The smartphone app that lets a blind skater roam free

Ronja Oja out on her skates

Like many young people, Ronja Oja likes skating. She is also blind.

The 21-year-old Helsinki student usually knows where she is, skating in areas she is familiar with - but sometimes she does gets lost.

This used to mean either finding someone nearby to help, or phoning a friend.

Technology of Business

"Before if I got lost and called someone all I could say was 'hey I am here, somewhere, I don't know where I am, please come to get me'," she says.

Last spring, after coming to an unfamiliar turn in the road, she realised she was lost again. This time, she didn't need anyone's help to find her way.

Miss Oja sat down on a rock, pulled out her smartphone and used the app BlindSquare to work out where she was and how to get back on track.

Using data from FourSquare (a location-based social network for mobile devices) and Open Street Map, BlindSquare looks up information about the surrounding area and communicates this to users with speech.

Shaking the smartphone tells you where you are and how to find the nearest junctions.

Users can save favourite places, and the app will notify them when they are nearby.

"I can get the address and the nearest street names," says Miss Oja.

Pirttimaa and Oja BlindSquare developer Ilkka Pirttimaa (left) with Ronja Oja

She now uses BlindSquare daily, and says it helps her discover new places in Helsinki.

Feeling the town

Ilkka Pirttimaa, the app's developer, got in touch with several blind bloggers including Miss Oja to test the app before launch.

"I saw from her smile that it was going to work," he says about the first time they used BlindSquare.

Thanks to her feedback, Mr Pirttimaa plans to add a feature for users in Helsinki telling them details of approaching buses, that integrates data from Helsinki's Regional Transportation services.

Philadelphia resident and blogger Austin Seraphin also tested the app.

Start Quote

It's about just having a sense of what's around me in general”

End Quote Austin Seraphim Blogger

He finds it helpful to use BlindSquare when on transport, and says he generally has a better feel for the city now.

"It's helped me understand the geography and the layouts of the streets," he says.

He enjoys knowing what people are saying about places on FourSquare, and says BlindSquare is a good way to find out about block parties and events taking place.

"It's about just having a sense of what's around me in general," he says.

What you see

In the US alone, the assistive technologies market was worth $43.4bn (£27.8bn) in 2012 and is predicted to hit $60.5bn (£38.8bn) in 2018.

Developing services for smartphones and tablets has the potential to bring this type of product to a much wider audience, which explains the growing number of apps available.

Verbally, for example, takes the written word and converts it into speech. Using a keyboard interface, it also reduces the keystrokes needed to write, and has been designed for people with conditions such as Parkinson's and cerebral palsy.

SpeakIt is another speech app, and reads out emails, documents and articles. It was initially designed for the mainstream market but has proved popular with disabled users.

Tine Postuvan's start-up EqualEyes focuses on making the interface on smartphones running the Android operating system more user-friendly for the visually impaired.

EqualEyes The EqualEyes platform, shown here in Slovenian, uses large icons and contrasting colours

They created a specialised home screen with large icons in bold and contrasting colours that are easier to navigate.

The app can either be downloaded by users, or a device with EqualEyes already installed can be purchased directly from them.

Mr Postuvan, who grew up in Slovenia, has seen the difficulties the visually impaired face when trying to use smartphones.

"My mother is visually impaired and I've seen her struggle for years with all sorts of things," he explains.

The service launched this summer and is currently available in English, Slovenian, Bulgarian and Italian.

Mr Postuvan hopes to expand the concept to other groups who may have problems using smartphones, such as the elderly.

Like everyone else

Creating apps and services for mobile devices not only increases access to this kind of technology, it has another big advantage according to some: it can reduce stigma as these are devices used by all.

Start Quote

They don't have the stigma of using something big”

End Quote John Schimmel NYU

John Schimmel teaches assistive technology design at New York University's interactive telecommunications programme, and specialises in integrating technology for use by the disabled.

He created a wheelchair DJ interface called RAMPS (which allows the wheels of the chair to fade and scratch music) and is involved with DIYAbility, who teach tech skills to the disabled.

Mr Schimmel points out that a child using an app on a tablet, which is also used by other children, won't stand out.

"They don't have the stigma of using something big," he says, adding that this can be important in helping them integrate and lead more normal lives.

Katie Kitchen agrees. Her son used the learning app MyChoicePad between the ages of three-and-a-half and five.

It uses symbols and the Makaton language programme, and was developed with speech therapists for toddlers and older children with speech difficulties.

Child using MyChoicePad MyChoicePad uses the Makaton language programme to help those with speech difficulties

She says her son liked being able to use his new "cool" iPad in front of his friends, and that tablets are very intuitive for children to use.

Both these factors meant he could communicate with his peers more easily and effectively.

"He could tell people exactly what he wanted," she says.

Occupational therapist Holly Cohen agrees. Based at NYU's Rusk Rehabilitation Hospital, she also works with Mr Schimmel at DIYAbility.

Ms Cohen believes speech apps can allow users to really fit in with everyone else, letting them express themselves clearly and interact more normally.

"That's transformed a lot of individuals' lives, as it's given them the ability to say their needs or to participate in discussions," she says.

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