Wednesday, June 27, 2007

My guide dog is about to retire

My guide dog Liam, who I've had for seven and a half years, will be retiring at the end of this week. He's now nine years old. Liam is a bit of a stressy sensitive dog so this seems the best time to retire him.

So, what does this mean. It means that Damon has to go back to using a white cane - something he hasn't done since leaving school in 1991.

Scared? Me?

Guide dogs make walking much quicker. They anticipate obstacles in front of you and correct your route before you bang into it, often without you even knowing. With a white cane, however, you don't know that an object is there until you whack into it. That's the main difference. Also white cains don't anticipate you might want to go into Sainsburys because you've been there so many times before! You have to really have your wits about you if you're a white cane user, concentration mode on high, be happy for journeys to take longer ... and of course it's much more of a physical and joint-aching experience sweeping that stick left to right constantly.

So. Liam retires. Might even be today I'm not sure. There are a couple of legal documents that the new owner, my friend Ewan, has to complete before we can 'do the transaction'.

But won't you get a new dog straight away, Damon?

Sadly not on this occasion. The waiting list is long and it seems my district team are over-stretched due to staff absence.

The positive thing here is that by relinquishing Liam, I am then classed as a Priority One. I am therefore much closer to the top of the list than had I been with dog. I didn't feel I could hold onto Liam much longer though because his sensitivity and stress is displaying quite a lot lately. He needs to retire and start a new life. A real unselfish move, eh? Well it's taken a while to come to this decision. I was about to give him up in April but then my friend Sara died and I just felt I didn't want to lose another big part of my life so soon. I feel like I'm jumping into a big deep dark hole.

When might you get a new dog then?

Good question. It may be around November time if I'm lucky. That leaves me 4 or 5 clear months without a dog. Possibly longer.

I expect my independence to dip and I forsee spending more time at home or my cash layout on taxis getting higher. All at a time when my fixed rate mortgage is about to end and go up in price by about 400 pounds a month. I am going to be so broke!

But it's little things, ya know, like leaving my desk at work ... just popping for a coffee. From this distance, today, it suddenly feels like a big chore with a cane. And, as I said earlier, you get none of that animal intuition from a cane - if I were to walk into the coffee bar at work, Liam would navigate me round people, misplaced chairs, tables etc, and take me directly to the counter where he knows I'm used to going to. And ya know, I'd barely even notice! With a cane, I'll have to bang into everything first before correcting my route. This could mean banging into a few people on the way too - moving obstacles as I like to think of them. But I'm sure my senses will sharpen up again and I'll start having to try and detect obstacles and people. Yes, blindies can do this - obstacle sense they call it. It's not as special as Channel 4 recently tried to make out in their superkid documentary, it's just about understanding the sound around you and the echoes. Layer of sound, muffling versus clearness, slight pressure on the eardrum when someone walks past and disrupts the sound path, etc. stuff like that. It's hard to put into words but it does feel like a sixth sense that you really only notice when you have to - i.e. when you go blind.

Anyhoo. Am not going to be unhappy about Liam retiring because he needs to and I'm pleased for him.

If any long term cane users want to post here and tell me I'm a total wimp then please do! :) There are loads of people who choose to stay with a white cane and would never go near a dog. In fact, the vast majority of blind people use canes over dogs. There is an art to it but I've lost that art. That's the issue today. Truth is that suddenly everything will be different again and I will need to readjust. Aaargggh!!!! Oh and there's also real potential to enter into a few undignified smash-ups with a cane, less regular than when you're using a dog, well, especially when starting out again. I'm sure I'll document them here with red face.

Wayfinder Access: audio demonstration

A few days ago I wrote a blog entry about Wayfinder Access - a GPS direction-finding solution ... a bit of software you can put on your mobile phone. It's meant for people with visual impairments and is optimised for those who have a mobile speech synth/screenreader like Talks or MobileSpeak.

Kate pointed out quite rightly that it has potential benefits for wobblers too, people with Cerebral Palsy whose direction finding abilities are somewhat crap because of all that spacial awareness built-in malfunction ... I hope I used the right medical terms? I think Kate refers to herself as Map Disabled.

Anyhoo, I've just found an MP3 on the net; an audio demonsstration of the product done earlier this month by a fella in North America called Earl Harrison. You've gotta love the internet!

mp3 Audio demonstration of Wayfinder Access. (if you click the link directly you will be waiting a minute
or two for the audio to load into your PC. Best idea if to save it to your hard disk so you have more control over it and maybe even transfer it to your iPod. right click on the link and 'save target as' and do your usual saving routine you'll be familiar with I'm sure)

What you'll hear -- Earl sspends about 5 or 10 minutes going through the product in his house. You can choose the destination you are travelling to at home, and have the route calculated before you leave your front door. (I think you can also browse the route and see its twists and turns before leaving home too but Earl doesn't show this)

It's crucial to know that you can use Wayfinder either on foot as a pedestrian or in a car. There are two different modes on Wayfinder - the 'in car' mode turns it into a gizmo very similar to Tom Tom with that classic SatNav cool calm controlled female voice we're used to. In 'pedestrian mode' it falls back to using the speech synth you have on your phone because speech synths can give you much more and better information than the built-in female satnav voice just mentioned. (speech synths can read street names, for instance, built-in satnav clear voices can only say pre-recorded limited info such as "in half a mile, turn left")

So, after Earl has setup the route in his house, he gets in a car and we go into car mode. We hear what Earl, as a blind passenger, gets from the experience. He can help navigate.

One thing blind people often have a problem with is giving good directions to car drivers if, for instance, we want to get back home. A pedestrian and driving experience can be much different hence this function gives you real control and the ability to stop faffing around and tell your mate exactly where you want to go, giving directions as you go along.

"But Damon, what does the front of this pub look like? There are a few here but I can't see the names because it's a bit dark"

"I don't blinking well know!"

atnav will at least take you to within about 30 feet of its front door.

Note there is also a 'taxi mode' but I don't yet know what this does. Remember I'm writing all this as someone who has googled about Wayfinder and not yet used the darn thing. The version I need isn't out for a week or two.

Next Earl gets out of his car and plots another route on his mobile that he is going to attempt as a pedestrian. We hear him walking along with his guide dog Patrick being told by the phone where to turn and how many feet until the destination on a regular basis.

So there ya go. It's deep blind tech so you may want to skip to the bit where Earl is in his car if you're not too bothered about the menu system on the phone and would rather just jump right to him using Wayfinder in action.

God the net is great! I've been waiting for someone to post an audio demonstration and here it is! Maybe I'll do one when I get the gizmo.

Any feedback or thoughts appreciated! And if anyone knows of any other audio demos, or is about to do one, email me or post here. I'd like to blog it.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

nostalgic tv blast

The Oddball Couple. Fleabag

robotic stooges

Baggy Pants and the Nitwits

haleys' comets

Oh no! I'm experiencing rapid cycling of old remembered TV shows this morning. Lisa, if you're reading this, you want to thank your lucky starts you won't have to listen to me today wittering on about ...

Baggy Pants and the Nitwits -- Do you remember this? I think it was on air in the UK around 1978 or 1979. It was two cartoons shove together in one double bill. Baggy Pants was a Chaplin-esque cat who waddled around a lot and did silent movie type prat falls with his blank unfathomable little cat face. The Nitwits starred Tyrone, a retired superhero who solved mysteries with the help of his walking cane, Elmo, and his handbag-wielding wife Gladys. From the web it looks like this was a derivative too, maybe from the Laugh In. A half hour cartoon. The Nitwits was the main show for me, very funny, quite dry for a toon aimed at kids if I recall.

The Robotic Stooges -- bizarre cartoon version of The Three Stooges: Larry, Curly and Mo. They had extendable robotic limbs like Inspector Gadget. Huh? The link here will take you through to a show that aired in America called The Skatebirds - for, apparently, it is from this Banana Splits-like mid 70s show that the toon came from before it was spun out on its own. Why did this cartoon ever come into being?

The Oddball Couple -- Again, doubtless based on classic sitcom The Odd Couple, this starred a cat and a dog in business together - or did they live together, I forget. The cat, Spiffy, was suited and booted whereas the dog, Fleabag, was a bit of a scruff. Oh just think of those cat and dog / class war antics? Sing with me: "Oh the oddball couple are a couple of a couple of oddballs - eggballs"

Other stuff? Do you remember a weekly show on BBC1 for kids called Going Places? It urged people to write in for fact sheets about stuff going on around the UK that kids should go out and do. Could it have been presented by Su Ingle and Peter Pervis? Or was Su Ingle only on Wildtrack with Tony Soper? The following link is to a page on TV Cream featuring Going Places and Wildtrack - though here they call it We're Going Places which I think might be wrong. But what do I know.

Brilliantly on the above page I came across the quote: "DIFFERENCE OF OPINION HERE, GEOFF". Can you remember where you heard that? Answer at the bottom of this blog ... but you'll need to turn the screen upside down to read it. Geoffrey Wheeler, not just a quiz show voiceover, but also the man who urged us to get our Come and Praise hymn books out while listening to 'A service for schools' on Radio 4 on a Thursday morning. I learnt from that show about how the Soviets persecuted Christians and people hid their bibles and everything! Sing: "jet planes meeting in the air to be refueled are the things I know so well". Wheeler was also on Songs of Praise later - funny how he had time to fit in a show based on gambling around his christian commitments. Dig my biting topical satire 30 years on? I'm really getting up to speed at 36. STOP PRESS, this website reveals that he invented Winner Takes All too. Oh I've given away the answer. I love that there is a Wikipedia page about it. Most depressed to see that the talentless Bobby Davro did a version of the quiz for Challenge TV in 1997.

Aww, it's going round in my head now: "Autumn days when the grass is jewelled and the silk inside a chestnut shell"

Rapid cycling. Mark Curry was in Bugsy Malone. He played the producer ... and the ginger haired girl who pushed Blousie out of the way to do an outrageous audition was Bonnie Langford!

Finally this morning. I discovered in my web wanderings today that The Beatles had an animated series from 1965 to 1969 in the US. I'm sure it must have been shown in the UK? I've never seen it - though obviously have seen Yellow Submarine and it's ridiculous swirly colourful trumpet-nosedness. And, in another name blast from the past, I discover that Lance Percival did the voices for Paul and Ringo. I vaguely remember his flopppy blonde hair? Have I got the right guy? From panel shows in the 70s? I dunno, maybe from that afternoon gameshow The Cartoonists that had Bill Tidy, Willie Rushton and others being funny. Rapid rapid cycling. Lance: could be a twin of Tony Hart?

Question: who else had a little crush on Tiger from The Double Deckers? And what film do I remember The Double Deckers crossing over into?

Gotta go now. Is anyone on my wavelength?

When was stuff invented?

I have this idea that absailing was invented somewhere around 1979. And I'm sure this is because Blue Peter did an item about it. There seemed to be a proliferation of absailing items on TV at the time as producers thought it'd be visually interesting to get their presenters to slide down a geared rope thing.

I wonder if it existed before then? That was when it hit my radar / landscape.

Anyhoo, the point is that because I learnt about it in 1979, in my head it was new, that's when I date it back to - even if the Romans were absailing off their big white buildings.

Equally I date the invention of the word 'shit' to about 1977 - the first time I heard it in the playground and went home and said it to my mum. How was I to know? I was surprised my Mum was angry because as far as I knew, it was just some cool new thing the older boys said. How did she know what the kids at Iwade County Primary School were inventing?

Went to see Grease, the musical, at the cinema in 1978 when it came out. It was a birthday treat. My sister and I were obsessed with the songs afterwards and Mum and Dad got the cassette and we played it in the car all the time.

Shocked was I when I listened a little closer to the track Greased Lightning and heard John Travolta sing, "You know that it ain't shit when you're getting lots of tit".

"Mum," I shouted through from the back seat, "Do you think John Travolta knows that's a swear word?" The sexual bit re: 'tit' bypassed me for a few years more.

How had I not come across that word until 1977? It's like the fug of childhood and brain development cushioned me. I'm sure they didn't say words like that on TV around that time - no not even the Sex Pistols. Well they certainly didn't on Jackanory anyway, I can tell you that.

I wonder if my Nephew Cameron knows the word yet at 7. I wonder if my sister will be angry if I ask him. "Hello Uncle Damon, are you still weird today? Are you going to start talking about polar bears again?"

"Cameron. Just wondering. What does S H I T spell?"

Am I sounding like Dennis Norden? Trust me, in 2025 I'll be hosting a new version of Looks Familiar on daytime ITV - if TV exists then. TV, I'm sure, will be de-invented soon.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Wayfinder Access - GPS direction-finding for blind people

OK. This is cool. I've previously written about how visually impaired people are now really starting to use GPS to give an extra dimension of direction-finding in an article on Ouch: Don't scrimp on your access, you're a long time dead (15 March 2007)

I vaguely mentioned a product called Wayfinder in the article - couldn't do too much on it as it was on the BBC, no commercials please.

Since writing it though, a new product has been developed, it's called Wayfinder Access, read more about it here: Wayfinder Access on the TalkNav site

They've taken the original product aimed at the sighted market, worked with the blind community and turned it into a product that now speaks more (though you have to also be running the Talks or Mobile Speak mobile screenreader software) and worked it up into an interesting product.

That said, I've not had chance to test it out. But I believe it speaks more, gives more relevant info to people who can't see - such as what Points Of Interest are in the vicinity: pub across the road, cinema round the corner,church 100 yards further down the street etc.

So, going back to the start with a bit more detail.

Blind people are so gadgety and tech obsessed you wouldn't believe it - hardly surprising for a group whose computer is their pen, their newspaper, their accessible mail, their browsable shopping experience and more. Blind peple surely have the best gadgets?

Lots of us are now carrying around mobile phones with a bit of talking 'screenreader' software on it, e.g. Nuance Talks or the new Mobile Speak from Code Factory. These products can only work on certain phones: Symbian platform phones with Talks and I think Windows mobile platform with Mobile Speak (don't know enough about this product yet as it's fairly new). I use Nuance Talks on my Nokia N73.

To spell it out, screenreaders are bits of talking navigation software. They make your phone talk and have intelligent ways of helping you access the visual concepts. Blind people might just say "I've got a talking mobile" though :)

SMS, web surfing, creating and using phonebooks, they're the things visually impaired people typically use speech enhanced phones for.

Wayfinder Access, once installed on yer talking mobile, allows you to plot routes from A to B. You can review them at home before you leave if ya like. You also need a GPS satellite receiver. Mine, a very slimline and small Holux GPS receiver, is about the size of a packet of chewing gum, you can see it in the Ouch article I linked to at the top of this entry. It speaks to my phone using a Blue Tooth wireless connection. Easy as pie.

You apparently need to walk outside with your GPS reciever pointed skywards to lock onto the GPS satellites up there in low level orbit. Once it has a lock you can simply put the receiver in your jeans pocket ... so don't go imagining you need a big visible dish on your head. It's all very discrete. You won't look like a crippled Borg monster.

I'm going to be really interested to get this product and start using it. The big thing for a blind person about going out is usually that you need to know where you're going and what you want before you leave home. Mostly. The GPS map software will allow me to be a bit more adhoc, flexible, relaxed. I'll be able to find cafes that I didn't know were there, walk around and then ask the GPS phone to point me to the nearest tube station. Maybe even walk through a big wide-open park ... wide open areas with no pathways or landmarks are usually next to impossible to navigate through.

I'm getting mixed reports as to whether these systems work well in built-up areas though. This will be interesting to test. London could be a satellite blackspot for pedestrians. GPS receivers need 'line of sight' communication with satellites.

The next big thing being talked about is 3G direction finding. i.e. not just the use of a GPS but also extra help from mobile phone transmitters that, through a process of triangulation, can help you set coordinates in satellite blackspots ... which also includes indoors! GPS certainly won't work in Brent Cross or Blue Water shopping malls now will they. Be great when they do!I'll just drop a Point Of Interest marker outside each shop I want to visit then I'll be notified of them as I walk past them in future - not disimilar to what eyes and brains do if you think about it (oh, just for the sake of clarity, you can drop markers with Wayfinder too, plus share them via SMS to your mates)

Hope this was interesting or useful.

See my above Ouch article for more on the excellent Loadstone GPS project: A group of blind fellas who are creating a FREE piece of GPS software for mobile phones. At present you can only drop and share markers though, there are no maps so you can't tap in a postcode and get a route spurted out at you. Very useful though, take a look.

Wayfinder costs approx 260 pounds currently.