Smart Canes for the Blind

smartcane

Last week I wrote about Martina Caironi and prosthetic limbs. Today I want to sort of continue the theme by looking at technological aids for the blind or visually impaired. Many readers will have smartphones in their hands and smartmeters in their homes, but I would like to introduce you all to the world of smart-canes.

A cane offers a lot of information to a blind user, but it tends to concentrate on the floor or at best below knee level. Users can avoid objects that are attached to the floor, but overhanging tree branches and other free standing objects are much more difficult to detect. I would like to take a look at two possible solutions, one produced in India and relatively low cost, and the other produced in the UK and relatively high cost.

The Smartcane is the Indian solution, see the photo above. It costs about $50 US, and its designers say it is innovative and user centric. It detects obstacles using sonic waves and the presence of obstacles is conveyed through intuitive vibratory patterns. It is powered using a rechargeable Li–ion battery, and is seperate from the cane, so the user attaches the technology to their existing cane.

The Specs (as taken from the website):

Adjustable detection range: User can switch between long (3 metre) and short (1.8 metre) range mode depending on the usage scenarios such as outdoor, indoor or crowded places.
Ergonomic grip for comfortable holding and cane tapping: Can be held by different gripping styles, allowing users to use their natural cane holding and mobility techniques.
High detection sensitivity: The sensors can detect a 3 centimetre wide pipe from 3 metres distance, ensuring reliable detection of objects in the detection range.
Four intuitive and distinctive vibration patterns indicating obstacle distance.
Vibrations are uniformly produced on the entire grip: Non-localized vibration feedback allows user to conveniently grip the device.
Does not interfere with the auditory environment surrounding the user Vibrations allow discreet continuous use without making the user conscious or creating annoyance to others
Adjustable sensor orientation: Allows people of different heights and with different cane holding styles to direct the sensors appropriately.
In-built rechargeable battery with a long battery back-up: Removing of batteries for charging is not required.
Fully accessible user interface: Simple and distinguishable beeps to convey the battery charge status, low battery warning and charging status.
Failure detection of key components: Users informed immediately on failure of sensors and/ or vibrator through special alarm signals.
Detects fast approaching objects in the detection range: Especially helpful in detection of reversing vehicles.
Easy attachment / detachment from a white cane: Allows for compatible white cane replacement by the user himself.
Multiple colour options: Available in two non- flashy and elegant colours
Robust design: Can withstand accidental fall
Splash proof: Prevents damage during light rain
Conforms to international quality standards

Sounds like a deal to me!
In the UK users can order the above or splash out on another product called Ultracane. The Ultracane works in a similar way to the Smartcane, but it is a single piece of equipment. You order the cane by length. It boasts more or less the same technical specs as the above, but the batteries are interchangeable (so it does not look as if they are rechargeable in situ), it has a strap to aid in holding it, it is foldable and has a replaceable tip. It works over 4 mtrs in front (further than the Smartcane) and 1.6 mtrs in an upward direction. It also has a twin range, choice of tip, is shower-proof, and is available in any colour you like as long as it’s white.

UltraCane

UltraCane

It costs somewhere in the region of $900 in the UK, has a 12 month guarantee and there is a service centre in case of accidents.

I am sure that much of the difference in price is due to development expenses, the Ultracane was very much on its own when it was developed, and has been on the market for several years. The website hosts many happy testimonials. I am pleased to see the development in India though, as it may give many in the developing world access to the kinds of aids that we in Europe have. Ultracane has also developed the Ultrabike, giving the partially sighted the chance to take to the bike paths in safety.

Check out the websites linked above for more information.

Mobile Phones and the Right to Search (and Privacy)

cnn.police

Earlier this year I wrote an article about whether the police had the right to search your laptop when you are passing immigration into the USA. The discussion has moved on however, and this week there is a Supreme Court case about whether the police have to right to search an individual’s mobile phone when they are stopped upon suspicion of having committed a crime.

Given the UK governments discussion about the stop and search powers currently in use, there are some serious questions to address here. We now carry our lives with us on our mobile devices. To call them phones is to do them an injustice, they are computers with the possibility of making phone calls. They have our medical, personal, business, banking and emotional data, and the question is whether this is public or private information if the police stop you.

Here in the USA the law has allowed police to search these devices without a warrant, although they could not search your computer in your house without a judge’s permission, and this seems to be an anomaly given changes in how we carry our lives with us.

The case before the court involves David Riley, who was pulled over for driving with expired license plates in 2009. When his car was impounded and inventoried, police found guns in the boot and decided to investigate further.

They looked into his phone and found evidence that he might be in a gang, they downloaded videos, contacts etc and some of this information was used to convict him.

Here in the US the case has been followed by journalist Nina Totenberg, and she has a fantastic account on her blog. You can either listen to her radio report or read a transcript of it. I have taken some of it below to give you an idea of how the debate is unfolding. The question is of whether a warrant should be required, but the following snippets give an idea of how wide the implications for the debate really are:

“It’s not just what can be looked at,” it’s the fact that information from cellphones can be downloaded and kept in “ever-growing databases.”

A person can be arrested “for anything,” including driving without a seat belt, and the police could search that person’s cellphone and “look at every single email” — including “very intimate communications” — as well as medical data, calendar and GPS information to learn everyplace the person has recently been.

People “choose” when they carry their cellphones with them — and thus they should have “no expectation of privacy” if they are arrested.

So some of the questions could be, when the police stop and search you, what do they have the right to look at? If you are then arrested should they need a warrant to search your mobile devices? Do you have the right to privately carry digital information?

Flappy Bird

Flappy Bird, for those of you who don’t know, was a smartphone game where users had to try and get a bird through as many obstacles as possible. I say had, as the app has been removed from the iTunes and Google Play – more on that later. I’m not sure I can really explain it much better than that, so take a look at this video to see it in action.

As you can see people take this game pretty seriously. The chap says how he has been playing it for about a week and that “it has totally consumed [his] life“. I tried the game on a friends phone and sensing that it was something that I was likely to get addicted to I decided not to install it myself. I am very glad I made that decision. In fact I have decided to take a total detox from all smartphone and tablet apps recently, and it really does feel great.

A screenshop of the Flappy Bird appUsually I install an app when I have some time to kill, but after a while, I seem to be wasting far too much time on pointless apps. I took a step back and saw that playing games such as Flappy Bird was just a waste of my time. This article is not asking you to stop using apps, but I do want to make people think.

I want to make people think, much in the same way that I suspect Dong Nguyen wants to make people think. Dong Nguyen was the creator of Flappy Bird and despite the fact that some sources report the game to have been earning around $50,000 per day in ad revenues, he took it down. The game was very addictive and didn’t really add any value to the lives of players. If anything, for many it just caused a lot of stress and aggravation.

Anyone who downloaded the game still has it, but if they uninstall it it is gone forever. Some people are selling their handsets with the game still installed on it, although many manufacturers advise against this on privacy grounds.

What I want to know – in the comments below – is what are your opinions? Was the developer right to remove the game? As a society are we getting more addicted to such games? If so, how are they affecting culture – or are they just a bit of harmless fun?

Oh and folks, please don’t go taking a hammer to your phone. :-)

The stolen iOS

Apple are great at marketing. Well, Steve Jobs was at least. Apple are also great innovators, although that is more debatable.

A few weeks ago I came across a video of the Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone. I found it quite comical how the audience gasped and clapped at some of the features; the idea that you could use your finger on a screen instead of a stylus, the ‘amazing’ elastic band scrolling effect, and by far the most impressive, the iPhone could handle the web like a computer, not a mobile phone. Steve Jobs even mentioned that Apple planned to make 3G phones in the future.

The fastest network the original iPhone was compatible with was EDGE, which at the time would download at speeds of up to 473.6 kbit/s; that’s about 2,214 times slower than today 4G 1Gbit/s speeds!

%CODEYOUTUBEIPHONEKEYNOTE%

Apple, Google and Yahoo! all working together on one device – I doubt that will ever happen again.

How far Apple has come since it launched the smartphone that changed the world in 2007.

iOS7

The original iPhone was unique. There was nothing like it and it was undoubtedly the best smartphone on the market at the time. iOS7 on the other hand is arguably just a cheap imitation of Android OS. That is the extreme view of course, I would also argue that Apple are only learning from Samsung, see what your competitor does well, then improve it, repackage it and sell it yourself.

iOS 7iOS 7 came with a few bugs and hiccups, but then most new software does so I am not criticising Apple for that. Aesthetically, childish icons, illegible fonts (due to poor colour schemes) and the motion sickness some people complain of because of the whizzy new interface, are all problems that are down to bad design.

In terms of technical problems, the inability to downgrade to iOS6 and the battery issues many users of older devices are facing when they upgrade are also Apple’s fault. Whilst I say they are Apple’s fault, they almost certainly weren’t accidental. If you don’t let people to downgrade, you force them to use to your new OS.

Free Upgrades

Apple now offer free upgrades to the latest iOS which you could argue is good for owners of older iPhones, but not so good for Apple’s bottom line. However if you look at the tests, generally older phones perform better on their original operating system than they do on iOS7; for example the iPhone 4 loads faster on iOS 6 than it does when running iOS 7.

If you have an iPhone 4 running iOS 7 and your friend has an iPhone 5C or 5S and your phone runs like a dog but theirs flies, it kind of makes you want to buy the latest phone.

Free upgrades also give users the perception that sticking with Apple is a good idea, because Apple look after them. Additionally having access to iOS7 will mean more users are familiar with the interface, so buying a new phone isn’t such as big a jump.

Bad Now, Better Later

Here’s a thought, why have Apple failed to address the battery problem that plagues all smartphones? Old mobiles used to last for weeks between charges. I still own a Nokia 3510 which was released 12 years ago, yet if I fully charge it and leave it (switched on) it will last for a good few weeks – my S4 Mini can do about 60 hours tops. I believe many smartphone manufacturers are holding things in the bank for future. Better batteries are available, but it is more profitable to release better features gradually than to give consumers one fantastic upgrade every 3 to 4 years.

iPhone battery lifeMaybe Apple want iOS7 to look a little childish and have a few faults, so that when the next iPhone (or the one after that) comes out with a brand new OS, it looks so much better.

Time

When anything first comes out there is a lot of hype about it, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but often a mix of both. Those who ‘love’ the iPhone (or those who have been sucked in by Apple’s marketing) will stick with the phone for a long time to come. Those who are more critical won’t stop viewing things differently either. At the end of the day Apple is just a bunch of people trying to make money for another bunch of people – just like almost every other company.

Concluding a series on the S4 Mini

This is the conclusion article in a series reviewing the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini.

Here we are at the end of another series. This was my most inconsistent series, which I should have ended in October, but here I am in January 2014 finishing it off!

In the first article I introduced my new purchase and started the series. I am still (very) glad I chose Android over Apple and a Samsung Galaxy over other rivals. I really like the (in the words of David) Disney layer Samsung add, having compared it to various other Android devices, not running the Samsung version of the OS.

D3O case for the S4 MiniWhilst I do like the S4 Mini, is hasn’t been an easy ride. Before I got my D3O case and Tech21 screen protector, I dropped my phone. The screen hit something and it bounced to the floor. This completely ruined the screen. I took it in for repair and £100 later I had my phone back.

Note to self: always get a really good case, as the cost of that is way less than the cost of a repair. Oh and try not to drop your phone.

A few weeks later my battery started playing up. It wouldn’t hold charge and depleted very quickly. I wasn’t sure if this was related to the earlier drop or not, but I took it back to the shop I bought it from and they said that as it was still within warranty (Samsung give a two year warranty) they would take a look and repair it for me. A few days later I got my phone back (again) and since then nothing has gone wrong.

I recently dropped it again (by accident) outside. It landed on the pavement and bounced to the ground. Luckily the D3O did its work and my phone is still perfectly fine.

Anker S4 Mini Screen ProtectorIn terms of screen protectors I would say the Anker one was much better than the Muvit alternative, however since that post I have purchased a Tech21 Impactology screen protector and I would rate this the best yet. It cost £20 which is five times the cost of the Anker one and I don’t think it is really that much better. Clarity, responsiveness and adhesion are pretty much the same, it’s only the level of protection that I think it probably a little better. Check out this video for more.

My final article reviewed the RoadWarrior car holder for my S4 Mini. Depending upon the car it can be awkward to place, and I am worried it might damage my phone (if I am not really careful when inserting/removing it) but the FM transmitter and spare USB port are great features that I value.

Overall I enjoy using my S4 Mini. It is a good little phone with great capabilities. The battery life could be improved and the OS could be made a little sleeker/easier to use in some places, but on the whole it is a very good handset to buy; it’s more affordable than it’s bigger brother – the S4 – whilst offering a similar experience, from a more conveniently sized device.

Four and a Half StarI think the S4 Mini is worthy of a 4.5 star rating. :-)

RoadWarrior USB Car Holder Review

This is the sixth article in a series reviewing the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini.

Is the sat nav redundant? Smartphones and tablets have arguably made laptops, desktops, mobile (or cell) phones and sat navs redundant. My S4 Mini is now my sat nav, so I need a car charger to hold my phone on the go so it can act as my sat nav.

After a lot of research I decided to get the a RoadWarrior – great name.

What Does It Do?

The reason I chose the RoadWarrior is because of its functionality. The car holder both charges a phone and holds it. It also has an extra USB port you can use to charge another device. Its most attractive feature however is its inbuilt FM transmitter inbuilt, meaning you can link your phone to your cars stereo.

Does It Work?

Ever looked at something online and though that it looks too good to be true? Well I was sceptical about the RoadWarrior. However whilst it does have  a few faults, it does generally do what it says it does. With some cars depending upon where the cigarette lighter plug is, it can be in an awkward place, meaning that the RoadWarrior can get in the way. This isn’t the fault of the holder and it does have a flexible arm which is movable so you can reposition it.

The FM receiver does work, and it relatively easy to set up (if you remember to flick the on/off switch on the side like I didn’t) just tune it to an unused frequency using the buttons and then tune your car stereo to the same frequency.

The charger does work reasonably well and still works when charging two devices (i.e. a phone and anything else plugged in to the spare USB). The power plug is a little wobbly and does sometimes disconnect which is annoying.

My biggest problem with the RoadWarrior is how it holds my phone. Whilst I appreciate it is designed to hold a variety of phones I don’t feel all to confident in putting my phone in and taking it out. The adjustable clamp does hold it in place, but my phone can still move a little, which I worry is damaging the connector. Furthermore, to get my phone out, the instructions say I have to bend it forwards and then pull it out. I am also concerned that this movement might be damaging my phones power connector – a costly thing to replace!

Rating

The RoadWarrior is a really great device. I feel its greatest feature is its FM transmitter so you can connect your phone to your car, whilst charging it, even if your car doesn’t have bluetooth of USB port. My main problem with the charger is how securely it holds my phone, nothing has gone wrong yet though.

Overall I rate the RoadWarrior USB Car Charger 4 star.Four Star

Next Week

Next week I will be finishing the series!

Tech21 Impact Mesh Case Review

This is the fifth article in a series reviewing the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini.

In the second article of this series I claimed I would be reviewing Tech21’s case next week. I changed my plans several times, however finally, today it is going to be reviewed!

I am going to rate this case against the same criteria that I rated the FlexiShield case, so it is easy to make a comparison.

Tech21 S4 Mini Case Review

Price

Tech21’s case currently costs around £25, which is about £15 more than the FlexiShield one. The FlexiShield case was very competitively priced, however I do feel that the Tech21 one is worth the extra expense.

Design

Like the FlexiShield case, the Tech21 case is also reasonably flexible. My S4 Mini fits perfectly into the case, and unlike the FlexiShield case, all the ports and sensors are pretty much perfectly aligned. Furthermore the depth of the case means that if it is resting on its back, the camera isn’t touching the ground.

I really like how this case has two buttons for volume, as one thing that annoyed me with the FlexiShield case was that it was all one button, so you were never sure which button  you were pressing!

D3O diagram

How D3O molecules react under pressure.

Unlike any other case on the market, the Tech21 Impact Mesh case has D3O embedded into the design. D3O is an ‘intelligent’ (or smart) material which is pliable and malleable, however when put under stress, the molecules interlock and it becomes rock solid – absorbing the impact.

The case certainly works, as I have dropped and banged my phone several times, yet it still works and there isn’t a scratch in sight! To see a D3O case put to the test check out this video.

I haven’t noticed my phone getting as hot in this case either, although it does appear to lack ventilation, like the FlexiShield alternative.

Aesthetically, I think my phone looks really good in the case. It is stylish and sleek, and I think it actually makes the phone look better.

Impact Mesh Vs Impact Maze

Tech21 make two very similar versions of this case for the S4 Mini, the Impact Mesh Case and the Impact Maze Case. The only real difference is that the Mesh has dots on the back and the Maze has lines. I personally prefer the dots, hence why I went for the Impact Mesh.

Protection

As mentioned above, Tech21’s case offers great protection thanks to the D3O. Like the FlexiShield, this case has a lip which means if you put the phone screen down, the screen doesn’t touch the ground.

D3O case for the S4 MiniAs you would expect, the case protects the phone from superficial dirt and smears, and is easy to wipe clean.

The D3O protects my phone from pretty much every angle.

Rating

The Tech21 Impact Mesh Case is stylish and offers my S4 Mini great protection, it is priced higher up the range than the FlexiShield, however, I feel the design quality justifies this.

Overall I rate Tech21’s Impact Mesh Case 4.5 star. Four and a Half Star

I would like to thank Mobile Fun who provided the case for this review.

Next Time

Next time I will be reviewing a car holder for the S4 Mini.