This project was funded by the Secrétariat du Conseil du trésor of Québec through its "Appui au passage à la société de l'information" with extensions and improvements supported by a Google Faculty Research Award, the E. Ben and Mary Hochhausen Award from the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), and the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA)'s Community Investment Program.
You can download Autour from the App Store.
Made-in-Canada app enhances the world for blind, visually impaired users
Autour (French for "Around", pronounced "oh tour") is an eyes-free mobile system designed to give blind users a better sense of their surroundings. Although other systems (e.g., Humanware's Trekker and standard GPS tools) emphasize navigation from one specific location to another, typically accomplished by explicit turn-by-turn instructions, our goal is to use ambient audio to reveal the kind of information that visual cues such as neon signs provide to sighted users. Once users notice a point of interest, additional details are available on demand.
When you start Autour for the first time, you'll be guided through an interactive tutorial that demonstrates a few of the app's modes of operation. These include Radar, which announces places as the radar sweeps past them in a circle around the user, and Beam, which acts like a flashlight, announcing places in the direction the user is facing. Other modes, and the settings menu, are described in detail in the instructions. Autour can be used hand-held, or largely hands-free, by leaving the phone in a pouch around the user's neck, as desired. To ensure correct behaiour, it's important to specify the "carry mode" in the app's setting menu so that Autour knows which way the phone is being held.
The Autour user experience is tightly tied to spatialized audio, preferably using bone-conducting or open air headphones so as not to interfere with the natural sounds of the environment. Names of places appear to come from locations surrounding the user, thereby giving a sense of directionality and distance. This allows for parsimony of representation and less intrusive sound cues. Imagine the difference between a mechanical voice stating, "Restaurant, 50 meters, 60 degrees to your left" vs. a very short "Restaurant" spatialized in the correct direction.
Autour app helps visually impaired individuals learn what's around them
The best way to understand what Autour does is to experience it first hand. We invite you to download the app and give it a try!
As of version 1.6.6, Autour anonymizes the device names of all requests to the server. We do not collect any user data apart from the locations in which the app is being used, and which requests came from the same user. This information is collected solely to assist our efforts to understand usage patterns, improve the app, and help identify any problems with the app that may be reported.
Autour currently runs on iPhone 4s or later; the Android version is presently being prepared. The app uses the smartphone's built-in compass, accelerometer, gyroscope and GPS hardware to determine the user's location and orientation. Nearby places are retrieved automatically via the Autour server. The appropriate sound scene is then rendered using the libpd library to run PureData (Pd) patches.
The Autour server acts as an intermediary for real-time requests to Google Places™ and Foursquare™ to locate companies, public buildings, monuments, etc. The Autour app can then render these places in different ways, e.g., by relative direction ("front right") or by cardinal direction ("northeast"). Category names (e.g., "bar," "fast food", etc.), are spatialized to sound like they are coming from the actual location of the POI, giving a direct cue as to its direction and distance.
The server contains a copy of bus stops from 38 public transport companies of major urban centres across Canada; it also contains certain portions of OpenStreetMap for all of Canada, as used to find the nearest point on the closest street, to name intersections, and obtain the contours of parks and certain large buildings such as hospitals. OpenStreetMap data is copyrighted by its owners, who provide it under a free license (ODbL).
(The following video demonstrates a much older version of Autour, formerly named In-Situ Audio Services, or "ISAS" for short. We hope to prepare an updated video in the fall.)
We have worked with both French and English organizations for the blind in Montreal, including the Institut Nazareth & Louis Braille (INLB) and the Montreal Association for the Blind (MAB) to test Autour with a number of blind participants. These user tests have taken the form of informal walkabouts while soliciting feedback, more formal tests with specific tasks to complete using Autour while on the streets of Montreal, and also longer-term deployments where blind individuals were loaned iPhone devices to use in their daily routines. Feedback has been generally positive for the system as a whole, but has also pointed out numerous usability and other issues that have been factored into the design. A paper (link below) summarizing the results across several of these tests was presented at the 2013 ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI).
Autour received the Best Paper Award at Mobiquitous 2011 in Copenhagen, Denmark for the paper, What's around me? Spatialized audio augmented reality for blind users with a smartphone.
Autour won the 2012 CIRA Impact Award in the Application Category. We were interviewed after the awards ceremony at the Mesh 2012 conference in Toronto (video here).
As part of the Impact Award program, CIRA also ran a "People's Choice Award" competition, which Autour won by receiving the most votes from mesh12 attendees, placing first out of the four Impact Award winners.