Irish firm creates navigation app for visually impaired


13 Jun 2011

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John Ryan, founder and director of Point the Way, talks about accessibility on smartphones and its new app for the visually impaired, LookAround.

Last year, Point the Way pitched its start-up to Siliconrepublic.com. Back then, they were in LaunchPad, an incubator programme for start-ups at NDRC, working on their advanced GPS navigation system for the visually impaired on smartphones.

Ryan said that since then, the company has collaborated with California firm Sendero Group to create its self-voicing Android app called LookAround.

“It allows blind people to simply shake their phone and find out what street they’re on, what direction they’re facing and what points of interests are around, such as bars and restaurants,” said Ryan.

Ryan believes the app lets those with visual impairments be better informed while out and about, allowing them make more on-the-spot decisions on where to go.

“Something that sighted people take for granted is if you go for a walk in an urban environment, for example, quite often some of the choices you make are based on what you see around you,” he said.

“You mightn’t think you want to go for coffee until you walk past a nice cafe. We realised that that’s something blind people really miss out on – this impulsive decision based on what you see around you.

“Definitely, with LookAround, it gives blind people the ability to find out if there’s a cafe around them and how far away it is and what direction they need to go to get there. I think it’s an enormous increase in the level of freedom to make those decisions when they’re out and about,” said Ryan.

Accessibility

Point the Way developed the app for Android to improve the accessibility of the platform and noted that it was important to make the app completely standalone for a blind or visually impaired user.

“Apple’s OS was built from the ground up with accessibility in mind whereas Android is still playing catch up, but it’s definitely getting better,” said Ryan.

“What we decided with LookAround was, rather than relying on screen readers which are quite diverse in the way they work, we built as much accessibility into the app itself.

“Everything in the app will tell you what buttons you’re tapping, everything’s read out to you and you can control the speed it’s read out at. With Android, you access the text speed engine and control that very deeply, whereas you can’t do that on the iPhone,” said Ryan.

With the rising innovations in consumer technology, particularly in the mobile sector, Ryan believes it’s critical that app developers start thinking of the visually impaired market.

“We work really closely with the National Council for the Blind of Ireland and they’ve been really supportive of what we’ve been doing for the last year and a half,” said Ryan.

“When you meet those guys, you realise that you just can’t ignore that sector of the community.”

LookAround is available now on the Android Market.

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