Thursday, April 15, 2010

Blindsight; or, A Banner Day.

I have a family member who is legally blind; my mother. She has glaucoma. With that, various things within the structure of the eye can conspire to alter and eventually rob one of  one's sight. Pressure within the eye is a key component. Although proper care can forestall and perhaps for some prevent the worst case scenario, it is a worrisome disease. It has been interesting to follow the way mother has coped with this difficult ailment. The worst event so far was the complete loss of sight in her right eye a few years ago. It made the lingering sight in her left eye that much more precious.

Mom has suffered both from glaucoma and cataracts. It has been hard to know which has lately dealt the greater blow to her remaining sight, but we've assumed the glaucoma played the greatest role. It was the reason her right eye was lost to her.

Mom is of the generation that truly learned good penmanship. She has especially clear and beautiful handwriting, with attractive flourishes that aren't overdone.  The large "G" that we know from General Mills' cereal boxes comes to mind. Besides her pure skill at handwriting on the page, mom is talented with actual content, having been a writer her entire life. The loss of this expression is perhaps the hardest part of the blindness for her. What will she do if she can't sit at her desk and write?

I've been amazed in the last few years to watch how mom became less able to see from her remaining eye, and yet the letters that came in the mail were, as before,  written in her distinct and attractive hand. This even though she could not view the writing on the card anymore. It was all done by feel, and by rigorously staying within the physical confines of the paper. She registered the edges with her fingers, and had to compose her thoughts in longer streams; pausing to reflect or letting her thoughts wander meant she would lose her place on the page, and scribe new ink over existing writing. 

She became good enough at this to continue to correspond, albeit with shorter missives, and you would not guess that the sender was blind if I didn't tell you. Perhaps the lines of writing were a bit less level, or more tightly crowded.  It must have been a strain. And I imagine it affected spontanaeity and turned a leisurely task into a "finish it now" chore.

Essays and longer work finally became too hard to create in successive writing sessions. Returning to a work, how would she review the existing content? Adjusting the message, editing the flow, revising the tone, all require some review and a chance to "listen" to what you've already composed.  Waiting until evening for a family member to read her work back to her was not very satisfying or effective. The stream of thought gets lost. The requirements of the day have moved on. Direction gets derailed,  for even the most tenacious and disciplined thinker.  Physically writing with either a pen or a typewriter may have been possible, but the full activity of writing a work comprehensively was less and less possible.

Those who merely have cataracts may be able to think of surgery for replacing their lenses as routine. But glaucoma makes cataract surgery a more daunting proposal. Anything that intervenes with the eye's structure may cause the pressure within to climb, and this can lead to more damage. At least one surgeon advised caution regarding surgery in mom's case. Even so, the hope of regaining vision made mom ponder the surgery more as time went by.

Recently, mom took the plunge, and had cataract surgery. She selected a talented and confident specialist who felt he could overcome the extra challenge her eye presented. In the days leading up to the surgery, she covered her "good" eye, to practice what it would be like getting around  with a patch on after the procedure. This sounded odd to me at first; how much difference would that make to an eye that didn't really see? But I hadn't understood how much mere light helped. Losing that wasn't trivial, mom's best status for vision had become mostly an awareness of light. I was surprised how much just this input helped her to navigate. Though objects and faces were not clearly visible, light from windows and doorways provided landmarks that helped orient her with surprising accuracy. She could walk in her familiar surroundings from one location to another with good results if she was careful. But the lack of detailed sight left many activities unavailable.

The suspense of a full day with an eye patch after the surgery was anxiously spent trying not to get her hopes up. She had decided it was no better than a 50/50 chance, and spent time reconciling her mood to the possibility of failure. Waiting to see what kind of window would open up was a tantalizing and edgy twenty-four  hour period.

The happy ending here came the next day, when the patch was removed. A quick eye test followed. Mom read out the letters, trying to absorb the sensation of sight restored. It turns out that the cataract was the main impediment to sight at this point in time, and the risk of the surgery proved to be worthwhile.

The rest of the day was a visual feast, including looking out of the clinic windows to see a view of  hills with saguaro cactus and  houses dotting the landscape. A celebration lunch followed.  An extra treat was a walk around a nursery to look at colorful spring flowers. A banner day.

Can you imagine losing your sight?  You wouldn't be reading this, or anything else....

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Just say "GPS," and some of us are hooked

Dual Electronics' XGPS300 cradle for Apple's iPod Touch

As a long time PDA user, I've recently been immersed in the gadget fascination that is the iPod Touch.  For some background,  I've used various Palm brand handheld devices, and still have a lot of respect for my wi-fi and Bluetooth enabled Palm Tx that now sits in my dresser drawer. (to keep my Palm apps handy, I use a Palm Centro cell phone--alas, no wifi...but I can use an unlocked sim card, unlike the iPhone.)

I loaded tons of applications onto my Palm devices. One of the things I've used the Palm Tx for is GPS mapping, routing, and tracking. This was done by pairing the handheld with a very small Bluetooth GPS receiver. (the Freedom Keychain GPS.) It worked pretty well, and there were car navigation apps, topo maps, workout tracking apps and the like to make it useful. 

Along came the ipods, and for me that has meant the Shuffle, then a 2nd generation Nano-- and finally, the thin and sleek iPod Touch. This last has put me back into application heaven, with a nice clear screen and it is so much more than a music player.  Reminded me of my old Tx, where I'd been using Pocket Tunes for music and hours of fun and utility through the thousands of applications available. Now, I'm experiencing the smooth touch screen swiping, pinching, etc. of the Touch interface.

I'd been looking for a way to use GPS with my new 32 GB, "3rd generation" iPod Touch. This was accelerated by seeing well designed GPS applications in Apple's App Store, some specifically for geocaching.  One, "Geosphere," is so well designed that if you delve into it, even without a GPS receiver in use, a cacher can be totally organized out in the field using it in tandem with a Garmin or other GPS device.  The sticking point for stand-alone use is that unlike the iPhone, the Touch lacks a GPS chip. (even the iPhone is said to have some issues with it's internal GPS, though.)  Unless one 'jailbreaks' their iPod Touch, the use of an external GPS receiver isn't an option--it's not supported by Apple and I'm guessing there's a good reason. Someday this feature may be enabled, but I didn't want to wait. (I'm already hooked on a few geocaching and other map-aware applications.)

So, in the spring of 2010 here comes Dual Electronics, with the announcement that they've built a cradle for the Touch that packs in all the GPS you could want. The XGPS300 cradle is not marketed at anything other than the iPod Touch. It's not cheap, costing $200--but that's still less than a Garmin GPS, that would have only some of the features the iPod+cradle can provide, and you also get NavAtlas software that is probably on a par with other software costing $70 to $100 dollars on it's own. The Touch slides into the cradle, and off you go. Your map-aware applications take on new life, and GPS specific apps finally make sense to download.  After a short delay in its release, I joined other eager GPS fans and got one.

It bears pointing out that this cradle can be used outside of your car. This is a key advantage of this product. The GPS electronics are inside the form-fitting pocketable sled that the Touch slides into. You can hike, run, bike etc. With most other Touch gps solutions, you're tied to your car by the bulky suction holder since the works are inside that, and power via DC must be connected.  Dual's cradle has its own battery, and won't borrow power from your iPod. But generously, it will let your iPod sip on it's battery (if you're not currently using the GPS mode.)

The windshield mount (see picture at left, minus it's suction cup portion) for Dual's XGPS300 is there to provide a car holder, plus DC power for charging with a car lighter plug, and an audio out. It does not contain the GPS unit.

The actual sled-like cradle, which does have the GPS electronics, has a rechargeable battery, it's very own audio out for headphones,
                                                                             a speaker,

a microphone,

              a test button  for checking state of charge,

 and mini USB for syncing, and limited charging capability. (Can't charge both iPod and cradle if just using USB.*) USB-only power input seems to be just to charge the cradle itself; I imagine it's main use is to boost the cradle's battery during iPod syncing, which it will do--you don't need an Apple connector if you have the iPod in the cradle, and connect that to your computer with USB cable--I haven't tried syncing this way yet.)
The windshield holder and its DC lighter cord are the best way to charge up both the  iPod and cradle all at the same time to get ready for action. Then you can venture out of the car on battery power alone. The Dual windshield holder "knows" if the cradle is inserted, and it will charge both devices simultaneously. In the house, I'm using an aftermarket "lighter socket" that plugs into an AC outlet, and I plug the XGPS' lighter cord into that for charging both cradle &  ipod overnight by my desk.
The cradle itself appears well made and is smoothly rounded on its corners. It does not weigh much at all. It slides into a pocket nicely, not too much bigger than an iPhone, though certainly it adds size to your slim Touch. (note that this cradle will definitely NOT work with an iPhone, there is no way it would fit.) The iPod is securely held within the accurately molded cradle. There are two thin wings on either side that barely interrupt the visual or tactile lines of the Touch's bezel. No screen real estate is covered up. Dual says that the cradle works with every Touch version made, but you do need the current software, or I think at least version 3 and up? I'm using software version 3.1.3. There was/is a typo on Apple's storefront that says "2G" Touch devices only; that is wrong according to Dual, and proven wrong by users.
The fit is so good, I have to say that removing the Touch takes a bit of pulling. I find myself gripping the sides of the iPod on its upper half, and that means I usually am pressing on the volume switch of my 3rd gen Touch. (see photo.)  I wonder if constant squeezing of the volume button is a good idea over the long haul. If  I instead squeeze below the wings on the lower part of the iPod, there isn't as much purchase on the iPod before my thumb and finger hit the bottom of the wings. 
This removal effort is my only gripe to date about the design. So much of the XGPS300's design is excellent, and this I don't consider a show-stopper. I might like to see some kind of "release" lever or button on later cradle revisions. Meanwhile, you don't have to fear the iPod falling out of the cradle, and that's good.  If you have a thinner 1st gen iPod, there's a rubber spacer for the cradle-though I think the owner's manual may have this backwards, as it says to  "remove rubber spacer." The spacer in my package was not attached, but came in a plastic bag. I can't imagine it is for use with the 3rd gen Touch which is plenty snug without it, and there are two long tactile strips in the cradle as it is.   (I did slide a 1st gen Touch into the cradle without the rubber square, and it also seemed snug enough; --if you have a 1st gen, ask Dual about this pad.)
Using the XGPS300,  first impressions

Software included with the cradle is by NavAtlas,  (it says "NavTeq" on the splash screen.)  A pretty good solution for driving. I've been doing more off road and geocaching with the cradle, using Topo and Geosphere, but the couple of times I've lit up the NavAtlas it seems very accurate and the graphics look fine to me. 
You need to go fetch the software as an App from the App Store, there is no CD in the box. This is fine considering the AppStore is the gateway in general for software for Touch users. If you want to, you can buy other road navigation solutions from the app store, such as Tom Tom or Navigon, but I don't see the need until I go outside of the US or Canada, those both being covered already. (see Dual's blog at for a list of compatible apps. ) Among NavAtlas' features is the option to select between "car" or "truck" for route planning, choose "fastest" v.s. "shortest" route, select to avoid:  Ferry route, unpaved route, carpool lane, and more.  Pretty standard but  helpful settings. For the Main screen there are 4 large icons: Where to, View Map, Route, and Options. If you select "Where to," there's a list of bold options, including Favorites, Recently Found, Contacts, POI, Address, Zip Code, a few other choices including Coordinate which lets you then search the  map.  There's  Emergency, showing Hospital, Fuel, Police, Auto which opens to a list of dealers, service, road assist, rental, and more.
Contacts in particular  is nicely integrated already with your ipod's contacts; I didn't have to do anything other than tap Contacts in NavAtlas and there they were.  If you have physical addresses filled in for your contacts, you can route to them, merely tap on the pane showing the street address. (This is motivation to always fill in addresses for your contacts.) I used to have a Mio in-car device, and the NavAtlas software is so much better and more in tune with what you expect when you try to drill down through the options and menus.
I've been out about 3 times so far since receiving the XGPS300. During geocaching forays, the accuracy is about as good as my very good Garmin Vista Hcx, based on the general feel for the hunt. It got me very close to ground zero. In one case it  said 4 ft away, and I was standing in reach of the camouflaged container. ( I didn't take my Garmin with me for a back-to-back comparison.)
In town using NavAtlas my position on the maps seems pretty true--only when starting up does the blue dot denoting "me" wander, until satellites are fully acquired. I don't know anything about the "ublox" GPS chip said to be in the XGPS, but it seems to work as well as my Sirfstar II devices. (Need to research the chip.) Others have said to turn off the iPod's wi-fi for fastest initial lock, this seems to be true.  Turning wi-fi back on after good lock doesn't hurt accuracy, but it may slow down drawing of cached map tiles.
 About cached maps: some software besides NavAtlas (which stores all map tiles on iPod) wants to look for maps on the (non-existant in the field) network before showing map tiles cached from prior online browsing. You'll see a message that map load failed at such times. Just wait, & more importantly, zoom out to to a higher level to see cached tiles in  Geosphere or Geocaching apps.
 Unlike the iphone, the Touch can't use 3G to fetch maps out in the field. If you get other location or navigation based apps to use with this cradle, be aware that some rely on network maps.  As a work-around, browsing and scrolling around areas of interest before going out, while connected to a wifi network, will "park", or cache, those particular viewed maps tiles in the iPod's storage. There are cases where map tile caches get cleared, and I've ended up map-less in such situations with network-based apps. For certain apps, I plan to use Verizon's Mifi device as back-up, which gives the Touch wifi access anywhere. (but consumes phone plan data.) Remember that NavAtlas and others like it store maps on the iPod, you won't ever be caught without maps with them. I have also used MapCandy to load up state and regional maps in various levels of detail. I have 32 GB of storage, though. Those with an 8GB Touch will do well to browse and  "cache" map tiles, before heading out with Geosphere & other non-resident map apps.
What are you waiting for?

I guess I would say that the one thing that could hold you back may be budget issues because of the $200 price. But I don't think it is over priced; it's built well and provides good GPS data. It includes battery back-up of 1100mAH for your Touch that you'd otherwise pay $100 to purchase in a similar, non-GPS enabled battery sled. You can use it for Skype with it's mic and speaker. It is nicely tailored to the sleek iPod Touch. If you're wondering how existing users like it, count me as one who is glad to have the XGPS300 cradle.
I'm not associated with Dual in any way, and in the early going I may have got some details wrong. If you think so, write a comment.    (all photos are by the author. )
*You could charge just the cradle at home, without the  windshield holder, with an aftermarket AC/ USB adaptor, or by using your computer's ports. If you put a USB adapter from Belkin or Rocketfish into your car's cigarette lighter, you technically don't have to use the windshield holder to charge the cradle, but--and this should matter to you--a plain USB charging set-up won't charge the iPod and cradle at the same time. I'm still figuring this out, it seems that the iPod while in just the cradle does not charge at all if USB is plugged in, even if cradle's Power switch is set on "Battery." Only when I unplug the USB and set cradle to Battery, does the Touch's charging symbol wake up. And for the cradle to charge, I begin to suspect it matters what the switch is set to.   I'll have to test that by running cradle down (say to where only 1 out of 4 blue charge indicators light when tested) and then try charging via USB. If I do this routine separately for each of the 3 Power button positions, (GPS/Off/Battery) I will be able to confirm if position matters.