As a startup journalist I see new app ideas all day long, but very few of them challenge my conceptions about what an app can accomplish. That's why it was refreshing to see BlindSquare at the Apps4Finland competition last week. In a nutshell, the iOS app allows blind and visually impared users to find new stores, restaurants, and other locations by pulling information from the FourSquare API.
Many of us are probably unaware of it, but compared to other smartphones the iPhone offers the best accessibility features for the blind. The iPhone at first seems like a strange device for the blind to use, given that it only has one real button. To use the phone, you can scroll through the buttons and text on the screen, which read out the options aloud when clicking on them. Clicking again on the same "highlighted" area allows you to press that button. For blind users the iPhone allows you to have the screen turned off during operation, saving battery life.
To use the BlindSquare app, you select what category of locations you're looking for in a target radius. So if you're in the city-center and you're looking for a restaurant, BlindSquare will list off the restaurants near you. Selecting a restaurant, you then are given the direction and distance. BlindSquare is also a fully-functional Foursquare client, allowing everyone to get into the gamification fun that Foursquare offers.
There are a few other features. By shaking the iPhone, the app tells you your address and the nearest intersection. There is also a "Look around" feature that brings up a compass and reads out your direction, and stays on for 30 seconds.
Behind BlindSquare is Ilkka Pirttimaa, who got the idea after going to the Augmented Reality page on Wikipedia and noticing it only defines Augmented Reality in a visual context. That got him thinking about other ways reality could be augmented, such as with audio.
It was fun interviewing Pirttimaa, he gets excited when he talks about his projects. What's remarkable is that Blindsquare isn't even his full focus, his day job is being the Head of Technology at Stockman - Finland's big department store chain. At first it seems like a pity that he's not focusing full-time into BlindSquare and his other side projects, but he's been able to do four major updates since releasing the app six months ago. And considering that the market for blind iOS users can't be amazingly huge, working a day job allows him to focus on projects that are radically new, but may not have a giant target market.
The app sells for $16, which is of course pricier than the average app, but is basically nothing compared to the expensive GPS devices targeted toward the blind. The app is available in nine languages currently, but has the potential to be translated into 26. Volunteers from his community help with the translations.
One drawback they've encountered is the iPhone's battery life. Keeping BlindSquare open for an afternoon can drain your battery, so Pirttimaa has put together a setup where you can use a iPad's bigger battery life in your backpack, and be able to control the app using a bluetooth game controller attached to your white cain.
In the future Pirttimaa pictures BlindSqare becoming even smarter. The app knows through your Foursquare checkins what type of food you like and if you haven't eaten all day, so around lunchtime it could suggest a Chinese place near you. He also mentioned a separate app could be built with a focus on tourism and travelers.
BlindSquare is pretty interesting to us, but Foursquare has even told them, "Thanks for your great work optimizing Foursquare for the blind community," which is great feedback for a side project. It will be interesting to see what features are added next.