A smartphone showing a GPS app

GPS navigation refers to using tools, usually found on a smartphone or tablet but also available on specialist devices, to aid you in planning and travelling routes.

GPS stands for global positioning system, and is also known as satnav or satellite navigation and has been around for many years. However, with the advent of smartphone technology with built-in accessibility, this has become a mainstream tool for people with sight loss to aid them in independently planning and travelling.

Whether you’re travelling on a familiar journey such as to the shops, local supermarket or doctor, or whether you’re planning to travel further afield to a new city or even country, GPS navigation can help you get to where you want to go.

Features and Benefits

GPS navigation apps come in several different forms and are, for the most part, completely free.

Google Maps and Maps for iOS

GPS Navigation comes installed for free as standard on almost all smart phones. 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 toilets.

Technology for Life (TFL) 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."

TFL Volunteer Janette Scott says, "Google Maps is good when I'm on a train or bus as it can tell me where I am as it moves along giving me a location or a close proximity which helps when there are no announcements."

We have collected more Technology for Life staff and volunteer user reviews of Google Maps and Maps for iOS. Read about their experiences here.

If you are totally blind, you may find it useful to have additional information about your route. There are several apps which can help you plan journeys by aiding in the discovery of new locations and providing you with more in-depth information about your surroundings. Finding the right app for your circumstance and experience level can go a long way in helping to ensure you become an effective navigator.

Blind Square

The Blind Square app allows you to know what is around you when you are walking down the road. It tells you what road you are on and the business and shops on each side of the road as you come near them. This is useful to know when you are passing the post office or nearing your destination.

Blind Square will work in the background and your phone can stay 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.

TFL 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."

Soundscape

Soundscape from Microsoft is a solution 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.

The Soundscape app also has functions to create beacons, as you approach a point of reference. An audio beacon can be played to indicate how close you are to that reference point and in which direction it lies.

TFL volunteer Janette Scott says, "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!"

TFL coordinator Madleen Bluhm says, "An advantage when using the Soundscape app is it uses real directions in accordance with where the streets you look for are in your location, for example it will say “behind you" or  "in front of you" which is very helpful."

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 says, "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!"

DotWalker

DotWalker is a free navigation app for Android which provides turn-by-turn navigation to and from an address or saved point. It has a suite of features including a talking compass, automatically updated list of nearby points, Google points of interest, current location address, Google route navigation instructions and route recording. It will recalculate your route if you take a wrong turn.

Dotwalker is easy to use with simple, intuitive gestures (for example, three fingers up finds the nearest point ahead, three fingers down finds what is behind, left or right finds what's at your left or right hand).

TFL volunteer Kamil Midzio says DotWalker is his favourite navigation app, "It uses a lot of ways to find your position which really helps it accurately locate where you are. When DotWalker announces a point, you are probably standing just at the front of the right door!"

Anything else?

There are several considerations you need to be aware of when travelling with GPS.

Firstly, GPS is a guide only and should never be used as a replacement for a mobility aid such as a cane or guide dog. GPS can provide limited information about safe places to cross roads and not all crossings are marked. It can also be inconsistent and unreliable depending on where the tool is getting the information from. 

GPS is accurate within approximately five to 30 metres depending on several factors including the signal of your phone and the ability to receive information from overhead satellites. Therefore, you need to use your own mobility skills to identify the exact positioning of doorways, locations to buildings and so on.

GPS also uses satellite technology to find your position and because of this, will drain your device battery quickly. Make sure you have enough charge in your battery when using GPS. Make sure that you are connected to the internet at all times and have enough data on your plan.