Initial Impressions of Spoken Announcements in iOS 8 Maps

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Introduction

In iOS 8, Apple introduced a great new feature: the ability for VoiceOver to announce streets and points of interest (POIs) as you walk. To enable this, open the Maps app, and double tap the "tracking" button (lower left of the screen) until you hear "on with heading". So long as your iPhone or cellular-capable iPad is unlocked and the Maps app is open to that initial map view you begin with, you will hear announcements as you walk or drive around.

Please keep in mind that this review is based on my initial tests, which were done around my home. Your area may be different, due to map data, cell coverage, and many other factors. The best way to know if this feature will help you or not is to simply go try it.

Pros

On the plus side, the feature works pretty well. As you approach an intersection, you hear something like "approaching Main Street, 195 feet". As you get closer, a second announcement is spoken, usually at the 95-foot mark, and as you reach the street, you'll hear "now on Main street". If you need to check where you are, or you want to hear the street names as you walk by, or you want to know when you reach a street, this is perfect. In my nearly 3.5-mile walk testing this feature, it only missed two streets.

The accuracy was impressive: in nearly every case, VoiceOver said I was now on a new street just as I reached the sidewalk of that new street. It was never more than a foot off, far better accuracy than I've seen from other navigation apps.

Maps will also tell you the street's direction, but it may not do this all the time. For example, you might hear "approaching Main street, northeast to southwest, 195 feet". So long as you keep in mind your current heading (which is also displayed on the screen), this can give you an idea of the angle of the upcoming street. It is not as good as something like the intersection descriptions in Seeing Eye GPS, and it does not get reported all the time, but it can be useful.

Cons

The app seems confused by intersections. As you approach a new street it works fine, but once you start across, or even make a turn, it keeps telling you you are on one street in the intersection or the other, or approaching one or the other even when you're not. By the time you move twenty feet or so past the intersection, it resumes tracking you like normal. This isn't a big problem, though I have yet to test it on a major intersection with more than two streets.

The bigger problem is the points of interest announcement. As I walked along a road, it told me about a gas station, saying first that it was on the left, then on the right. I got an announcement for that POI at 140 feet, 135 feet, 130 feet, 125 feet, and then nothing at all. I never got notified of a pizza place I passed, or a drug store a bit further on, but I got one (and only one) notice about a bakery across the street, and I heard nothing about the school I passed a few minutes later. POI announcements seem almost random, and when the constant notifications you will briefly hear for a POI coincide with crossing a street, the stream of announcements will be so fast that most will be interrupted by the next before they can even start.

Conclusion

As of iOS 8.0 (September 17, 2014), this feature is nice in a pinch, but it seems to miss or randomly announce POIs, and intersections confuse it. It does well at telling you upcoming street names, but that's all I would use it for. However, combined with spoken turn-by-turn directions, Maps could prove to be more useful now than it has in the past. That said, if you have Blindsquare, Seeing Eye GPS, or another navigation app you like, Id hold onto that app for now. Give iOS Maps a try and see what you think, and stay tuned as iOS gets updated to see if anything improves.

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2 Comments

#1 This feature

This feature has been around, in a primitive form for a while now, since iOS 6 I think. You could always switch the tracking toggle to "track with heading", and certain intersections would be announced, but it was not consistent or at all usable. I'll be interested to see how it works in practice when I download iOS 8.

#2 Never used this, thanks

I've never used a gps app on my iPhone for walking directions. Personally, in the past, I thought that directions may be distracting. I may give this a try, and also wouldn't mind exploring ideas for other GPS apps. What do people find to work? I'll be exploring the site more to learn what people are suggesting!