Friday, 12 November 2010


12 November 2010

In a previous article, I briefly described some of the apps on my iPhone. I hope I made the point that the iPhone could add value to our lives as visually impaired people in a variety of ways. In this article, I plan to share some of my mobility experiences but I want to make it very clear that the iPhone is only a supplement to my white cane, my weak vision and my habit of involving others in helping me cope with out and about journeys. The current state of GPS technology does not give you precise location information and neither does it work for you inside buildings. Also, I am not anticipating that there is or will be just one app which fulfils all your needs. I have gone for an option which puts together several apps on one screen and it is pretty easy to move from one app to the other as and when you require some specific intelligence. Sometimes I need to know when the next bus is due; sometimes it’s about the next train to London. When out walking, I like to know which direction I am travelling in, especially when off the beaten track; And it is always useful to hear which roads I am passing and what the next crossing will be. At the time of writing, the missing link for me is that I don’t have the ability on the iPhone to create my own personal points of interest and hear them later as I pass by. No doubt that will come soon.

So here is a little about each of the mobility apps which I have got used to over the past few months. By the time you read this, there will be changes, improvements and possibly disappointments. We can’t assume that every app written for the iPhone will speak to us just because The apple Corporation have built their VoiceOver speech into the guts of the system. Apple can only encourage and advise developers to take heed of our particular needs. Incidentally, they each cost no more than £1.50 pence except the TomTom app which cost nearly £50 and maybe I don’t especially need now there is Sendero.

Nextbuses: If you live out of town like us, it’s pretty handy to know when the next bus is coming. Nextbuses gives you this information in great detail. Go into the app, agree to have your location confirmed by the GPS iPhone system and you are away. This location confirmation is typical of almost all the GPS maps mentioned in this article. The screen is divided into two halves. The top half is only useful when zoomed to partially sighted users because it is a map. But the lower half of the screen contains a row by row list of my local bus stops. I flick to the right with one finger and hear them in turn, each one offering me a more info choice. I double tap on the more info I want and am told the next bus is due in nine minutes and another one in twenty-one minutes. No need to rush or be anxious. . At the very top of the touch screen are two buttons: The left button, About, tells me about the app and who created it. Malcolm Barclay is very supportive of the needs of blind users.

Mybus; Mybus in many ways performs the same function as Nextbuses; but the screen is wholly taken by a map. Perhaps this is for those with some useful sight who love maps but I found it doable. There are three buttons at the top of the screen and a Map Pin Button in the bottom left corner. Top left is Favourites where you can store your most used routes. Top middle is un-named and just says button. But it takes you to the Kizoom website and gives you the chance to give them feedback. Top right is the Nearme button which has a visual effect. Tapping the map pin button, bottom left, brings up the name of the relevant street and the direction the bus is travelling. Immediately to the right of the direction is a more info button. This takes you to a screen giving details of the next bus. At the bottom of the screen are two further buttons: Bottom left takes you to a list of local taxi numbers and bottom right takes you to even more info about the bus stop and journeys. If VI users pursued the makers, This could be a very useful app, if only because of the added bonus of taxi on the spot in an unfamiliar area.

iRail:, Thetrainline and Traintimes: These three apps purport to give you useful train travel information up to the minute. They are pretty accessible but, when out and about relying on the somewhat tedious iPhone onscreen keyboard, perhaps Traintimes is the easiest to manage. When you first go into the Traintimes app, you are asked if you want to designate a home station. If you do, a search text field comes up and you start typing in the first few letters of your chosen station. It is pretty quick, for instance, to get to Peterborough. Once confirmed, you come to a screen divided up as follows: At the top of the screen is e.g. Peterborough Departures and immediately below you can select a station for your journey. Below this is Plan A Journey followed by Next Train Home. At the bottom of the screen is the option to change your settings. You might here change your home station, choose only direct trains, show the distance you will travel etc. As usually happens with the Iphone, there is a back button top left on the screen. The response is remarkably quick and accurate. As with the bus information, you know within a minute or so of actual changes.
UK Ireland: This is the iPhone TomTom app, the only expensive app mentioned here at around £50. I don’t really need this but was curious and delighted to find that it is extremely accessible and usable after a deal of practice and growing understanding. It is actually quite nice to hear what you are passing, streets, shops and towns when you are on a coach or in a car. You can even plan a journey for a seeing driver. I bought TomTom to use as a pedestrian before Sendero released their free app but more of this later. I won’t describe its functions in any detail here but might recommend it for a blind partner who wants in some way to share the navigation stresses with a seeing driving partner or friend.

Compass: I am one that likes to know the direction in which I travel. I aim to build up a mental map of my surroundings, so a talking compass is the perfect solution as an integral part of the phone I carry with me. The iPhone compass gives your travel direction to within a few degrees and responds quickly as you move your position.
Sendero GPS, avicat and GPS20S: Each week some new GPS app becomes available for the iPhone. The various apps are pretty similar and I mention three here you might want to explore. They tend to operate in a similar manner, giving pin map information re where you are and what is around. By the time you read this, the whole picture may well have changed but for now I will describe Sendero GPS because it is currently the most accessible and has been produced by a company which has, over the years, done great service to blind people and their mobility needs.

If you are in doors, in a car or near some electrical machinery, the chances are you get an opening message warning you of Compass interference. You are told to wave the iPhone in a figure of eight way to get rid of this. The Sendero screen is divided into three parts: At the top, you read what you need to know in any situation. Towards the bottom, there are three very clearly labelled buttons: Where am I, nearest cross point and nearest points of interest. Double tapping on either button takes you to masses of useful info relevant to where you are. At the very bottom of the screen are the following buttons from left to right: map, compass, Shake on, settings, and POI category.

Sat at my desk at home, double tapping where am I tells me I am facing South near the address of my house. It is as good as that. Likewise, the nearest crossing buttons accurately tells me the name of my road and the main road at its end. The POI default is set to business so, the nearest five points of interest are local companies, the first being The Holiday Inn. There is a vibration to assure you that a connection is being made. Now for the buttons at the bottom of the screen.

The map button is no use to me but could be zoomed up by a partially sighted person or seeing companion. The compass button reminds me I am facing South and responds quickly if I turn round in my chair. The Shake on button is a toggle. When on, I can just shake my iPhone to hear the where am I information. The off option is for when you are on a bumpy journey, I suppose. The Settings button gives three options: Again, shake gesture, North America or Europe, and, lastly, measurements in in yards or metres. There is a useful help button bottom right of this screen and a back button top left.

In a word, it’s great and the only thing missing is the ability to create your own points of interest. We are given eighteen POI categories from Airport to school in alphabetical order. I failed to make this feature work at first but learned you have to swipe up or down with one finger to select your chosen category.

Well, clearly, there is much more to all this and exciting things to come at low cost to us users, I plan to present more iPhone information to Access IT readers over the coming months on such subjects as listening to radio and podcasts, educational stuff, games and leisure etc. I want to make it clear that we don’t sell the iPhone. You must go mainstream to the nearest Apple store. But we do sell a small braille display and keyboard, the BraillePen, for £995 as an introductory offer which works brilliantly with an iPhone or indeed with other mobiles and computers as well. As a long-term braillists, it is a huge thrill to be able to feel dots as well as to listen and we are proud to introduce the first braille display into the UK for under £1000. .

Roger and Margaret Wilson-Hinds run, a not for profit company which focuses on low cost or no cost access technology solutions. We are currently involved in promoting the Thunder free screen reader software for Windows and the range of Apple solutions which have accessibility , VoiceOver, built into the operating system.

Contact Details:
Tel: 01733 234441

Tuesday, 27 July 2010


We are having quite a busy Summer here at in Peterborough. Roger went along to the Sight Village exhibition in Birmingham but we did not have our own stand this year. Instead, we pitched in with LOOK, the parents’ organisation for visually impaired children. It was great with laughter all the way and masses of young visitors. They loved the Iphone and the Ipad and we were pleased to hear just how many use our Thunder and WebbIE software at home. But the star was a lovely little lass no more than eight years old who giggled uncontrollably as she pressed the buttons of the Fart4Free Iphone Ap. It was a joy to hear her delight.

While at the exhibition, I spent time on the Harpo stand looking at the new tiny Braille display called BraillePen. Just twelve cells and light as a feather, it hooks up to Windows machines as well as to mobiles and smart phones running Talks and Mobile Speak. We plan to distribute it from the UK and would love to hear from anyone wanting a lower cost efficient Braille display. Of course, it works well to with Iphone and Ipad. We think the retail price will be around £1250 including some setting up and tuition. Since then, I have had great fun with it here at home and it works out of the box with my Apple desktop too. In the very near future, I am sure it will be up and running with our free Thunder software which makes the whole package extremely competitive and functional.

We have been busy too updating Thunder. Our minds are focused on making it the best and easiest web experience for home users with little or no sight and we are well on the way to achieve this. The current version is a little sluggish and this has been put right in the version I am currently testing. Also, you can now enjoy most or many web pages just by constantly pressing the PGDN key which is really handy if you are using a notebook or netbook. The END key, often just below this, takes you through form-filling and there are just four or five other keys to remember when you want to search the web, get to links fast or find something straight away on the page you have open. The new version I am testing should be up and running soon and it will have an automatic updating option so that you will never miss out each time an update becomes available. It all takes a little time but we are getting there with masses of users, no disability cost and an ever-improving computer and web experience.

Our helpline people, Steph and Graham, are always around to help and we have just bought in some new remote access software from The Serotek Corporation in America. This little miracle allows us to make contact directly with your computer in your home and sort out problems as if we were there at your keyboard. You might think this is old hat and so it is for seeing people. But remember our helpline staff don’t see and are real genuine visually impaired users like you so they get to hear what is going on with your computer and can use their knowledge and skills to put things right. Please give it a go if you have problems. They are very expert helpline staff.

You may well have received an email lately from us asking if you want to remain on our mailing list. Thunder has been going now for more than four years and we have a massive list of those thousands who have downloaded the Thunder software. So we are getting organised and tidying up things so we only communicate with people who want to hear from us. Thank you to those who have responded and I enjoyed renewing contact with lots of mates from the past. Sorry if we have been a minor pain to some people not wanting to hear from us.

Thunder continues to edge its way round the world and we now have interest in Nepal and Azerbaijan. Ten young blind people are able to listen to and use their computers in their native Nepalese but we have not yet been able to sort an Azerbaijani synthesiser. Those of us speaking English are very privileged but we do try hard with other languages.

Well, that’s it for now and hopefully there will be another Thunder version for you to download within weeks.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The ipad has landed

The ipad has landed

Tool or toy or both for people with little or no sight?

I noticed that the iphone and the ipad failed to make an appearance at last year’s Sight Village in Birmingham and again there was no sign of it at this year’s Csun as reviewed by Dr Mike Townsend in the May edition of this excellent magazine. Strange when there is so much interest in both products. So what is going on here and what is changing? Could it just be that blind and visually impaired people can go into Apple Stores etc in the nearest town or city and take a peep for themselves. The Apple staff know how to set up Zoom magnification or VoiceOver speech and family members, especially children, are taking a great interest and will be quick to help their visually impaired family member to do well with such a cool mainstream bit of kit.

I am old enough to remember the excitement of handling my first computer that talked to me and made stuff large enough on the screen for me to see and even slowly read by sight. It was the BBC computer and it gave me hours of fun and learning. It’s not easy to recapture all this even though computers are so wonderful for us now but the ipad has won my heart and certainly my fingers, eyes and ears. In this blog, I don’t want to do the detail but simply focus on the visual, remembering that I have very little sight by normal standards but very precious eccentric sight by my own standards. So what is it about the ipad?

It is small, thin, neat and held in one hand while your finger in the other hand manages the very responsive touch screen. Stuff on the screen is bright, extremely clear and the colours are intense. You can soften the brightness if glare is your problem. The interesting thing for me is that the ipad is handheld. If you have little sight, the great thing is being able to totally control how near things are, the ipad in this case, what angle they are to your face and eyes. How many of us have hunched over a screen, tried small screens to obtain clarity and or large ones to cope with magnification. How many of us have struggled to read print books with powerful telescopic lenses or done battle with the environment to get the lighting just right. The ipad in your hand copes with all this and, incidentally, when you buy an electronic book for it, you can quickly choose print size, the font style of the print and actually hear the book at the same time.

The ipad revolution brings with it yet another joy. The speech output and enlargement facilities are all part of the mainstream deal out of the box. No need to pay extra for your visual disability needs. The voice is clear and the pictures and colours are stunning. As a big boy, I was very excited to trial a driving game; a fast car amongst all sorts of obstacles I could hardly make out. But because the sounds were there and the pictures right up to my eyes, I felt the thrill of the simulation. I just need a driving game slow enough and with clear and spoken labelling so that I and many like me could get started. The cost of programs or apps is also very reasonable indeed, sometimes as little as fifty nine pence. Many apps are just free of charge.

Sound remains my preference though and I liked the facility to plug in my best headphones and listen to high quality music, podcasts, masses of book titles and radio stations from all round the world and all in the living room in a comfy arm chair and not sat at a keyboard. There is just so much to listen to that I would have to give up work to get time to fully enjoy it all. Sometimes one has had to decide whether or not to be a blind or a weak-sighted operator when choosing technology kit. Here, though, you can just press the buttons and hear or see large, just as you please at the moment of need.

Of course you can email, word process, cope with spreadsheets and keep your list of contacts and your calendar too. I purchased a natty Bluetooth keyboard to go with my ipad so I can quickly write documents and notes etc. There is an onboard on screen keyboard which is very usable with little or no sight, if slow. Incidentally, if you like speaking to your mates, Skype is there and very accessible and easy to use but, beware because there is a phone charge.

So would I recommend the ipad for blind and partially sighted people? Certainly not but I think you should make a big effort to go and handle one and get to know more about it and you might end up being as delighted as I am with it. Do remember too, that I have just scratched the surface and there is much more it can do. And finally, there are lessons to learn here. There is so much choice for us these days from freebies, cheapies to high class Rolls Royces. Who should be recommending? High priced products permit a sales team to go round the country and attend costly specialist exhibitions. The web is stuffed with information if you know the right key words for your web search. Your peers with little or no sight will surely have an opinion as I have; but my views are very biased and personal to my own needs and abilities. Sadly, there are very few professional so-called experts that have no axe to grind, nothing to sell, as it were. And even these trusty few must struggle to know the whole picture. For our part, at, we no longer just bang on about our own Thunder screenreader software and WebbIE browser as you can see from this Apple article. The best advice is to go, learn and enjoy the huge choice of opportunities now available to us. In the new climate of cuts and reduced spending, we have all got to do more for ourselves and that is no bad thing, maybe.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

A New Version Of The Thunder software

Oh dear!!! I am not very good at this blogging business. Margaret and I work hard every day but, well, I am sorry that it has been so long. Sorry I can’t do all I should do and thank you to the many who respond with your comments and thoughts.

Good news, however. We now have a new version of Thunder, V2, up and ready for everyone at It is really good and I hope we get lots of feedback from you. So what is new?

Obviously, Thunder has been brought up to date and now works well with Windows 7, both 32 and 64 bit versions. Don’t be put off by wise guys telling you that Windows 7 and Office 7 are not good for blind users. Microsoft have made great efforts to improve the accessibility and it is just a case of learning a few new keystrokes and tricks of the trade.

Until now, we have relied on the WebbIE text browser for the Thunder internet experience. That is great and we have no plans to stop using WebbIE and Alasdair amazes us by constantly updating and improving his software. He is a mighty supporter of blind computer users. But now, for the first time, Thunder users can start to enjoy Internet Explorer mainstream and Sensory Software Ltd have been pretty ingenious with their keystrokes. What I mean is that you can achieve a great deal with very few and easy keystrokes. As an example; you can keep pressing the PGDN key and hear much of what is available on websites. Pressing the END key takes you through any form filling you encounter. The function keys are used to deal with other matters: F4 gives you that fantastic easy Web search facility and F2 then F3 permits you to search for a word within the webpage you are on. F7 hops between headers and F10 brings up the list of links. All very easy and works whatever the language. There are plans to develop all this so that we are well ready for when IE9 comes along. But if you find that WebbIE suits your purpose, just stick with it.

Thunder is more stable than ever and the memory stick version is now as responsive as if the software were installed on the machine you are using. It is absolutely amazing that, for the price of a memory stick, around £6 in the UK, and maybe with a bit of help from a mate, you can use your Thunder on other machines, in the library, internet cafe or at your friend’s home, without installing anything at all on the host computer. Compare this with the price of commercial alternatives and, if money becomes short, well, , why spend? Keep your money for training or something else.

We have been busy in other ways too. Since before Christmas, we have been organising fifty web learning days around England for combined audiences of blind and seeing people. At each learning day, we have aimed to recruit a Thunder Champion to spread the word locally and encourage other blind people to get connected. We are pleased that all this has given work to three blind certificated IT trainers at a time when work is hard to come by as the larger blindness organisations take the cream. And we have landed a second European Commission contract to put Thunder into more languages: Greek, Turkish, Polish, Bulgarian and Spanish. In all these countries, many blind people are poor and will never be able to spend out on commercial products. We remain passionate that by right access to computers should be there for all blind people. It is taking a little while but we are not put off by lack of support from organisations with money and we continue to get great feedback from Thunder users round the world.

When we started Thunder in 2006, we were the only “nuts” to be doing something for free which others were charging an arm and a leg for. But now we are not alone. NVDA comes out of Australia and is a great product too and the Mighty innovating Apple Corporation integrates its Voiceover talking and magnifying software into all of its products, from the cheapest iPod to the most expensive 27 inch screen desktop as well as the iphone. And we already know that the iPad, shortly to be released, will also be accessible to us out of the box. We have never had so much choice or accessibility.
So thank you to everyone who supports what we do and keep the feedback and responses coming in