LARGO — Carlos Montas held his iPhone to his ear as Siri rattled off directions.
He strode along a narrow sidewalk, just 3 feet of grass separating him from a dangerous traffic lane on Bryan Dairy Road.
Where should he turn next?
Montas, who is blind, was testing a relatively new GPS mobile app called Lazarillo, which is Spanish slang for “guide dog” in some Latin American countries. The app uses the voice settings in smartphones to “talk back” to users, explaining when to turn or go straight as they walk, and warning of barriers and hazards along the way.
On a sunny afternoon last week, the technology helped steer Montas from a bus stop to the nearby offices of Lighthouse of Pinellas, where he works as a case manager. The Largo nonprofit serves more than 19,000 blind residents, and this new digital “guide dog” has emerged as a promising tool that could help many of them move around with greater independence.
It’s also being developed and sold locally.
René Espinoza, the 29-year-old CEO of LazarilloApp, moved the startup to Tampa in May after launching in Chile three years ago.
“I was working in assisted technologies while in university and saw a need for a tool that would give autonomy to people with visual disabilities,” he said.
The idea came after Espinoza met Miguel González while a student at Universidad de Chile. González, who is blind, now works for LazarilloApp as the director of user experience.
Espinoza applied to the startup incubator Tampa Bay Wave for a spot in its tech accelerator program and was accepted.
“Lazarillo was one of 432 applications we received. More than 80 percent of those come from out of Florida,” said Tampa Bay Wave president Linda Olson. “When René applied, we knew Chile had a strong reputation for developing startup talent, and we were not disappointed in what he pitched.”
Lazarillo has more than 140,000 users across the globe. Much of its growth has occurred since the company moved to Tampa, Espinoza said. For example, the app went from being translated in three languages to 20 in just three months. He sees more need and growth for his company in the United States, where there are more federal regulations in place and advocacy groups to support the visually impaired.
“The U.S. has the biggest population to use the app,” Espinoza said. “Forty percent of this (visually impaired) population doesn’t have a job and are dependent on others for basic needs. We’re hoping that Lazarillo can help them lead a normal, more independent life.”
Now Lazarillo is raising funds to build the team in Tampa. Espinoza still has part of his 12-person staff working in Chile, too.
The app is free for users. But Lazarillo charges a fee for institutions that want to include their property on the Lazarillo map. Customers include shopping centers, college campuses, companies and others with large spaces to navigate.
Espinoza said it was important to develop a product that is more accurate than Google Maps. He said he and his team manually map out places like hospitals and college campuses with enough detail to allow app users to locate bathrooms or classrooms and offer appropriate directions.
Lazarillo uses wifi and data for accuracy, but the company also ensures the app’s precision by installing bluetooth beacons in places that are part of the network.
Lighthouse of Pinellas is hoping to install bluetooth beacons inside its own building soon, said Karli Davis, an orientation mobility specialist with the organization. Lazarillo has already mapped the campus, including every classroom and bathroom, she said.
The organization sees 500 visually impaired clients a year for services ranging from job preparedness to technology training.
“We teach classes here on how to use cell phones for services, and now we hope to train more people how to use this app,” Davis said. “The technology is a great supplement to a white cane or guide dog. But it doesn’t replace the problem-solving skills we teach for people to be as aware as they can of their surroundings.”
Montas, the case manager, lives in Tampa and commutes to Lighthouse of Pinellas in Largo. But getting around Tampa Bay is not easy. "There are limitations to the bus schedule because the routes don’t connect between the counties,” he said.
Advancements like Lazarillo can help. “There are other apps out there, but none that offer the turn-by-turn directions even inside buildings like Lazarillo,” Montas said.
Another feature: Lazarillo’s directions come out quicker than normal speech because many visually impaired people comprehend more syllables per second than those who are sighted.
The app still has some growing pains.
As Montas used it to get from the bus stop to Lighthouse of Pinellas, Lazarillo directed him to cross Bryan Dairy Road unnecessarily. But the app was able to point out how many feet away, and on the right or left, where the bus stop was. It also recognized businesses or ATMs he passed on the way.
“Those landmarks are important cues for people who can’t see,” Davis said. “So having that information helps them feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar place.”