favorite iOS voice, such as Samantha, with BlindSquare. The download also includes a full set of high-quality Acapela voices. You can set the BlindSquare speech rate and volume to different levels than the VoiceOver settings. I found this extremely convenient when running BlindSquare in the background with another app speaking in the foreground. The BlindSquare alerts were more distinct and did not interrupt speech in the foreground app.
When installing the app, you are asked for permission to access your device's location services and your contact list. The first permission is absolutely necessary. After all, what good is a GPS app if it doesn't know where you are? Allowing the app to access your contacts can automate data entry when you wish to navigate to one of your contact addresses, but it is not imperative that you grant this permission.
Near the top of the opening screen there is a button labeled "Foursquare." You can use this button to create a Foursquare account, or log into your existing account. However, you do not need to have a Foursquare account in order to access almost all of the BlindSquare features.
If you do create and link to a Foursquare account, you may receive extra information, such as restaurant menus, special offers, and suggested places based on your check-in history.
The first BlindSquare control we will discuss is the Distance control. This setting creates a circle with a radius from 82 feet to 1.24 miles, with your position in the center. BlindSquare will auto-announce POIs and destinations that fall within this circle. This screen also allows you to set whether or not BlindSquare should speak the current address from time to time as you walk, a handy feature to help you make sure you haven't lost your way.
If you are exploring a new area, you may wish to have BlindSquare report everything it finds in your designated circle, at least until you get the lay of the land. If you are on a mid-town Manhattan bus, however, you would likely be overwhelmed with that level of information. Use the "Filter Announcements" button to set the level or type of information you wish to hear as you travel. Your choices are "All," "Streets Only," "My Places," "Streets and My Places," "Places only," and "None." If you make a selection that includes "Places," you will be presented with a list of categories you can select or deselect for auto-announcements. These categories range from "Arts and Entertainment" to "Travel and Transport." If you just want a few categories announced, activate the "Deselect All" button and then add back in the few you do want.
This list includes two additional categories, "My Places" and "Shared Places." The first contains venues you have added to your BlindSquare database. These locations are saved with other BlindSquare data using iCloud. You can add places, edit their names, and indicate how near to this place you need to be before the app will sound an alert. You can also share your places with friends via e-mail, messaging, Twitter or Air Drop. If you have linked to Foursquare, the "Shared Places" category includes all of the places your friends have added to their "Home" category on Foursquare.
Back on the main screen, you will find the same list of Foursquare categories. Tap the "Food" category, for instance, and you will be presented with all restaurants, diners, and burger joints within your distance circle. This list is sorted both by popularity—number of Foursquare check-ins to POIs within your search radius—and by distance.
Clicking any of these listings calls up a menu where you can perform various tasks such as adding the venue to your favorites lst, accessing a Google page with phone numbers, store hours, menus and such, and read tips from Foursquare users (if you have a linked account). You can also plan a route, which we will discuss in detail later in this article.
If the place you seek is not in the category list, or if it's located outside of your distance circle, you can use the search button at the very top left of the screen to find it. Of course, the thoroughness of the Foursquare venue list will depend on the amount of Foursquare activity in your area. For example, in some cities the Travel and Transport category will list the location of nearly every bus stop. I had to add the stop nearest my house to my "My Places" list because it has not yet been added by a Foursquare user and checked into by at least five users. The BlindSquare database limits itself to venues with at least five check-ins to help weed out false and/or useless entries. A Foursquare search of the word "My" in my neighborhood listed venues such as "My Happy Place," "My Home Office," and "My Bed." Without the requirement for five check-ins, I would be inundated with voicings of unwanted places.
You don't need to have a particular destination in mind to use BlindSquare. If you're just out for a stroll, when you open the app it will begin by announcing your current location, nearby streets, and POIs within your distance circle, depending on which "Filter Announcements" setting you have enabled. As you walk, the app will update this information and announce intersections as you approach them. You can set how far away BlindSquare will announce upcoming intersections to Short, Medium, or Long. Access this control by double tapping the "Other" button on the main screen, then the "Settings" button, then scrolling down to the "Intersection Announcement Distance" control. If you begin traveling faster than 20 miles per hour, after seven seconds the app will begin announcing intersections sooner, however, so you don't have to make this adjustment every time you get on or off a bus.
While we are in the Settings menu, there are several other BlindSquare controls worth mentioning:
- Enable BlindSquare Help—If VoiceOver hints are enabled, this option will provide context sensitive help, which can be very useful to beginner users.
- Track Destination Automatically on Entire Route—This option will either offer you prompts all the way to your destination or else only announce the destination when you are nerly there.
- Shake Gesture Settings—when you shake your device with BlindSquare running, it can announce your current location, perform a Foursquare check-in, announce the pedometer reading, or any combination of the three.
- Automatic Sleep Time—sleep mode helps save battery time. If you are stationery for the set time BlindSquare will automatically put itself into sleep mode, and the app will not track your position or announce POIs until you resume movement. There is also a Sleep button on the main screen you can double tap at any time to activate or deactivate sleep mode.
- Track Destination Automatically on
- Direction Style—clock face, degrees, or cardinal directions
- Select Voice and Language—choose from built-in iOS or downloaded Acapela voices
- Speech Rate—ccan be set independently of VoiceOver setting
- Volume—ccan also be set independently of VoiceOver setting
- Delete Unused Voices—frees up device memory
- BlindSquare sounds—instruct the app which events, such as app startup or arrived at place, should be accompanied by sound cues
- Use Headset Remote to Control BlindSquare—see "Remote Navigation," below, for a detailed discussion of this feature
- Fleksy Keyboard Settings—the upcoming iOS 8 will allow you to install additional third-party keyboards, such as the Fleksy keyboard that allows you to type without striking every key precisely. BlindSquare was the first app to directly integrate the Fleksy Keyboard—it's built-in, you do not need to install the app on your device to use Fleksy. You can also use the MBraille keyboard and voice dictation to enter addresses and other place information into BlindSquare. A Bluetooth keyboard, notetaker or braille display supporting text input will also work.
As mentioned above, you don't need to have a particular destination in mind to use BlindSquare. That said, if you perform a venue search from the app's home screen, or select a location from one of the category lists, My Places, or Shared Places, you are presented with the opportunity to have BlindSquare begin tracking that location. From that point until you either reach your destination or toggle tracking off, you will, depending on your settings, receive periodic announcements of distance and direction to your destination or an announcement of when you are nearly there.
You can also select a contact using the home screen "Tools" menu, and if the vCard contains an address BlindSquare will offer to begin tracking that location.
The "Tools" menu also includes several other useful options:
- Look Around—with this option enabled you can point the top of your device in various compass directions and BlindSquare will announce the drection and all intersections and places that are located between you and the perimeter of your distance circle. Press this option a second time to toggle the option off
- Your Location—announces your current address and the nearest intersection
- Recent Places—provides a list of all recently announced places
- Nearby Intersections—provides a map of nearby intersections along with their compass or clock face directions from your current position. You can slide your finger across the screen to get the lay of the land, but you cannot track a road from one intersection to the next (You can double tap any of the intersections, however, and call up a Place Summary screen. See more about Place Summary screens below.)
- GPS Info—detailed discussion below
- Weather—grab a quick weather report for the location
- Contacts—double tap this option to summon your device's contact list (you must first have granted permission for the app to access your contacts)
- Braille Display—optimize the BlindSquare readout for your connected braille display
Linking to Turn-by-Turn Directions
BlindSquare does not offer turn-by-turn directions, which in my opinion is a good thing. After all, why reinvent the wheel? Instead, the app calls up a list of all of the mainstream navigation apps on your device. Apple Maps comes preinstalled on all iOS 7 devices. Google Maps is available via a free App Store download. Navigon, TomTom, and others are also available for varying prices.
Call up a destination and double-tap the "Plan a Route" button, and BlindSquare will send its coordinates to whichever third party app you select. There you can get turn-by-turn directions, and select your mode of travel: walking, driving or public transportation. I find Google Maps to be the absolute best for public transportation schedules and stops, and since it's free, I see no reason not to download this very useful app.
While your turn-by-turn navigation app is running, BlindSquare will still work in the background, announcing street names, approaching intersections, and points of interest. Let's say your bus route ends with a four-mile stretch of straight road. Your turn-by-turn navigation app might not be able to warn you when your stop is coming up. With BlindSquare you will stay properly updated on your position.
Researching a Location
It is also possible to learn what is between that bus stop and your ultimate destination ahead of time. When you call up the bus stop, or your ultimate location, you will find a "Simulate This Location" button. Activate this control and BlindSquare will place itself at the remote location and begin playing a whooshing cityscape sound t remind you that you are in simulation mode. From this mode you can perform all of the standard BlindSquare actions. You can Look Around, search for the coffee shop that is closest to the bus stop and add it to your My Places list, grab a quick weather report, etc. Press "Tools," then "End Simulation Mode" to return to your current location.
Sharing a Location
That coffee shop you stopped at was the best ever. You'd like to invite a friend to meet you for a second cup. Here's how.
Activate the "Share This Place" button on the Place Summary screen.
A second screen will appear with the place's name and a text entry field for an optional comment. You can then choose to share your location using Air Drop, e-mail, text messaging, Twitter, or WhatsApp (if installed). Alternatively, you can select "Clipboard" and then paste the information into a document, note, or any other app of your choice.
BlindSquare will send your designated location with links that open in BlindSquare, Foursquare, Apple Maps, Google Maps, or other third party navigation apps you have installed on your device. You can also send just the address.
Sending a location via e-mail prompts BlindSquare to also send a Google street map right in the message, and a Google Street View picture that shows the direction your phone was pointed toward when you shared the location. This option can be extremely helpful if you find yourself lost, or have a question about which door to use, the left or the right. A useful addition to this feature would be the ability to seamlessly add a quick photo, voice memo, or video to your e-mail.
If someone shares a place with you and you open the BlindSquare link, you will get the full Place Summary screen, with controls to add it to your favorites, track location, plan a route, check that location's weather, simulate that location, and more.
One last feature of note on a My Places summary screen is the Edit button. This button allows you to change the name of the location and set an alert distance different from your default setting. This screen will also note your current GPS accuracy and allow you to set your current coordinates as the location for this plce. This feature can come in extremely handy, if, say, the BlindSquare location to a large office building leads you to the front door on one street, and you prefer to enter via a side door on a different street.
Traveling with a cane or guide dog can make it somewhat difficult to perform all the tapping and swiping required to use a naviation app. Happily, BlindSquare offers a hands-free mode so you can control the app, even when your phone is locked and in your purse or pocket. Access it through the "Other/Settings" menu by double tapping the "Use Headset Remote to Control BlindSquare" option. There you can toggle your headset remote controls from "Music and Video Playback" to "BlindSquare." Now, you can control most of the app's on-the-go features using the remote buttons on your iPhone earpods, or any other headset or device that supports Apple's remote control features.
To enable this feature, call up the BlindSquare "Settings" Menu and activate the "Use Headset Remote to Control BlindSquare" option. Now, pressing the Play/Pause button on your remote calls up an audio BlindSquare menu, which announces, one by one, options to access Location, Sleep Mode, Look Around, Around Me, Start Tracking, GPS Info, Time, Add Place, and Weather. Pressing the "Play/Pause" button a second time after the voicing of any of these commands calls up that item, and causes BlindSquare to announce the appropriate information. A double-tap-and-hold gesture will increase the size of the BlindSquare radius, a triple-tap-and-hold will decrease it. Remote commands will work even if your phone is locked and in your pocket. See the Help menu for a complete list of remote commands, or consult the impressively thorough documentation found on the BlindSquare website.
Final Comments and Recommendations
I have been using BlindSquare for several months, and I cannot praise this app enough. The BlindSquare feature set includes everything I want in a navigation app. Its effectiveness is limited only by the quality of the crowd-sourced map and POI information, which, even in my small town, I found exceptionally accurate and comprehensive. The developer has more than proven himself responsive to the needs and wishes of VoiceOver users, and continues to update and support the app on a regular basis.
In short, BlindSquare is a must-have app for any VoiceOver user who wishes to use an iOS device as a navigation aid.