Lost In Space: Canes, Dogs and my iPhone GPS Apps

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

The first contractions started around 2am, early that morning in late January. My wife gently nudged me into a semi-conscious state to share the news that our first child was actively on the way. In my stupor, I thoughtfully suggested that since the contractions would likely take a few hours to pick up steam, we could go back to sleep. I did just that. She did not.

A restful night is difficult when your better half keeps reminding you that she is about to give birth. I finally got up, and like any good computer nerd, I rushed into my study, fired up my Macintosh II and printed out a spreadsheet where I could log the time, duration, and intensity of each and every contraction. To the guy-side of my brain, this seemed like a perfectly good idea.

By sunrise, my wife thought it advisable to move carefully into our Oldsmobile Cutlass and drive to her obstetrician's office. As I had not driven a car for more than a decade, I simply smiled encouragingly from the passenger side as she stopped the car every few blocks to breathe through another contraction. After the exam, the doctor said we should go home and wait a few more hours. Haltingly, my wife drove us back. I did my part -- I made notes on my spreadsheet.

Around noon, my carefully constructed charts indicated that it was time to go to the hospital. Amazingly, my spouse already knew. Fortunately, I had asked a neighbor to be our emergency transportation. We made good time and shortly thereafter waddled into the emergency entrance. We quickly checked in and waited in the hallway for the Labor and Delivery staff. The nurses brought out a wheelchair and whisked my wife down the long corridor. For several moments, I stood there dumbfounded. I could not move. The nursing staff continued to rush down the hall. The sound of rubber wheels on tile and the nurse's squeaky white shoes rapidly faded as they approached the elevators. I heard the doors whoosh open and then close. My wife was gone. I was stuck in the middle of nowhere with only a stupid spreadsheet. I had forgotten my white cane.

I have spent much of my life successfully getting lost. Indoors or outdoors, I am really quite good at it. I have unexpectedly run down a flight of stairs in the Texas State Capitol. I have stumbled half-frozen down wintry Minneapolis streets hunting for my hotel. I have tried to find the master bathroom in my own house, in the middle of the night, and then wondered why it was surprisingly small, fully carpeted, with rows of clothes hanging on both sides.

Developing strong orientation and mobility skills was an exciting challenge as my vision failed. I was an adept cane user for many years and I've been a confident and content guide dog handler for even longer. I have enjoyed decades of independent travel across the country and have always managed to make it home alive and uninjured. Even so, I have sat down, in many different places, with my arm over my guide dog's shoulders, pretending that we actually knew exactly where we were.

Still, canes and dogs have their limitations. For much of my adult life, one of my pet peeves has been going places in our family car, with no idea of where I might actually be. For me, our minivan was an opaque vibrating box and everything outside was a mystery. Although my wife has offered to narrate routes, I could not imagine that being fun for her. So, I just played the role of passenger with a virtual bag over my head. Although I almost always recognized the steep hill that climbs into our neighborhood, much of the time, I have remained ignorant and waited for the cheap thrill of the occasional speed bump.

I have often imagined the utility of knowing exactly where I was, especially when traveling alone in different cities. In 2010 and 2011, I was traveling more than ever and periodically found myself paying wildly divergent fares for identical trips. Since I was always accompanied by my iPhone 4S, I decided to hunt for a GPS app that might tell me in real time exactly where I was en route.

I bought Navigon, my first iPhone GPS app. My needs were simple. I did not need turn by turn navigation. I did not desire walking directions. I just wanted to know where I was when traveling in a car, cab or other conveyance. Back then, I could not find a simple way in my app to limit audible feedback to what road I was on and what streets I was crossing. However, I did discover an awkward workaround. If I set the destination to the place I was leaving, Navigon would sound like an emotional wreck constantly telling me each and every street that I could take to turn around. Clumsy, but informative.

In time, I did find a tool more to my liking. I learned about Blind Square through AppleVis and was intrigued. I purchased the app and was initially overwhelmed. It blabbered like a three year old on sugar. It insisted on telling me everything about every landmark or point of interest, whether it was accurate or not. However, in short order, I had tweaked the settings so that I only heard what street I was on, what direction I was traveling, and what intersections I crossed. Once constrained, I delighted in what Blind Square had to tell me.

Of course, I am always looking for the next best thing. Several weeks ago, I heard of a promising new iOS GPS package. I spent a few days reading about Nearby Explorer on the AppleVis forum and convinced myself that I needed the new tool. I decided to consider this acquisition as a birthday present. It was not cheap and it was not my birthday, but my manufactured excuse was all I needed. I pressed the Buy button.

Nearby Explorer has been fun. From its Home screen, I can very easily adjust what subset of location information I'd like to hear. Although it offers destination navigation, I am most happy when I just know where I am. There is still much left for me to explore within this app. Right now, its maps are limited to the US and Canada, but I would love to someday take it to Nagpur and Paris.

Even though my canes last forever, and my guide dogs keep me forever safe, there is a definite benefit in knowing exactly where I am located on the planet. And, the ideal place for a GPS app is on the one tool I carry with me everywhere, my iPhone. Nowadays, most of the time, I can actually figure out where I am and where I need to go. Eventually, fortunately, I always seem to end up where I belong. On that fateful day back in 1988, I did manage to get some directions and a guide to Labor and Delivery. I found my wife and together, several hours later, we greeted our dear son. Thankfully, as my son grew up, I never lost him. Well, not too often.

*** G. Morgan Watkins spent thirty years at the University of Texas at Austin, most of it in information technology leadership. He also enjoyed thirteen years on the Board of Directors at Guide Dogs for the Blind. After retiring from the University , Morgan served as the Guide Dogs for the Blind Acting President and CEO.

Morgan is now happily retired again, playing with his dog and writing for pleasure. Morgan has created thirteen other blogs for AppleVis, including “Sleeping With The Stars: Old Time Radio and my iPhone”, “Small Talk: Speaking up on VoiceOver and the iPhone” and “Lesson Learned: iPhones and Orange Bugs”.

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14 Comments

#1 GPS Fan

When the first stand alone GPS devices for the blind started to appear, I was lusting after one. My guide dog school of choice started a pilot program with the Trekker, and I signed up for it. Unfortunately, they did not continue the program and I stumbled along. I could not justify the expense of another piece of hardware i got an iPhone a few years ago and instead of looking for a hardware solution, I researched apps. I found Blind Square and it opened up a new world of possibilities for me. I could not only know where I was when travelling in a car, but when walking around. I learned a lot about the places that are, or were, in my neighbourhood.

I recently transitioned from Blind Square to Nearby Explorer. I find the improved map descriptions to be very helpful. I am walking previously uncharted routes with the confidence of knowing where I am, and how to get where I want to be.

That said, my wife still keeps tabs on me if I am out too long using the Find My Phone feature. Between my guide dog, the GPS app on my phone, and knowing that if I call for help, she will find me, I venture about the world with an abandon I used to think was impossible.

And as a bonus, I am no longer a passive passenger. I can act as navigator for a disoriented driver.

#2 Another Great Post

I really enjoy this post. I have over the past couple of years, debated about getting an iOS device with one of the GPS options to assist with my O&M skills. To make a long story short my independent travel skills are lacking in some areas, and I'm not quite sure what to do about it. But eventually I *think* something will be done about it. I've often heard that there is no replacement for formal travel training. Thanks again for this post and I'm glad your son is doing well.

#3 A great post

Club AppleVis Member

This is a great post indeed. I am fortunate enough to have gone through comprehensive mobility training starting when I was about 6. While I did not mind traveling alone in busy areas or residential with my cane and later a guide dog, as long as the directions were good, the invention of GPS has been a huge benefit. Not only that, but they have come a long way since the early apps like @Navigon. I remember the first time I tried to navigate to somewhere using Navigon. After setting my route to walking mode, I was walking along the road when my GPS blithely and merrily informed me that I should attempt to merge onto the I-85 express way at the earliest opportunity. Needless to say, I did fail to comply with Navigons' request, and thus I am still alive and kicking today. Luckily, for me, Navigon is a relic of the past and now I use BlindSquare a lot, and think it is a marvelous app. Thanks again, @Morgan, for putting together such an awesome post.

#4 Really nice post

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Morgan,
Really nice post! So for how long did your son's birthday include flowers for Mom? :-)
I envy you and some of the commenters, my OM skills are still in the spreadsheet stage. My light-sensitivity prevents me from adventuring out in the daylight.
Excellent post!

#5 Thanks for the comments

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Thank you all for your nice notes.

I really enjoyed hearing about your own experiences, and I loved the story about walking with Navigon and its suggestion that you hop on the highway!

One of the comments mentioned light sensitivity getting in the way of mobility. I thought I'd share something cool my wife did for me. I have retinitis pigmentosa and, for a few years, I also became very light sensitive. We bought the darkest wrap-around sunglasses we could find and then my wife painted the inside of the lenses completely black with acrylic paint. From the outside, they looked normal. On the inside, light did not pass through. These sunglasses were especially handy in the car when the sun could suddenly blast in through the windshield as my wife was driving. Nowadays, I seldom notice light at any hour, so I have quit wearing sunglasses, but in years past, the painted lenses really helped.

Again, thanks for all your notes.
Your comments are always appreciated.
Best wishes,

Morgan

#6 Thanks for the tip

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Thank you for the tip! I had RP as well, and have been light sensitive for about 7 years. My wife and I did the painted glasses thing, they definitely helped block light from the front. I had lots of outdoor chores to do during this time, sunlight from the sides and back became an issue. Snow was the worst. I ended up having special goggles with light filters put in, I still wear them when I have to travel, which is not very often. The NoIR-medical website helped me tremendously.
Thanks again for the tip and the great post! Waiting for more.

#7 Oh Morgan!

Oh Morgan! You make me laugh right out loud every time I read your posts. Although I haven't been stuck in the hall of a hospital looking for my wife, well um, because I am a girl, I can most certainly relate to the being lost factor anyway. Many times my guide dogs and I have been lost, and as strange as it sounds, we used to get lost in the same places. While attending university many years ago, I had to travel a very longt sidewalk, down the edge of campus, between two different buildings, with only 10 minutes between classes. While there was a very busy street for orientation on our left side, there were many parking lots off the righthand side. Inevitably, that particular dog and I would always end up entangled in one or more of those stupid parking lots while rushing head long to the next class.

I thank you for such an amusing read first thing this morning. Keep em coming.

#8 Thanks, Roxann

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Roxann,

I'm glad my article left you smiling. And, thank you for letting me know.

I enjoyed your story about traveling across campus with your own guide. Brings back lots of memories.

When I was writing the early drafts of "Lost In Space," I had included a small bit about Fantom, my first guide dog, on the University of Texas campus. The story did not really match the flow of my narrative, so I pulled it out. However, since you brought up your own dog on campus, it seems like a good time to share some words from the cutting room floor.

Here is my excerpt from an early draft of "Lost In Space":

As intelligent as Fantom was, I occasionally forgot that important fact. This was well illustrated when Fantom and I were working on the University of Texas campus. I had had a meeting in the Student Health Center and , once my work was complete, we left by one of the back exits for the trek back to my office. I remembered that there was a short flight of descending stairs just outside the door. As soon as we stepped out, Fantom stopped. Incredulous, I gave the "Forward" command. Fantom sat down and refused to budge. I kept thinking that my dog was suffering from a case of the stubborns and I made the command quite clear and still that obstinate puppy would not move. Ugh. OK, I would not be stopped by a silly dog. I put down the harness handle, held the end of the leash, and stepped right off the loading dock. I ended up on my butt, my dog still on the ledge above me. Fantom looked down, and I swear he was thinking, "Wrong exit, you idiot!"

#9 I have this weird habbit

I have this weird habbit, even as a pre teen, where if I come to a place I'm unfamiliar with, sometimes I tend to slow down, which causes me to vere to the left or the right.
When I cross streets, I also tend to vere left or right even with my feet lined up perfectly. What I think most of us should start doing though is
contact the city engineers and tell them to put a line separating the street from the path to reach the curb.
I saw a line like that on my route to Super America with my ONM teacher, a line separating the street and the path.

#10 Veering

I tend to veer a lot as well, even when I'm with somebody. I've noticed though that the street I have to cross when walking to and from the grocery store with my tutor, has a strip at each end of it which is hollow and makes a different sound when I tap it with my cane. So I just look for those when I veer off and when I line up to cross. I still would like to at least try out one of the portable GPS options with both audio and tactile feedback. But I don't know when that will be yet. For now I go with one of my tutors or someone else fully sighted pretty much whenever I need to travel outside my apartment complex. Don't even get me started on parastrandit!

#11 And yet another very interesting GPS app developed by the blind

It doesn't appear that there has yet been a review of the overTHERE iOS app. It's a free app that simulates the old Talking Signs technology developed by Smith-Kettlewell. The old handheld receiver is now replaced by your iPhone and the radar transmitting signs are now simulated through Google Places data. Point and hear what's around you as well as home in on what you are looking for. There is great potential in this app. Find it on the app store at http://bit.ly/overTHERE

#12 Loved this post

Morgan, your writing is so fine. I was a tech writer for many years, and in a seminar I took once, they told us that good tech writing is invisible. I would modify that today to say that good blog writing means you never hear the writer's keyboard clacking; you just hear his thoughts directly flowing out through his words.
Anyway, for me the thing that made Nearby Explorer really shine was when at 3 AM in a campground, I could exit my tent and find the potty half a mile up the road. The previous night, my guide dog had gleefully pointed out that all the forest is a potty, and he couldn't understand why his silly human needed to go to a specific location to do her business. I couldn't find the potty that night and ended up scrabbling down a hill to use a ravine, hoping nobody could see us. My Golden was prancing about, flag-tail waving, eager to use the same spot I had. But after that I got a human guide to find the right place and marked it in Nearby Explorer. That way I could geobeam myself there in the middle of the night! And this, mind you was without a cell or internet connection!

#13 Deborah, Thank you

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Deborah,

Thank you so much for your comment. I, too, find these navigation tools extremely helpful. Now, I just want an app that will tell me exactly what I am flying above.

Best wishes,

Morgan

#14 nearby explorer

nearby explorer is great. it tells me everything I am passing. sadly, on Android, their is know intersection announcement yet. I'll be waiting for a new beta of out, the android version hasn't been updated in six months or so. great post, navagone was my first GPS as well. like you, I wanted to know what I was going by. I had a cellular enabled iPad and a Garmin globe GPS receiver. then I got a nexus 5 android phone. this acquisition was before Nearby Explorer was on iOS. I have been using it a lot. now when APH puts the fucsionality that is in iOS to Android I'll be a happy camper, as they say.