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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 May 2001 Issue  Volume 2  Number 3

Access Issues

A New Look for the Book: Overview of Digital Talking Book Technology

There is no getting around it. The ability to read is essential to a rewarding life. Of course, blind people cannot read the same way others do, so alternate formats, such as braille, have been created over the years to provide us access to information.

The Talking Book is perhaps the most popular of all information technologies ever designed for blind people. It has been so successful because it is the easiest to learn and use and because many libraries that produce Talking Books pride themselves on producing quality.

Yet the Talking Book we know and love is about to change dramatically. The Talking Book is being radically enhanced and transformed by groups all over the world, including the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) at the Library of Congress; and members of the International Digital Audio-based Information System (DAISY) Consortium such as, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB and D), the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), and others around the world. The new product will be called the Digital Talking Book, and it will soon be available from a library near you.

Why Argue with Success?

Why would anyone want to change one of the most successful technologies ever devised to bridge the information gap for blind readers? This article will tell you, and it will also answer questions about what this new Digital Talking Book is, how it works, who is producing books in this new format, and when you can expect them to become readily available.

The traditional Talking Book is excellent for reading novels, in which readers usually begin at the beginning and continue reading until they come to the end. But this kind of reading is an ineffective way to get information from encyclopedias, dictionaries, cookbooks, and travel guides. It is also a poor way to study anything, because it is not at all easy to go back and forth to very specific parts of a book, check cross-references, underline parts for later review, and write notes in the margin. What about looking up a word in the dictionary, finding a hotel in our travel guide, or turning to page 479 when our teacher tells the class to do so? Tapes, and even braille books, have not served us well in such reading tasks. Finally, through Digital Talking Books, we will have the same kind of random access to information that nondisabled readers have taken for granted since Gutenberg invented the printing press. We will be able to pull out the chicken recipes in our cookbooks without stumbling through a long table of contents on tape 1 and rewinding tape 4 to the beginning of side 2 and without counting beep tones while cringing through the shrieking noises made by audio cassettes in fast forward. Students will spend more time enjoying learning instead of struggling with cumbersome technology. They will "find page 479" at least as quickly as their sighted peers. All of us will discover the joy of casually looking things up simply because we'll finally be able to do so easily.

But I Just Want to Read

Many people are satisfied with just reading from the beginning to the end in the books they choose. Most people will still want to read novels and mysteries the good old-fashioned way. Even for this kind of reading, the new navigation features of Digital Talking Books provide advantages. For example, it will be much easier to find your place in the morning after you've fallen asleep reading.

What Are the New Features?

The new features are exciting because they provide capabilities that are wanted and needed by many users. The superb recorded narrations that have defined Talking Books since the 1930s will now often be accompanied by a parallel track of text, which can be displayed in large print or in braille so that we can see or feel the words at the same time as we hear them. When we rewind or fast forward, we'll actually move back or forward to the beginning of the chapter or the paragraph—not just some arbitrary number of words as we do today. We will also have the ability to record a note in our own voice, or to type one in on our computer keyboard. These notes will stay with the page where we placed them.

Who's Reading Now?

Students in Japan and Sweden already have thousands of Digital Talking Books titles available. Students at the Texas School for the Blind have been using Digital Talking Books as part of a pilot project from RFB and D. "Our students love them," says Jim Allan, the school's Web Master. "In fact, we've started making our own when we need them using our Junior League volunteers. We give them about 45 minutes of training in the software we use to produce books."

It Had to Happen

In the age of the World Wide Web, when one page connects to another which connects to yet another, it is not surprising that Digital Talking Books can be created so that the books themselves know where the next chapter starts or where the beginning of the current paragraph is. In fact, the Digital Talking Book is really just the clever application of web technologies wrapped into an electronic package.

A Tale of Two Committees

Digital Talking Books are sometimes referred to as DAISY books, as NISO books, or even as NISO/DAISY books. These are just different names for the same thing. The reason the words NISO and DAISY are associated with Digital Talking Books is, in fact, the story of how these books came to be.

Give Me Your Answer True

Early efforts to use modern computer technology to better meet the information needs of blind readers gained momentum in 1995, when several libraries for the blind from around the world created the DAISY Consortium to develop specifications for Digital Talking Books.

In 1997 NLS also began research into this area. NLS created a committee under the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) to create a formal published standard for Digital Talking Books that could be internationally recognized and approved. Before long the DAISY and NISO groups were working together toward a single, worldwide standard.

What exactly are Digital Talking Books? This is actually a harder question to answer because Digital Talking Books provide so much that blind readers have not had before. Let's start by talking about what they are not. Digital Talking Books are not really a thing that you can hold, though they may come on a CD-ROM, for example. The same Digital Talking Books might also be available on the web or from the server at your school. They are a set of computer files that can be delivered in all the same ways that computer files are delivered today—and all the new ways they will be delivered tomorrow.

To put it technically, Digital Talking Books are well-organized collections of computer files produced according to specifications published in the standards that define them (see http://www.loc.gov/nls/niso/ and http://www.daisy.org). They are a medium-independent information access and delivery technology based on open standards, primarily the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) XML (Extensible Markup Language) and SMIL (Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language)—pronounced "smile." But most users will never need or want to know this background, just like most drivers do not need to know much about how their automobiles work.

How Will We Read Digital Talking Books?

There are three principal types of players for reading Digital Talking Books: computers; personal digital assistants (PDAs), such as the BrailleNote; and specialized, stand-alone hardware players.

Computers

If you need all of the features available in Digital Talking Books, you'll probably have to use a computer to read them. Already there are software players that access this new format. As titles begin to be available, there will be yet more software players among which you can choose. These are also the least costly players—once you have a computer, that is.

PDAs

Devices like the BrailleNote will have the ability to access Digital Talking Books. Such devices are already very popular because of their small size and their ability to display braille as well as play recorded sound.

Specialized, Stand-Alone Hardware Players

There are already two such players—the Victor by Visuaide and the Plextalk by Plextor. (See the Product Evaluation elsewhere in this issue.) More of these will probably become available because they are the easiest to learn to use and they can be very small and portable. These are also the most affordable players for people who do not own a computer.

How We Will Use Digital Talking Books

Not all players will support all of the features available in Digital Talking Books. This is a good thing, because we will always need simple players that are very easy to use—and simple and feature rich are opposites. It is also a good thing because we will want to be able to have small and highly portable players. We will choose our players based on how we want to use these books—and on the kind of media we have to play.

Features

Text

When Digital Talking Books contain text, it is possible to send the text to a braille embosser or display it on a refreshable braille display or on a screen—in any font and font size. It is also possible to check spelling and search for text the way you can now search on the web.

Recorded Narration

This is the feature we are already familiar with because it is the only feature Talking Books have provided us until now. In the Digital Talking Book, however, we'll be able to speed up (or slow down) playback without the "Mickey Mouse effect."

Both Text and Recorded Narration

When both of these features are present together in the Digital Talking Book they will also be synchronized so that you can feel the brailled words or see the print words as you hear them read aloud.

Navigation (or Turning Pages)

Digital Talking Books will have structure—chapters, sections, and paragraphs. Because a Digital Talking Book uses next generation web technology (technology that is not yet being used on the web, but will be soon), moving forward and backward will be quicker than ever before and logical. This is a profound change from today's Talking Book, in which fast forward and rewind are purely arbitrary and have nothing to do with the chapters and paragraphs of the book. In the Digital Talking Book we will usually move directly to the beginning of the next chapter, for example. The logical units we move by will be selectable by the user.

In a dictionary, the forward and backward commands might move to the first entry for each letter of the alphabet. Raising the movement increment by one notch would then move us from aa to ab to ac then to ad, and so on. Looking something up becomes very simple once this kind of navigation is mastered. It is not hard to master because it uses only four keys—forward, backward, level-up, and level-down.

Direct Hyperlinks

This feature will make it easy to jump to any part of the book that is listed in the table of contents or referred to in the text, such as cross-references to appendixes or sidebars. Footnotes will be marked as hyperlinks and will be something we can turn on and off depending on whether or not we want to read the text in footnotes as we come across the references.

Bookmarks

Just as we bookmark our favorite web pages today, we'll have the ability to bookmark any number of points in our Digital Talking Books. Because bookmarks will be stored in a computer file, we'll be able to share bookmarks with our friends.

Upsy DAISY

Do all of these features leave you dizzy? Remember that it's a "take what you want and leave the rest" kind of deal. These features will be available, in various combinations, depending on how particular books are produced and depending on what player you choose to read them on.

When Will We Get Digital Talking Books?

About 10,000 titles already have been produced in Japan and about 2,000 in Sweden. The experience of users in these countries has proven the technology works, encouraging libraries elsewhere to initiate production programs.

"We began creating titles in the DAISY format late last year," says Kathy Korpolinski, Director of Marketing and New Product Development at RFB and D. "We currently have 33 recording studio facilities throughout the U.S. producing our analog tape textbooks, and approximately one-half of these have at least one digital studio for creating Digital Talking Books. We will continue to phase in additional digital capacity. We hope to offer approximately 3,000 titles to our patrons when we inaugurate our DAISY lending program next year. Some of these will be re-issues of titles we've previously produced on tape, but many will be brand new titles. We also want people to know that we will continue to record and offer books on audio cassette, just as we do today. Our DAISY program will be a new addition to our service, and not a replacement. We're very excited about this important expansion in our service."

Both CNIB and RNIB are planning new Digital Talking Book programs beginning with approximately 2,500 titles next spring. Jim Fruchterman, the creator and former President of Arkenstone Products, is hard at work on a new business called "BookShare," which will enable people to share books they've scanned as Digital Talking Books with other blind readers throughout the United States. Meanwhile, the American Foundation for the Blind's (AFB) Talking Books Program has begun working with mainstream publishers to produce Digital Talking Books for the general reading public. Already, AFB has produced one title with Time-Warner Audio Books—the "I Have A Dream" speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Download your free copy at http://www.afb.org/mlkweb.asp.

The Rest of Us

NLS has laid out its plans for transitioning to a Digital Talking Book system in its publication "Digital Talking Books: Planning for the Future" (see www.loc.gov/nls/dtb.html). That document defines a 20-step process for designing and implementing such a system.

"We're working on most of the first eight steps of the plan," reported Michael Moodie, NLS' Research and Development Officer. "With the completion of the draft NISO standard, we can turn our attention to building many of the tools we'll need to produce Digital Talking Books. We'll then begin to develop a collection of Digital Talking Books so we have a good selection of books when we start to distribute audio books in digital form. But we're still at least five years away from any major implementation of a Digital Talking Book system. As we've said often, while the CD will be very useful for other agencies, we don't believe it is appropriate for our program, because of issues related to reliability, maintenance, and the longevity of the format. We think the choice of delivery medium for NLS will become clear in the next year or two."

Digital Talking Books vs. Electronic Books

Our survey of the world of Digital Talking Books would be incomplete without some words about their relation to the wider world of electronic books (also called e-books) in general. Digital Talking Books are, in fact, a particular kind of electronic book—the kind defined by and for people who are blind and otherwise print disabled to best meet our particular information access and reading needs. Digital Talking Books will not "work" on players that are not designed to play them. The Rocket E-Book, for example, will not play Digital Talking Books because that device is built to play books created to a different standard. Similarly, many mainstream electronic books will not be directly accessible to blind readers because they are produced for particular reading devices that are visual.

But, many electronic books, such as the ASCII and HTML texts published on the web by Project Gutenberg, are accessible. Last year, NLS began offering its braille titles on its web site to NLS patrons, and we could certainly call these electronic books. (This very popular format is called Web-Braille, and information on how to access it is detailed in the Question and Answer column in this issue.) Microsoft has promised to build support for the NISO/DAISY standard into Microsoft Reader and has joined the DAISY Consortium. So, it is even possible that someday soon, some of us will be reading our NLS books using Microsoft Reader.

Dreaming of a Better Future

Perhaps the best news about Digital Talking Books is the news we've saved for last. There is an excellent probability that the key features and specifications that define Digital Talking Books will be incorporated in mainstream electronic publishing standards. It would be exciting indeed if we could count on mainstream electronic books for our reading—and this is actually possible. To learn more about this, read AFB's white paper entitled "Surpassing Gutenberg" at http://www.afb.org/ebook.asp.

The Open Electronic Book Forum (OEBF; see http://www.openebook.org) is currently at work on its 2.0 publication file format specification, and key features from the Digital Talking Book are under consideration for inclusion in this specification. OEBF has further named accessibility among its goals. AFB, RFB and D, and the Japanese Society for Rehabilitation of Persons with Disabilities (JSRPD)—all DAISY members—are also active members of OEBF. George Kerscher (who is also interviewed in this issue of AccessWorld) is the Chair of OEBF's Board of Directors. Time will tell, but the probability that OEBF 2.0 will include most of the features of the NISO/DAISY Digital Talking book is very high. This prospect is extremely exciting because far more titles will be published using the OEBF's standards than would ever be produced by libraries that serve blind patrons. This does not necessarily mean that mainstream electronic book players will be accessible. It would mean, however, that mainstream books might be accessible when played in a NISO/DAISY-compliant player because those players could easily add support for the OEBF 2.0 specification. Such a situation would work well if the OEBF 2.0 specification incorporates the Digital Talking Book features described in this article.

Our blindness may separate us from the rest of the world in some ways, but it doesn't need to separate us in electronic environments. The features that are coming with the Digital Talking Book are just support for a smarter way to read. They will enable blind readers to read the way others have been reading print books for centuries.

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AccessWorld, Copyright © 2002 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved.

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