Five apps for getting out and about this spring

A smartphone showing a GPS app

There are lots of apps that promise to help people with sight loss to find their way around unfamiliar places, locate landmarks and even make the right shopping choices.

As lockdown eases, and the weather starts to improve, many of us are planning to spend more time out and about, exploring new places and even getting some retail therapy. To discover which accessible apps are most useful, we asked our Technology for Life (TfL) coordinators and volunteers to tell us about their favourites for navigation and shopping.

1. Google Maps and Maps for iOS

GPS Navigation comes installed as standard on almost all smartphones. On an iPhone, “Maps" is the built in GPS navigation tool. On Android “Google Maps” provides similar functionality. Both can give you verbal directions, show the route on a map which you can scroll through, and you can locate nearby points of interest along your route such as cash machines or public loos.

Technology for Life volunteer Paul Webster says: "I have used Google Maps for helping me navigate from tube or bus stop locations to where I am going. I appreciate the spoken instructions, like, "Turn left in 25 yards".  I have also used it in other countries like Spain and France to navigate where I was and how to get back to our hotel. But be careful, it can use considerable amounts of your chargeable data allowance."

2. Soundscape

Soundscape from Microsoft is a free app for iPhone only. It uses 3D stereo sound through a pair of headphones to create a virtual audio representation of your environment by playing tones and making announcements relative to your current position and location.  For example, if you are walking along a street and a second street opens to your left and right as a crossing, the app will announce this, advise that the street continues ahead as well as to your right and left.

Technology for Life volunteer Janette Scott explains: "I have used Soundscape when out and about and it's brilliant for finding places nearby. Much to the amusement of my sighted friends - they can read signs around us but I managed to obtain much more information of my surroundings. I was a very smug blind person when they were lost but I found an art exhibition in a church right beside us!"

3. Lazarillo

Lazarillo is a free navigation app available for both Apple and Android devices. It is fully accessible using VoiceOver and Talkback. Lazarillo has an Around Me function that will tell you about nearby shops, cafes and other facilities and a Categories function that allows you to filter the sort of place that you are looking for and tells you the proximity and directions on foot, by car or using public transport.

Technology for Life coordinator Madleen Bluhm adds: "I like this app a lot. I can choose to wear headphones to use it, or just through the the phone’s speaker. It has a very easy interface that announces where I am and intersections and lots more and, best of all, it's free!"

4. Blind Square

The Blind Square app tells you what road you are on and the business and shops on each side of the street as you come near them. This is useful so you know when you are passing the post office or nearing your destination. Blind Square works in the background while your phone stays in your pocket. It is recommended that you have headphones or earphones that are comfortable but still allow you to hear what's happening around you as you are walking down the road. The Blind Square app is only available for iOS and currently costs £38.99.

Technology for Life coordinator Chris Turner says: "Blind Square is relatively expensive for an app, but this is my 'go to' for navigation. It has lots of features that let you virtually look around and explore locations and set favourites. The feature I like the best is as soon as you open it and start moving, it gives you information. To find out your location, just shake the phone. It’s great if you know roughly where you are but want confirmation or are in a car journey and want to hear what’s around."

5. Seeing AI

Seeing AI is a free app for iOS that was developed by Microsoft. It has lots of features that would be helpful when out and about, in a shop or in a cafe or restaurant. It can speak text aloud when you hover your camera over it, or take a snap and read longer documents. It can also recognise currency, detect brightness levels and identify colours. In a shop, Seeing AI can read many barcodes and then speak to tell you the product name and provide some packaging information.

Technology for Life volunteer Luigi Antoniazzi says: "I use Seeing AI and I've trained other people to use it too. Reading text on labels is the most popular thing to do but lots of people also use it to read barcodes on food items. It does sometimes struggle with curved surfaces though. One feature people love is how it can read handwriting surprisingly well, particularly when letters or cards are received. Seeing AI isn't perfect, but it is very useful."

Reliability of navigation apps

Navigation apps can be inconsistent or unreliable, depending on where the app is getting the information from. They can provide limited information about safe places to cross roads and not all crossings are marked. Remember, these navigation apps are a guide only and shouldn't be used as a replacement for a mobility aid such as a cane or guide dog.

Further information

Members of RNIB's Technology for Life team are early adopters of new technology and share their own experiences with the most interesting and useful apps in a series of reviews. This is not an official accessibility review or audit, nor have we reviewed the site for security or compliance with data processing law. For issues concerning accessibility please raise these with the developer via its website.

Coming out of lockdown together

As lockdown eases, we have services and resources to help rebuild any lost confidence and we’re calling on the public and businesses to maintain the space, be patient, be helpful. Please see our coronavirus updates page for the latest information on the ways we can help.