App Review: EXPRESS Yourself

I was trolling around in the app store a few weeks ago, in response to one of the Emails that Apple sends out, and found an amazing product that does something no other app has, at least that I’m aware of: it makes the face visible to me! What do I mean? Read on.

First, it never ceases to surprise me the extent to which this one piece of metal? plastic? whatever your iOS device is made of, has brought to my life as a blind person. And yes I know, Android is nearly there, and maybe surpassing iOS in some aspects, but I’ve not yet played with a device running this system so I can’t say what I would think of it.

Anyway, with my trusty phone stowed safely in pocket and Braile display on my lap, I can use programs to read, write, listen to music, and even navigate successfully on the bus. And thanks to some enterprising individuals and organizations, there are even apps that allow me to do more complex things, such as take my own photos, (no guarantees as to their correctness but I can be pretty sure I’m at least shooting the right thing), and read my own mail. All great, life-changing stuff.

But what about that most elemental of human interactions: the ability to communicate. More specifically, that communication which occurs nonverbaly, which studies have repeatedly shown to be far more believed than mere words. While some of this is passed along through other body language cues, much of it happens through that most natural of transmissions: facial expressions. Blind folks prove its innateness in fact, as we too are able to call up a smile, frown, etc when it reflects our inner emotion, or even if we want to kind of fake some inner emotion. These expressions tend to be more believable though, since they are harder to “make up” than spoken language.

Enter Express, a powerful engine that can, through quick analysis of pictures shot via a discretely placed camera, provide unprecedented information regarding one’s possible thoughts, as displayed on that facial window to the soul.

How It Works

The Express app can run in the background and even with a locked screen, so long as it is launched and the camera activated prior to use. If you think you’re entering a situation where you might wanna know what is being unsaid, simply open the app and tap the “Start” button. You are then presented with two options: Constant, or Summary Analysis.

If you pick Constant, the app takes a shot of the face you’re “focusing” on in adjustable intervals, and alerts you through a series of vibrations as to what the likely expression is. The list of vibrations and their meanings can be found in the “Demos” menu. It is important to practice these repeatedly, so that you know what you’re getting when it comes across. It wouldn’t do, after all, to think that she’s smiling at you when you’ve actually made her quite angry!

(DISCLAIMER: The app developers assert that the rendered interpretations are reasonably accurate, but cannot guarantee 100% certainty. In field testing however, very few errors were reported. Use with some caution, and act on this info at your own risk.)

If you choose “Summary” the app will still take pictures of the person’s face, but instead of vibrating regularly it will generate a report of overall mood: how often did they fluctuate, were there sudden changes, and the like. This might be a good idea if you don’t want the person to wonder why you keep vibrating.

“Goodness! Are you just crazy popular or something?”

Equipment/Accessories

You can, in theory anyway, use the phone itself to snap these pictures. However, the developers suggest that this might introduce unnecessary error into the results. How will you know, for example, if she still finds that joke you’ve told for the fourth time amusing, or is just wondering why you’re sitting there holding your device aloft for no apparent reason?

So, for an additional $45.99, the user can get a specialized camera made of a strong, thin material that matches the color of the wearer’s skin so as to significantly decrease visibility. It is fitted with a revolutionary adhesive that bonds to the skin, probably the forehead, at the molecular level, making it water-resistant. No worries though, as it can be taken off by simply scrubbing with a finger in a circular motion, as it responds to a bacterium that all humans carry.

The camera charges using kinetic energy, that which is generated from movement. So if the battery begins to run low and you for whatever reason are unable to engage your entire body, just nod your head a few times. It is recommended that care is used in so doing, though, as this too may alter the interaction and lead to inaccuracies.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

“Are you actually agreeing with me, or just really sleepy.”

My Final Thoughts

I’ve used this app for about 12 days now, and it has unquestionably changed my life. As I sit here on this warm day at the beginning of April and write this, one of my friends is playing with it, sitting across the table from me and informing me that it reports that I have a big, silly grin on my face. I love it! Now for something to come along that can clean my apartment. MMM.

So, have any of you gotten this thing yet? If so, what do you think of it. If you wanna find it, do a search in the app store for Express, o yes! for iOS (Don’t ask me who decided to call it that, and let me know how it goes.

iTurn 2: and 12 Apps List

And now, I have had this wonderful piece of technology, the iPhone, for just over two years. The huge leaps and bounds in what it can do astound me, and give me plenty of reason for optimism going forward. I think we, those with disabilities, do have an obligation to stay on these folks and make sure that they continue to value accessibility though.

As I had last year, I thought it would be fun to list my 12 favorite, (i.e) most used, apps of this past year of the iPhone. I think they clearly demonstrate my love for travel, learning about the area around me, and gaining access to so much more information than I have ever been able to have before. The list is long, and so I’d recommend you use the headers to skim and look for ones you would like to read more about. Also, the ones with stars have received their second recommendation. So, let’s go, shall we?

Ariadne GPS:

I know that most blind folks have fallen in love with BlindSquare lately, I’m sure with good reason. I haven’t yet purchased this one though, and still enjoy Ariadne for its feelable onscreen maps.

I can click to explore around where I actually am, or put in another city to peruse its layout. This has actually proven helpful in some cases, as I would know which streets were nearby as the bus or other form of transportation approached where I needed to exit.

I have also discovered some interesting sites that I might want to visit someday, like the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago? That sounds cool.

Finally, I enjoy the sounds it makes to indicate water, kind of relaxing, a park or green area, the highway, and even someone walking. It’s fun, and the price, about $5, can’t be beat!

*At Bat:

The official app of Major League Baseball, I love this one because it is so wonderfully accessible. They are the only sports league that even seems to get it, ahem NFL Mobile and NBA Gametime. I especially wish the NFL would step up to the plate and fix that thing! a fact about which I have complained a few times on Twitter. I’d listed theirs as one of my favorites last year, but they definitely broke things even harder this season sadly.

Anyway back to baseball. I can so easily view the schedules, standings, scores, and flip from game to game and team network to team network if I wish. I am glad that this app has basically remained the same as it was last season.

Audible:

Need I say more? One of several reading apps I use actually, I like it because usually the books are well marked up and I can stop at chapter’s end with the sleep timer. I say usually, because there have been some cases where the timing was off for whatever reason. This once led to an amusing case where I kept on reading past the bell while at work, having gotten so into the section without the timer stopping it appropriately. I had to run full tilt back to my work section after that lunch!

I began using this app to read a novel by Veronica Scott, one of my favorite authors on Twitter, at about this time last year. Since, I have consumed approximately 15 other titles. I like how quickly they can get new audio books up there, often very close to the same time the printed version is dropped.

Downcast:

A podcast-grabbing app, I’ve gotten more into this one over the last couple months as I aim to consume less cellular data. It will download and store content while I am on a WiFi connection, and I can listen to that content when on the move or at work on break. I love that the WiFi aboard Triangle Transit buses has improved so drastically as well, often allowing me to acquire new shows more quickly than I can even at home.

I don’t listen to a whole lot of shows, yet. Thus far, I subscribe to Airplane Geeks, Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase, On Being, and Serotalk. This usually gives me enough to listen to during the week.

Google Maps:

Well, I still love this app because it can show me where the nearest restaurants are located, as well as menus, numbers to call, and their website. The only thing is, in the last month or so I’m noticing that the menus seem a lot less accessible, as I noted on my birthday. They keep refreshing, and don’t allow me to finish checking all of the options before I am put back at the beginning. I hope they fix this.

I think overall though that this app now works a lot better than it used to. I haven’t really played with the Public Transit directions in a while, but believe that now even that information is more viewable with VoiceOver than it had been in previous iterations.

KNFB Reader:

I acquired this app only yesterday, and already it has risen to the top of my favorites list. It makes possible excellent object character recognition (OCR) on the iPhone. Heck, I would argue that I’ve seen some of the best OCR with that thing that I’ve ever known.

It’s technically not even supported on my current hardware, the iPhone 4S, but given that I’m due to get my 6 next Wednesday and I suddenly can’t find my mail-checking older neighbor, I figured I would go ahead and try it out. Once I came up with a method of holding the phone in the most optimal level position that involved placing both elbows on the table, putting both thumbs on the bottom edges of the phone and both middle fingers on the top edges, it read my text nearly flawlessly.

I often experience anxiety until I can find out what a letter says, and so finally having the freedom to view it immediately is a huge deal. Plus, one never knows in what other situations good OCR may well be needed. I should note that the app costs $99, but in my opinion it is money well spent.

NPR News:

Ah, I’m still and will probably always be an NPR junkie. This app allows me to listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered wherever I am, as long as I can get an Internet connection. I also enjoy conducting random searches on topics that interest me and listening to audio and blog posts concerning them.

The app is reasonably accessible, though I wish they would only important the current day’s Morning Edition or ATC shows to the playlist when I click “Add All” as they once did. Now, it brings in the last 30. It can be difficult to tell when a show has actually ended.

Pandora:

This is the app that wakes me up in the morning and propels me out the door! I usually select from a varying list of stations. Sometimes I wanna bounce to some 70’s funk. Others, I mellow out to some early REAL! jzz. Or, I might open up my thinking pipes with some Mozart or Bethoven on the Classical Music for Studying Channel. All music is all good to me.

There was a bit of an accessibility kerfuffle when the names of stations suddenly became viewable only by enabling VoiceOver hints. I will credit the developers in eventually responding to and fixing this issue, though.

Rider:

A great, real-time transit app, I appreciate that Transloc Rider has worked to improve the accuracy of predictions regarding bus arrivals. This app has helped me and my sighted companions several times, by letting us know where the nearest stop was and when a bus would arrive.

The only issue we experienced with it is that we were never sure if the bus that was being referenced was inbound or outbound. This was usually not a huge deal, but it did mean that sometimes we would end up standing there 15 minutes longer than we had expected.

As stated when I last wrote about this app, I’m not sure how widely available it is. I guess you can try downloading it though and check it out. It definitely works with Triangle Transit and all of its associated networks (DATA, C-tran, CAT, Chapel Hill Transit, etc).

*Sports Alerts:

This is by far and away the best way for me to check scores on the iPhone. It reminds me of my Yahoo Sports days on the computer. I like that they are adding more information particularly to NFL and MLB scores, such as the team’s down and distance in the former and who is batting and pitching in the latter.

There had been a bit of an issue with refreshing, where the app would suck me back to the beginning of the list before I finished checking scores. However, this has somehow smoothed out with time. I think these developers do take accessibility into account, and I appreciate that.

Twitter:

I know many prefer to use other apps for this social media client, such as Twitterrific and Tweetlist, but lately I’ve much more enjoyed the native iPhone Twitter app. I’m finding it to be more stable, and haven’t yet had the kinds of problems with repeated crashing or it just becoming very slow that I experienced with those other two programs. I also like the way that it organizes conversations, making it easier for me to jump over threads with hundreds of replies (and yes I’ve seen some of those).

I am however having an issue where I no longer receive push notifications. I think this problem will be corrected once I am able to update to iOS 8 next week, though. So in the meantime, I just have to remember to check in periodically.

Uber:

Well I’ve been talking about this one for the past couple of months at least. For those not in the know, Uber is a rideshare service that allows you to summon a car with the push of a button on your phone. I love it, because I can put in my intended destination and get a fare estimate before departure. It also shows me the estimated time of arrival, changing as the vehicle gets closer. This makes life way easier for me, because I know once that timer goes to 0, if I still don’t hear anyone I should place a call. I have yet to have a bad experience with them.

I would say that the only thing I do notice is that the fare is usually at least a dollar higher than that which is quoted. This probably has more to do with the times I choose to travel though, and their subsequent heavy traffic. Again, for the last time I promise! if you want to try it out and help me in the process, use my promo code at sign-up: johnm1014. We’ll then both get a free ride!

And that’s my exhaustive apps list. I hope you find one or more that you can use and enjoy. Here’s to the coming years of iPhone 6! Mine had better stay straight.

GPS? Oh Yes!

So tell me, am I the only oddball with like eight different GPS apps on my iPhone? Well, there’s a lot of practical reason for this. They all do slightly different things, and I can usually benefit from each at its own time.

Google Maps: This one suddenly got a lot better than it had been when I first looked. Now, it’s about on the level of Google’s map on the computer. I love the ease with which I can plug in restaurants and actually view their menus. Also being able to see a comprehensive list of places nearby finally breaks me out of the difficulty I’ve so often had in deciding where we should eat when out with a friend, an issue that has often irked said friends!

Yesterday, in fact, I’d taken a look at a lot of our local eateries as I attempted to decide where I and one of my former grad school classmates would go. I wanted to eat at Piedmont Restaurant, but some of their entrees went for $27! Also, they seemed not to have a whole lot of options. So, I ended up going with Texas Roadhouse. I wanted more of that delicious Country-fried Chicken. She had chosen pulled pork at first, but they’d run out of it. How often does a restaurant run out of one of its main menu items? So she had to settle for barbecue chicken.

And man was it loud in there, and it seemed the servers were celebrating birthdays every 3 minutes. There was also some kind of odd musical performance of which my friend was audibly relieved when it ended.

To get to that restaurant, I opted to use MapQuest. This is because while I like Google Maps for many things, I’m not yet sure how well I trust its directions yet. As I noted when I’d had someone take me to the Greyhound station to begin my Christmas vacation, Google Maps didn’t always tell me whether we were to turn left or right onto major thoroughfares. I figured the less frustration, the better.

Well, sort of. In returning home, I decided to try Seeing Eye GPS, the blindness-specific app about which I wrote back in July. I have to say that it performs a lot better now, I’m guessing due both to the fact that I now have a 4S which is better than a 4, and that they’ve probably made quite a few modifications.

The main reason I’d chosen to use it was that you can just press the button labeled “Go Home,” and it’ll take you to the place you’ve saved in that slot. Figuring out how to tell people this apartment’s address has always vexed me, since half of the people over here aren’t even sure just what it is. I can say just enter at 311 South LaSalle St, which is near the leasing office, and come on back; but sometimes that can throw people not particularly familiar with my neighborhood.

Things went well with that app, for the most part. VoiceOver tends to read most of the information though, and can sometimes oververbalize the street names. Plus I’m not sure it told us which direction we needed to go when getting on 15-501, meaning that we ended up taking one exit up to North Gate Mall, then riding back to my place on street level like the bus does. It was interesting though, because Seeing Eye called out a lot of the area businesses and every street we crossed. She also laughed at the silly sounds it makes: a turn signal when you should turn, and a three-part ascending chime when the next set of directions are to be followed.

I’ve also found out that another app, a free one no less, does a pretty good job at describing street layouts and will even point out local businesses as we pass. This one deals with transit specifically and is called Rider. It comes from a company called Transloc, and it works by connecting with your local transit agency and telling you which buses can be caught in your area. It can even give alerts for up to five minutes before a bus is to arrive at your stop.

I’m not sure with how many agencies this works currently, but they said on Twitter that they’re constantly trying to expand their presence and so if it doesn’t yet work where you are and you want it to, call your agency and ask. I liked the app well enough, though it seemed to be an even bigger battery drain than GPS units usually are. So I’d just have to be juiced up well before boarding if I wanted to use it.

And speaking of battery drain, I’ll talk about my favorite activity to do of probably anything I do with the phone, play with the maps feature on Ariadne GPS. I believe this one is a blindness-specific program too, but I’m not entirely sure on that. In any event, it does work well with VoiceOver. I love putting in cities nearby and farflung and moving my finger around the screen to discover things. It has special sounds that indicate water, very relaxing, a park or more naturalistic setting, also very relaxing, train tracks I think?, and a couple of other sounds indicating things of which I’m not entirely certain. It also, if you move your finger slowly enough, makes the sound of the character walking in what sounds like high heels. I find that amusing.

Because of this app, I finally know the answers to some questions that have always confounded me.

How is the UK laid out? Scotland is to the north of England, Wales to the west, and Ireland across the Irish sea farther to the west. There is also a body of water called the Celtic sea, I think a bit to the south of the Irish sea. Then going east from London is Esses, and to the southeast Dover and the English Channel.

I explored Egypt and its relation to the Red Sea, which lies to the East, and the Mediterranean, which is north of the country. Looking at Japan was interesting, because only the universities were labeled in English. This activity is so fascinating to me though, and when I get wrapped up in it I can go for hours.

A little of my weirdness, but perhaps one of life’s simple pleasures too. I actually hope that some of this information is helpful to other individuals who are blind, or anyone else for that matter. More later.