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

Caption: "The move from tree books to e-books is inevitable," according to George Kerscher, chair of the Open E-Books Forum and pioneer in the field.

In This Issue . . .

Editor's Page

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

Janina Sajka

Who Are the Players: Reviews of Hardware and Software Digital Talking Book Players

Product Evaluations of Plextor's PlexTalk, VisuAide's Victor Reader Pro, and Labyrinten Data's LP Player--Jay Leventhal and Richard Holborow

George Kerscher: A Pioneer in Digital Talking Books Still Forging Ahead

Deborah Kendrick

Questions and Answers: What Is Web-Braille?

Crista Earl

Internet Appliances That Use Computer Display Technology

Product Evaluations of Compaq's iPAQ, Netpliance's I-Opener, and eMachines' MSN Companion--Mark M. Uslan and Kevin Dusling



Editor in Chief Jay D. Leventhal
Senior Contributing Editor Paul Schroeder
Contributing Editors Crista L. Earl
Deborah Kendrick
Mark Uslan
Managing Editor Sharon Shively
Marketing Manager Sharon Baker-Harris

Editor's Page

Technology has changed the way everyone lives their lives. Friends and colleagues all have personal data assistants (PDAs). Some people surf the web to do their shopping. Others are constantly checking their stock portfolios online.

People who are blind or visually impaired have a special relationship with technology. It has not just provided a new way of doing things, it has made it possible to live our lives more independently and spontaneously. It has opened doors to jobs that were not available before. We can exchange e-mail with colleagues and friends without special arrangements or the involvement of a reader. We can shop online privately and avoid the hassles of arranging traveling to stores and dealing with uncooperative salespeople.

The media love anti-technology stories. Almost daily you can read an article in which a commentator brags about how little he or she knows about computers or rhapsodizes about how he or she prefers to read, touch, and smell a book instead of squinting at the screen of an e-book player.

These commentators don't know how good they have it. They have never gotten lost using Windows with a screen reader or a screen magnifier. They have not had to wait a year until a book is recorded or transcribed into braille.

It is exciting when a new technology comes along that is accessible from the beginning and has huge potential to revolutionize yet another major life activity. This issue of AccessWorld brings you three articles on Digital Talking Books. Janina Sajka, Director of Information Systems Research at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), provides an overview of these books. She explains what they are, why you should care about this new format that most of you may not have even heard about yet, who is involved in their development, and when books will be available.

Richard Holborow, an intern who also updates and handles requests for searches of AFB's Careers and Technology Information Bank (CTIB), and I report the results of an evaluation of two stand-alone and one software-based Digital Talking Book players. This new format gives you much more control over how you read. The job for the manufacturers of these players is to give us some or all of the possible features without overwhelming us with buttons, knobs and switches, especially ones that are not marked tactilely.

You will all have the opportunity to try out this new format. Some time in the next month, all AccessWorld subscribers will receive a CD-ROM from us in the mail. On it, you will find this issue of AccessWorld recorded in Digital Talking Book format, along with a demonstration copy of a player on which to listen to it. A "read me" file on the CD will explain how to install the player and listen to the May AccessWorld. Let us know what you think.

Also in this issue, Deborah Kendrick interviews George Kerscher of Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB and D), a pioneer of accessible, electronic books in the 1980s with computerized Books for the Blind and now a major force in the evolution of Digital Talking Books.

Mark M. Uslan and Kevin Dusling continue our series of articles searching for an inexpensive, off-the-shelf computer appliance that is usable by people with low vision. And, believe it or not, they have found the rose among the thorns—an Internet appliance that some of you will be able to use.

Many of you have written to us praising AccessWorld Extra—the e-mail version we send out in the six months in which AccessWorld is not published. You don't want to miss the June issue. The April issue was filled with breaking news that we brought home from the California State University at Northridge (CSUN) "Technology and Persons with Disabilities" conference which, because of deadlines for the print and braille versions, will not be reported on in-depth in AccessWorld until July. To be added to the AccessWorld Extra list, send an e-mail message to accessworld@reu.com with the word "subscribe" in the subject line and the name or account number to which your regular edition of AccessWorld is mailed in the body.

Jay Leventhal

Editor in Chief

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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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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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Product Evaluation

Who Are the Players: Reviews of Hardware and Software Digital Talking Book Players

This Product Evaluation examines some of the stand-alone (hardware) and software players that will bring the next generation of Talking Books to you. The format in which books will be recorded is called Digital Audio-based Information System (DAISY), also called Digital Talking Books. We evaluated stand-alone players and software-based players to be used on a computer. Since very few of you have been able to play with any of these products, we will spend more time describing them and how they work than on the details of how they perform. Also, since there were very few books available to test, we could not determine if some of the problems and quirks were caused by the players or by the way each book was produced. We were able to scrounge up The Book of Dragons; Alcohol, Aggression, and Teenagers; Heat Energy; Tourist Information about Hamburg; The World of Wine; the March 2000 issue of AccessWorld; and the Victor's manual.

Increased Access

The experience of listening to a Digital Talking Book is quite different from that of listening to a book on cassette. As with a cassette book, you can start at the beginning and listen to the whole book. If your cassette player allows, you can fast forward or rewind, listening for tones placed at the beginning of pages or at chapter headings. With the Digital Talking Book players, you can do this to an even greater degree and much more effectively. There are commands to move forward or back a page, a heading, a chapter, or a phrase. You can skip the acknowledgments, skip to the next story, or go back to hear something that you missed. No longer do you have to wait for that long rewind or fast forward; the Digital Talking Book players take you forward or backward almost instantaneously. They also allow you to increase or decrease the speed of the reading. They use speech compression—they cut the pauses between words rather than just increase the speed at which the book is played. So, your favorite narrator will seem to be reading very quickly in his or her own human voice, instead of sounding like a mouse. (For more detail about the features and history of Digital Talking Books, see "A New Look for the Book" in this issue.)

Victor Reader Pro

The Victor Reader Pro measures 8 x 7 x 1.5 inches and weighs 2.2 lb. It has a nickel metal hydride battery with a battery life of 4-5 hours. On the back of the unit is the on/off button to the far right, the A/C adapter just to the left, and a currently unused serial port at the left end. The earphone jack is near the front on the right side.

Victor Reader Pro

Caption: Victor Reader Pro.

The Victor has 23 control buttons on the top of the unit. In a row vertically on the left side are the key describer, bookmark, go to page, and quick bookmark buttons. On the right are the tone, speed and volume rocker switches, and the eject button. In between these two rows of controls is a 12-key telephone-style keypad. The 1-9 and 0 keys each serve their numeric functions as well as a second function (except for the 7 key, which currently has no second function). As on computer numeric keypads, numbers 2, 4, 6, and 8 move up, back, forward, and down through the text, respectively. The 1 key lets you go from book to book if more than one book is on the CD-ROM. The 3 key accesses the history list. The 5 key tells you the current page. The 9 key sets the amount of time the machine can be inactive before it will shut itself off. The 0/Info key announces the number of pages, total listening time, time elapsed, time remaining, the unit's software version and serial number, and manufacturer's contact information.

PlexTalk TK-300

The PlexTalk measures 11.5 x 7 x 2.75 inches and weighs 4 lb. 7oz. (it has a nickel hydride battery.) The A/C adaptor is on the rear of the unit. The on/off rocker switch is near the back of the right side of the unit. Just in front of the switch is a dial, which is used to change the volume of PlexTalk's voice guide—a female voice that speaks the commands you enter and messages from the PlexTalk.

PlexTalk TK-300

Caption: PlexTalk TK-300.

CDs are inserted into a caddy—a protective case—and then slid into a slot on the front of the machine. To the right of this slot, at the extreme right of the machine, is the square eject button. Altogether, there are 32 buttons and knobs to control the PlexTalk. The speaker is located toward the back on top of the unit. To the left of the speaker are the speed, volume and tone knobs, going from right to left. At the left front are the go back, play, and go forward buttons.

To the right of these keys is a 12-button phone-style keypad, followed by a vertical row of 4 buttons. From back to front, these buttons are: 0, the time key, which announces the recorded, elapsed, and remaining time; the tree key, which announces header information; the page key, which announces the page number while playing or jumps to a specified page; and the bookmark key, which announces bookmark numbers and jumps to specified bookmarks. Above the phone-style keypad are the bookmark set key and bookmark delete key. To the left of the phone pad are the four arrow keys used for navigating through a book. The up and down keys move you through the various levels in which the book is indexed. The left and right arrows move you back or forward to the next position of the level you are on. For example, you can use the up arrow to move up from a heading to the chapter level, then use the right arrow to move ahead a chapter at a time. If you make a mistake or want to change the operation you are performing, the two keys above the arrow keys—the undo and redo buttons—can be used.

The numbered keys on the phone pad are used to key in a desired number for a page or a bookmark. For example, keying in 77 and pressing page will take you to page 77; keying in 3 and pressing the bookmark key will take you to the third bookmark as it is positioned chronologically in the book. To the left of the 0 is the previous key, and to the right is the next key. Like the numbers, pressing either one and the page or bookmark key will move you one step backwards or forwards.

When the PlexTalk is stopped, pressing the page key gives you the total number of pages in the book. While it is playing, pressing the page key will tell you which page you are on. To move to a given page, press the desired number on the phone pad and press the page button. PlexTalk will say the name of the page and commence reading. If the page doesn't exist or the format of the book doesn't include page markers, a buzzing sound will occur and the voice guide will say "no page."

To mark a particular point in the book, press the set bookmark button. The PlexTalk will tell you how many bookmarks are remaining; you can have up to 20 bookmarks. Note that the bookmark numbers do not correspond to the order in which you set them. Rather, they are numbered sequentially from start to finish of the book. For example, you may have set your first bookmark on page 33 and set a new one on page 10. The one at page 10 will now be bookmark 1, and the one on page 33 will be bookmark 2.

To find out which bookmark precedes your current position in the book, press the bookmark key and the voice guide will tell you its number. To go to a bookmark, press the number you desire and press the bookmark key. When a book is not playing, pressing the bookmark key will tell you the total number of bookmarks in the book.


The Victor and PlexTalk machines that we tested both performed basic reading functions well. Both units played books for long periods without problems. We were able to skip from chapter to chapter, section to section, and phrase to phrase. Some of the books we tried did not play on one of the units. However, by the time you read this, there will be a standard for creating Digital Talking Books—just as there is for videotapes—so that all books will play on all new machines introduced onto the market.

Differences between Machines Reviewed

CDs must be inserted into a caddy before inserting them in the PlexTalk. The caddy helps to protect the CD from damage, but it is difficult to open, especially for anyone who lacks good dexterity. The Victor does not use a caddy; CDs are inserted just as they are in your CD player.

The Victor is smaller, lighter, and definitely more portable than the PlexTalk. The Victor shuts off after a specified time of inactivity, up to an hour, to save battery life. The PlexTalk we tested did not have a sleep mode or automatic shut-off feature, though it does give you a message when the battery is low. When turning on the PlexTalk, you can use the tree key to get information about the status of your battery power. If the A/C power cable is not connected to recharge the battery, it will discharge to half after five days.

The page feature on the PlexTalk is rather straightforward. You just key in the page you want, press the page key, and PlexTalk begins reading the page. With the Victor, you have to press the go to page key, key in an entry, press enter, then press play for reading to begin.

Both machines allow you to mark a point of text on a CD with a bookmark. The Victor's bookmarking procedure is somewhat easier to learn because it makes use of only one command key and the enter key. Moreover, you can use the numbers on the phone pad to give your bookmark a specific number if you don't want Victor to assign one to it. The Victor lets you place a quick bookmark on the fly, marking just one position that you can quickly return to with the quick bookmark key. The PlexTalk automatically assigns numbers to bookmarks.

Once you have reached the end of a book, The PlexTalk will turn itself off. When you press play again, it will begin reading at the beginning of the book. If there is more than one book on the CD, PlexTalk remains in the book you were reading. Therefore, when it reaches the end, you have to direct PlexTalk to move ahead to the next book. The Victor stops at the end of a book and remains there until you instruct it to go to a page or to another book or to move back a level at a time.

The Victor loads books faster than the PlexTalk does. It started reading five to eight seconds sooner than the PlexTalk did. The fastest for Victor was 14 seconds, and the longest for PlexTalk was 26 seconds.

Software-based Players

Another option for reading Digital Talking Books is a software-based player that can be installed on a laptop or desktop computer. We tested LP Player from Labyrinten Data. You can access LP Player's controls with standard Windows menus or shortcut keys. The up, down, left, and right arrows are used to navigate through the book. Left and right arrows move back and forward, respectively, a phrase at a time. Adding the control key allows you to move level by level, and header to header (section by section).

We did have some trouble navigating through the various levels. It seemed at times that we could not move from one heading to another heading between chapters until we first went up a level and moved from the previous chapter to the next chapter. This problem was especially evident when we moved backwards a section at a time. Also, the key combinations didn't always change the level, so we had to go to the menus to make the change.

Not all the Digital Talking Books we tested allowed us to use the navigation features of LP Player, though they all allowed us to navigate using the Victor or PlexTalk. When we became lost or uncertain what level heading we were on, the where am I feature was helpful.

The page feature worked most of the time, though in one of the books it occasionally got stuck, that is, you couldn't page up or page down to the next page. There is also a go to page feature so that you could jump immediately to that page. Bookmarks worked just as they do on the stand-alone units. It is necessary to assign a number to your bookmark; LP Player will not assign one for you.

You can insert up to 10 bookmarks and can go to a bookmark by typing in the number of the bookmark you would like. One nice feature LP Player has that the two stand-alone players we tested didn't have was a find feature that allows you to search for a string of words that appear in the book. This feature worked well in the heat energy book, but did not always find words in the dragons book.

Because software-based players work on your laptop computer, they offer the attractive possibility of not having to carry an extra gadget on a business trip or vacation. Since they have standard Windows menus, there is no need to learn the function of a lot of buttons and knobs.

Turn Up the Music!

Had enough of reading or studying? These Digital Talking Book players are also CD players. You can move from track to track and go directly to the song you want to listen to. They also announce the elapsed and remaining time for both the current track and the entire CD.

The Final Chapter

All products we tested, stand alone and software based, handled basic reading well. They have a lot of features that people who are blind or visually impaired have been craving for a long time. The models reviewed here are ideal for students who need the same kind of detailed access to written materials that their sighted classmates have. Advanced users will also be thrilled and spend hours playing with the buttons and learning the intricacies of each feature.

We strongly believe that simplified versions of Digital Talking Book players (with complete documentation) need to be produced to satisfy the average user. As you can tell from this article, current models just have too many buttons, knobs, and features. The average reader of Talking Books is used to a machine with only play, stop, rewind, fast forward, and eject buttons. We also believe that the buttons that remain on future models must be labeled tactilely. The future of reading is exciting. The last thing that we want is for the machines designed to bring that future to us to scare some of us away.

Manufacturers' Comments

Plextor: "An enhanced CD-based Talking Book player, PlexTalk, is available now with a phone-style keypad and rechargeable battery. A basic unit with less functionality is also available for less cost. The portable player/recorder is also under development and is scheduled for release early next year."

VisuAide: "VisuAide now offers two new products designed to make Digital Talking Book technology even more accessible to persons with visual disabilities. Victor Reader Classic, a new simplified portable unit for leisure reading, offers basic navigation features like browsing the table of contents and skipping from section to section or from page to page. Victor Reader Soft is a software version of the Digital Talking Book player."

Product Information


Manufacturer: Plextor; phone: 978-725-8965 or 408-980-1838, x168; e-mail: plextalk@plextor.co.jp; web site: http://www.plextor.com.jp/ereader/er_1.html. Price: $495.

Victor Reader Pro

Manufacturer: VisuAide; phone: 819-471-4818 or 888-723-7273; e-mail: info@visuaide.com; web site: www.visuaide.com. Price: $495.


Manufacturer: Labyrinten Data, Dolphin Computer Access Group; phone +44(0)1905-754577; e-mail: john.worsfold@dolphinuk.co.uk; web site: http://www.audiopublisher.com.

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George Kerscher: A Pioneer in Digital Talking Books Still Forging Ahead

"Necessity is the mother of invention," the adage goes, and it applies well to the personal history of George Kerscher, named 1998 Innovator of the Year by U.S. News and World Report. Kerscher still recalls the thrill of his first Talking Book. While listening to the recorded text of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, he followed along in the printed text. He was 28, had just been declared legally blind, and says that it was his most enjoyable read in years!

"I began thinking about the synchronization of text and audio," Kerscher says, and carried the technique into his classrooms as a high school literature teacher. The kids loved it, too. "Many of them probably had undiagnosed learning disabilities," he reflects today, and responded well to the concept of listening and reading simultaneously. His use of recorded books enabled him to continue teaching as his ability to see the printed page diminished. If adaptive technology had existed in the early 1980s as we know it today, Kerscher believes he probably would have continued teaching. As it was, however, he threw away his driver's license, reached a point where he could not see students' handwriting, and grew weary of creative solutions to do his job.

Kerscher discovered that he had an aptitude for computers and enrolled in a master's program in computer science at the University of Montana. There was no Americans with Disabilities Act in 1985, and thus no laws to protect him from what he calls "meeting the prejudice wall." His agreement with the computer department was that if he received straight As in prerequisite courses and passed the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), he would be accepted into the master's program. He earned the As but then was given a reader for the GRE who was unfamiliar with the material. Faced with less than favorable odds, he skipped the English portion of the exam, focusing on areas that would demonstrate his qualification for the graduate program, and followed up with a letter "with perfect grammar, spelling, and punctuation" with the comment that his English degree should serve as proof of his qualification in that area. Another creative solution was successful, and he was in.

Using live readers and recorded books for his coursework was laborious at best, and when Kerscher met the author of a book on MS-DOS in 1985, it occurred to him to ask if the electronic files were available. That idea led to his writing to 15 publishers requesting files. A few responded with floppy disks that were, in his words, "complete garbage."

"I threw them in a drawer," Kerscher says," and then one day took them out again. Comparing the garbage on the screen with the print book on my CCTV, I began writing a program. It was like working out a puzzle. The program took three weeks to write, 10 seconds to run, and I was reading a book with my screen reader for the very first time."

Word spread throughout the blind community of Kerscher's breakthrough, and Computerized Books for the Blind (CBFB), a nonprofit organization for the distribution of books in ASCII files on floppy disks, was born. Microsoft Press heard what he was doing and released copyright permission. The press had been receiving requests from blind people around the world for books in electronic files, and finally there was a solution. Other publishers released permission, as well. With support from the University of Montana's Institute on Disability, Kerscher registered users for a one-time $25 fee and then distributed books free of charge. In the three years from 1988 to 1991, Computerized Books for the Blind produced over 750 titles, distributing them to over 1,200 blind computer users around the world.

The Next Chapter

In 1991, Kerscher went to work for Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB and D), the Princeton, New Jersey, nonprofit organization distributing recordings of educational materials to blind and dyslexic consumers since 1948. As RFB and D's research and development director, he focused on the organization's new e-text project, producing books on floppy disks with some navigational capabilities. By 1995, he was named Senior Officer of Accessible Information, not only consulting on accessible information issues to all RFB and D departments, but also collaborating with others around the world to develop standards for book delivery in digital formats.

Driving Miss DAISY

Organizations serving the blind in Sweden, Japan, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere had begun developing systems for delivering digital books to blind readers. To develop a single set of standards designed for blind users worldwide, the Digital Audio-based Information System (DAISY) Consortium was formed in 1995. In 1996, at the DAISY meeting in Toronto, Kerscher demonstrated the DAISY technology developed at RFB and D, incorporating the perspectives of the Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines and Synchronized Media Integration Language (SMIL). The consortium agreed that one single set of standards would be adopted worldwide, and a year later, with the blessing of RFB and D, George Kerscher was hired as DAISY's project manager.

Throughout history, many inventions and innovations initially perceived as useful to people with disabilities have found their way into the mainstream marketplace, and the same is true for electronic books. Since the American Foundation for the Blind began recording books for blind consumers since the 1930s, book lovers of all abilities have more recently come to love the pleasure of a book read aloud on car stereos and personal tape players everywhere. Similarly, as LCD screens on notebook and laptop computers improved in resolution and personal data assistants became more widespread, the commercial interest in producing books for the general population that could be read electronically soared.

"The move from tree books to e-books is inevitable," Kerscher says. But it wasn't a simple matter of technology. Authors, publishers, and book sellers are concerned with rights and the potential for lost revenue. Blind and dyslexic consumers are concerned about rights and the loss of access to reading material. It became clear to Kerscher and others that developers of books for blind readers needed to become involved with the development of commercial e-book standards to protect the level of equality blind computer users have come to enjoy in recent decades.

At the first general meeting of the Open E-books Forum (OEBF) in New York City in May 2000, George Kerscher was unanimously elected chairperson of the OEBF Board. This position holds tremendous promise for access by blind users to the next generation of digitally delivered books. Comprised of hardware and software developers, publishers, authors, and organizations interested in electronic books, the Open E-books Forum is dedicated to establishing common specifications for all e-book materials once production is in full swing. Kerscher, in other words, now has feet firmly planted in both the development of standards for digital information designed specifically for blind readers as well as those for mainstream production. (For more detail on the DAISY Consortium, see "A New Look for the Book" in this issue.)

So Where Are the Books?

The end product might take a variety of forms, both hardware and software, but real books produced according to the DAISY standard, also called Digital Talking Books, have been distributed in Sweden and Japan for some time, and will soon be available in the United States. RFB and D has been converting thousands of its titles from cassette to digital format and will begin shipping them in 2002. Although most will be audio only—each title housed on a single compact disc with bookmark and search capabilities—Kerscher says that some will have full text, as well. For the past year, test sites around the country, mostly junior high and high schools, have been working with Digital Talking Books, or DAISY-capable books, and plans are under way for converting RFB and D's 31 recording studios, each with five to eight recording booths, to record materials in a digital format. Players are already available from a variety of sources (see "Who Are the Players:Reviews of Hardware and Software Digital Talking Book Players," in this issue).

Although NLS has also been heavily involved in establishing standards and planning for Digital Talking Book production, the process will take much longer. NLS distributes not only books but also players (whether hardware or software) for its materials free of charge, and designing a player that is user-friendly to all patrons is no small feat. The hope, explains Michael Moodie of NLS, is to bypass the compact disc technology altogether and ultimately produce books in a flash memory format, possibly similar to the memory sticks now available for digital cameras and other electronic devices. Whatever form the NLS Digital Talking Books materials ultimately take, the prediction at this point is approximately five years down the road for mass distribution of titles and players. A collaborative effort between Microsoft and HumanWare was announced in the fall of 2000 to render the BrailleNote, a Windows CE-based notetaker, compatible with Microsoft Reader, enabling blind consumers to load commercially produced mainstream E-books and read them through synthesized speech and braille. At this point, however, no product has been shown.

Where in the World is George Kerscher?

The overall process of keeping the interests of blind and other disabled consumers "on the same page" with commercial producers is enormously complex, but George Kerscher and other blindness leaders are exercising serious vigilance. Consider, for instance, George Kerscher's travel schedule for March. March 16-18, he was in Los Angeles for meetings with the DAISY Consortium. On March 19, he hopped a plane to Paris, France, for three days of meetings with the Open E-book Forum membership, and then back to Los Angeles to make a March 23 DAISY presentation at the CSUN (California State University, Northridge) conference, "Technology and People with Disabilities." Blind computer users who remember the trauma caused in workplaces and educational settings when DOS-based, blind-friendly applications were replaced by the initially bewildering graphical user interface regime will appreciate the importance of merging the issues of blind accessibility with commercial developments. This time, a laudable effort is being made on all fronts—and George Kerscher, with ties to the DAISY Consortium, Web Accessibility Initiative, Open E-book Forum, and elsewhere, is representing those issues at every foreseeable roadblock. To him, after all, it's far more than a job. He clearly remembers the thrill of that first Talking Book and later, the thrill of reading a book with his screen reader navigating complex material independently, randomly in the same luxurious mode print readers have long taken for granted. The promise of e-books is that eventually all blind children and adults will come to take that freedom of text navigation for granted, too.

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Q and A

Questions and Answers: What Is Web-Braille?

If you have questions you would like answered in an upcoming issue of AccessWorld, send them to accessworld@afb.net.

Question: I think I heard something about downloading braille books from the library. How does that work?

Answer: Web-Braille is the best thing to come along since the interpoint embosser. Best of all, you don't have to be a braille reader to benefit. You can download the electronic files, translate them, and read them with speech or magnification, or you can simply print them out with a braille embosser.

If you have a braille printer, you know that there is a lot of work involved in getting a book ready to be brailled on paper. First, the electronic version must be created. Then the electronic version must be translated into Grade 2 braille ("normal" braille to most people in the United States and other parts of the English-speaking world). The translation process usually involves a great deal of editing and formatting to get a library-perfect version of the book.

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), part of the U.S. Library of Congress, has made available thousands of braille books in electronic format. These are already translated and edited and are in perfect shape, ready to be sent to a braille printer. They take up far less space in your living room than the paper versions, so you can get them ahead of time and turn them into paper when you're ready to read them. Or, if you have a class, you can prepare copies for each student, instead of getting the single copy from your cooperating library and letting your students share (or fight over) it.

To use these books, all you need is to have a computer with Internet access and to be registered to receive Talking Books from NLS. Follow these nine easy steps to start reading Web-Braille books:

Step 1: Sign up. Just call your regional NLS Talking Books library and request a user name and password. Write this information down in a safe place, because you'll want to use it often.

Step 2: Go to http://www.loc.gov/nls, the NLS web site. It's loaded with good information, but don't be distracted now.

Step 3: Choose the link "Web-BLND." This takes you to the book catalog.

Step 4: Fill out part of the form to find a book that interests you. You don't need to get carried away filling out the entire form. Put "Harry Potter" in the title field for your first search if you want to be sure of finding something (I like success). Since you're interested in Web-Braille, also put the word "web" in the field labeled "enter annotation, notes, or content keyword." That will cut down on the number of books that are listed, especially if you put in something like "Smith" for author. Also, to help keep from being distracted by cassette books, select "braille" for format. If you're looking for a book about the Internet or spiders, that will also cut down the extraneous, non-Web-Braille listings you get.

Step 5: Submit the form. You do this by hitting the "Submit" button. Don't laugh; it's not that obvious. It's way down at the bottom where nobody sees it. Actually, you can hit enter on any of the edit fields (not the combo boxes) and the form will hit the submit button for you.

Next, a list of results will come up. You'll probably get books that aren't Web-Braille, so you'll have to look at the results. Near the top it will tell you something like "6 items meeting search criteria" and then will list the items. Those that are available in Web-Braille have "Note: Also available from Web-Braille as a Grade 2 braille digital file," and then the volumes of the book are listed as links.

Step 6: Click or press Enter on the first volume of the book you want.

Step 7: Before the book comes to you, you'll need to enter your user name and password. If you're using Internet Explorer, a dialog box will pop up. Fill it in and press Enter.

Step 8: For most people, the usual download procedure will begin. If you're using Internet Explorer, the "Save As" dialog will come up, already filled in with the name of the file. Pay attention to the location on your computer where the book will be saved—the same place as the last thing you downloaded using Internet Explorer, unless you specify otherwise.

By the way, these books have file names that don't look like book titles, so remember what you've downloaded. If you download several and don't take notes, you'll have books to surprise yourself with later.

Step 9: Get the book into the format that works for you. Here are some possibilities.

  1. It is already formatted for 11.5 x 11 paper, so you can use a braille printer and braille paper to produce the book on paper. No formatting is necessary; just send it to the braille printer.
  2. You can load it into your braille notetaker. If you have a device like a Braille 'n Speak, Braille Lite, or BrailleNote, just transfer the file and read.
  3. If you have a braille display on your computer, just read the book in Notepad or another handy editor. Remember to switch your screen reader out of Grade 2 mode, or it will try to translate the Grade 2 text into Grade 2 text. You can imagine what that will look like.
  4. You can back-translate the file from braille to print and let your computer read it to you. Use Duxbury, Kurzweil 1000, a Braille 'n Speak, or something else to back-translate the file. You'll find little oddities, but few errors will keep you from reading the text.

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Product Evaluation

Internet Appliances That Use Computer Display Technology

This Product Evaluation was made possible thanks to the generosity of the Verizon Foundation.

You would think that some of today's newest off-the-shelf consumer technology would be usable by people with low vision. So far we have looked at pocket-sized electronic organizers (November AccessWorld) and Internet appliances that connect to a television (January AccessWorld). None of the products evaluated so far works well for people with low vision. Although there were many reasons these products did not impress us, a common theme has been poor screen visibility as a result of a variety of factors, including resolution, contrast, and image size. That being said, don't write these gadgets off just yet.

Stay Tuned

A pocket-sized electronic organizer that is usable by people with low vision is still far from a reality, but at the rate that new products are being launched, sooner or later we will get a winner. In the short-term, the Internet appliances are more promising. Take the problem of resolution. Our tests were done on an old television (because they are so common), but we recently retested Internet appliances on a new television and found some interesting results. (See the sidebar for more details.)

In this evaluation of Internet appliances that use computer displays, one of the products we evaluated actually met all of our test criteria, including screen resolution. The criteria are:

  1. It should be able to send and receive e-mail, provide access to the web, and cost less than a very inexpensive PC (we found a PC for $600). We looked at three popular web sites: msnbc.com for news, tdwaterhouse.com for finance, and espn.com for sports.
  2. It should be relatively easy to set up. Components should connect easily, and connecting to the Internet should be relatively painless.
  3. Whether on a monitor or its own display, the contrast and resolution should be good. The size of icons should be big and well spaced. Text should be at least 22-point font, which is between 1/4 inch and 1/8 inch.
  4. It should have either a minimum number of keyboard controls, which are easy to find and use, or there should be accessible screen alternatives to keyboard controls.

Our research uncovered three candidates: Netpliance's I-Opener, Compaq's iPAQ, and eMachines' MSN Companion. The I-Opener and iPAQ come with color liquid crystal displays (LCD), and the MSN Companion uses a computer monitor that needs to be purchased separately. All three of these devices are able to send and receive e-mail and provide access to the Internet. The I-Opener costs $200 plus $21.95 a month for Netpliance's Internet service. The iPAQ costs $600 but comes with various rebate offers, including a $100 mail-in rebate from Compaq and a $400 rebate from Microsoft if you sign up for MSN as your Internet service provider (ISP) for 3 years. The MSN Companion costs $350 plus $21.95 a month for MSN as your ISP. We checked out low-cost monitors and found that it is possible to get a 19-inch monitor for $250 (see www.mysimon.com).

I-Opener and iPAC: Cute But …

These appliances are simple, streamlined, and very attractive. The components are only a flat panel LCD display and a QWERTY keyboard. The displays on both devices can be folded down like a laptop computer. The I-Opener's keyboard comes connected to the display via a connecting cable, and the iPAQ's keyboard is wireless. Both are very portable, weighing under 6 pounds each.

When you turn on the I-Opener for the first time it automatically dials the ISP, and you are online within two minutes. Getting online with iPAC requires that you call Microsoft and set up an MSN account. Both products come with giant "getting started" cards in 18-point font that go through procedures for basic set up and for getting online. So far so good.

Both LCD displays are small (8 x 6 inches), but contrast and resolution are reasonably good in both, moreso for the e-mail features than for the web features. Text on web pages can be enlarged in both, but because the screens are so small, enlarged text goes off the edge of the screen. To see the text that scrolls off, you must use a scroll bar at the bottom of the page, which we found annoying. Furthermore, text size for web pages and e-mail does not meet our criteria for 22-point font, even when enlarged to its maximum size. On the TDWaterhouse web site, charts and captions were tiny and could not be enlarged.

The LCD displays in both appliances show an annoying "ghosting" effect when the user is typing, moving the mouse, or scrolling. They both also have a mouse that is built into the keyboard in the form of a circular navigation pad 1 inch in diameter. In the center of the pad is a depression for a finger. The pad is pressed in any direction to move the mouse around the screen. We found the pad stiff to the touch and consequently frustrating to use. In addition, the mouse buttons are on the keyboard, which requires the use of a second hand. The worst part is that the navigation pad is the only way to control the mouse because there are no keyboard alternatives. The labeling of the many shortcut buttons on the keyboard of both devices leaves a lot to be desired because contrast is so poor.

MSN Companion: A Cut Above the Others

The MSN Companion is just a textbook-size box into which you plug its mouse and keyboard. The monitor, which must be purchased separately, is connected to it, as well. We used a 19-inch Komodo monitor. Compared to the I-Opener and the iPAQ, the Companion has more connections to make. Consequently, there are more wires and clutter to deal with, and set up is more involved. Since the Companion is so compact, it can take some time to find the right ports to plug into.

MSN Companion

Caption: MSN Companion.

To get online you need to call MSN and sign up for an account. The instruction manual is written in black 10-point text on a white background and contains some black-and-white graphics. It is well organized and easy to understand. When you first log in to the Companion you are taken through a training procedure. You are shown how to use the mouse, what a link is, and what a selection box is. For those already familiar with browsing the web, these exercises can be skipped, but for first timers, they are instructive.

The keyboard has 46 hard-to-see shortcut keys. They are small green buttons with black lettering in 10-point font with small icons. Fortunately, you don't have to use these keys; you can navigate around the screen using the Tab key. As the Tab key is hit a selection box is moved from link to link. As you jump to a link the text color changes from blue to red.

When you get online you are taken to MSN's home page, which contains a lot of text shortcuts, such as read/write mail, messenger, favorites, explore web topics, local lookups, settings, and advertisements. These links are blue on a white background and are in 22-point font, which meets our criteria. There is also a toolbar at the bottom of the screen that contains a URL address bar and shortcuts for start, back, mail, messenger, and page options. The text on the toolbar is black on yellow and is slightly smaller than our criteria, but it is accompanied by large icons that are easy to see.

E-mail is easy to use. In the mode for writing e-mail, the text is dark blue on a white background. In the mode for reading e-mail, the text is black on a white background. The e-mail font size is 28, and the letters are crisp and easy to read. The average font size on web pages we looked at was 22 point, and although the contrast and clarity varied, all web pages looked good because of the resolution offered by the computer monitor. Even the charts and captions on the TDWaterhouse web site were readable.

Our Recommendation

I-Opener and iPAQ have LCD screens that are too small, have insufficient magnification, and have poor screen navigation features. When connected to a 19-inch monitor the MSN Companion offers good text size, excellent resolution and contrast, and tolerable screen navigation features.

If your grandmother wants to get online right away, buy her an MSN Companion and an inexpensive 19-inch computer monitor. You may have to spend 5-10 minutes to connect all the components for her and you may need to set aside time for a few training sessions, but once the set up and training is done, you both will be much happier than if you bought an Internet appliance that connects to a television or one that uses a small LCD display and is limited in accessibility options. That being said, be on the alert for more new Internet appliances and be sure to try before you buy.

Product Information

iPAQ: $599.99; ISP: MSN ($21.95 per month)

Company: Compaq; phone: 800-345-1518; e-mail: plextalk@plextor.co.jp; web site: www.compaq.com/products/iPAQ.

I-Opener: $199.99; ISP: Netpliance

Company: Netpliance; phone: 1-800-467-3637; web site: www.netpliance.com.

MSN Companion: $349.96; ISP: MSN ($21.95 per month)

Company: eMachines; phone: 888-765-2411; web site: http://devices.msn.com/mscompanion/.

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Personnel Changes at Freedom Scientific

In March 2001 Deane Blazie and Ted Henter exchanged their positions as Vice Presidents of Freedom Scientific for new roles as Senior Consultants on Technical and Industry Matters for the company. Deane Blazie founded and owned Blazie Engineering, and Ted Henter founded and owned Henter-Joyce; both companies were acquired by Freedom Scientific in April 2000. Bryan Blazie, 13-year veteran of Blazie Engineering and former Vice President of Product Management for Freedom Scientific, announced his resignation in March 2001 to pursue other interests. For more information, contact: Freedom Scientific; phone: 727-803-8000; web site: www.freedomscientific.com.

Washington Watch

In February 2001, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) issued its final accessibility standards for electronic and information technology as required in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (1978). Section 508 requires that electronic and information technology used by federal agencies be as accessible to federal employees and members of the public who are disabled as it is to nondisabled people. The new standards provide technical criteria that specifically relate to various types of technologies, such as software applications and operating systems web-based information or applications, telecommunications functions, video or multi-media products, self-contained, closed products such as information kiosks and transaction machines, and computers. The standards also address compatibility with adaptive equipment used by people with disabilities for information and communication access. For more information, contact: The Access Board; phone: 202-272-5434; web site: www.access-board.gov/news/508-final.htm.

Also in February 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush released the Freedom Initiative on Disability, a set of policies that are designed to promote greater inclusion of people with disabilities in society. Among the proposals detailed in the initiative are: increase the federal investment in assistive technology research and development, expand funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, integrate people with disabilities into the workforce, and promote full access to community life. The initiative also calls for the following: low interest loans for people with disabilities to purchase computers and other equipment that would allow them to work from home, increased federal funding of low interest loans for the purchase of assistive technology, and additional funding for the purchase of assistive technology by small businesses to help them comply with ADA. The Freedom Initiative on Disability is available online at www.fcc.gov/cib/dro/#headlines. For more information, contact: Disability Rights Office; phone: 888-835-5322; web site: www.fcc.gov/cib/dro.

Interact with Your Television

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM), and America Online (AOL) plan to enter into a research partnership to utilize NCAM's Access to Convergent Media Project to explore ways to make graphically rich interactive television products, like AOLTV, accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. NCAM plans to use AOLTV as a model to produce a set of guidelines designed to provide accessible design guidance to cable TV providers, set-top box developers, and manufacturers of over-the-air digital television receivers. Initial efforts will focus on improving the accessibility of EPGs (electronic program guides) by integrating text-to-speech technology to facilitate audio output of graphical information.

For more information, contact: National Center for Accessible Media, WGBH Educational Foundation; phone: 617-300-3401; web site: www.wgbh.org.

Swap e-Books at New Internet Library

Benetech, the nonprofit technology company that was formed when Arkenstone was acquired by Freedom Scientific, announced its new venture, Bookshare.org. The web site is designed to be an Internet library for people who are blind or visually impaired to legally store and share scanned publications. The e-book format provided through Bookshare.org will be based on the DAISY/NISO standards, and e-books featured on the site will be formatted so they can be read by screen-reading programs; a Grade 2 braille extension is also expected to be implemented. Bookshare.org will be launched in 2001. For more information, contact: Benetech; phone: 650-603-8880; web site: www.benetech.org/projects/bookshare.shtml.

New Digital Talking Book Standard

In March 2001, the U.S. Library of Congress published a proposed standard for Digital Talking Books, which is based on W3C's XML and SMIL. If approved, the proposed standard will become a formal NISO standard in May 2001. For more information, contact: NISO; phone: 301-654-2512; web site: www.niso.org/Z3986.html.

Shh! I Can't Hear the ATM

Over 1,400 talking ATMs (automated teller machines) will sweep the Eastern states from Maine to Pennsylvania, according to recent announcements made by Fleet Bank and Mellon Bank. Fleet and the Boston-based Disability Law Center (DLC) announced their intention to install 1,420 talking ATMs in Fleet's Northeast retail service area. The groups also announced intentions to provide print materials to patrons in braille, cassette, and large print and to improve the screen-reader accessibility of Fleet's web site, www.fleet.com. The talking ATMs, 16 of which are already in place in Massachusetts, feature universal audio jacks that output private audio instructions that can be received on listening devices, which will be distributed by the bank to patrons with visual impairments.

In February 2001, Mellon Bank launched its pilot program to provide accessible ATMs by equipping 11 ATMs in Pennsylvania with voice-guided technology. The voice-guided feature is designed to allow visually impaired customers to insert a conventional set of audio headphones into a jack on the modified ATMs and operate the ATM by following spoken instructions on how to conduct basic ATM transactions.

For more information, contact: Fleet Customer Service; phone: 800-841-4000; web site: www.fleet.com/home.asp or Mellon Bank; phone: 800-635-5662; web site: www.mellon.com.

Listen to Listening In

CrissCross Technologies announced plans to offer subscribers to Listening In, its bi-monthly publication designed for advanced computer users with visual impairments, on CD. Listening In is also available on cassette. For more information, contact: CrissCross Technologies; phone: 718-268-6988; web site: www.crisscrosstech.com.

Dolphin Migration

Dolphin Computer Access has moved. Its new contact information is: Dolphin Computer Access, 60 East Third Avenue, Suite 130, San Mateo, CA 94401; phone: 650-348-7401; fax: 650-348-7403; web site: www.dolphinusa.com.

Document Conversion Software

Premier Programming Solutions offers three Venusoft products: Scan and Read Lite 3.0, Scan and Read Pro 3.0, Text Cloner 3.0, and DocReader. Scan and Read Lite is a scanning, optical character recognition (OCR), and reading package that has its own voice synthesizer; it costs $89.95. Scan and Read Pro supports 12 different languages, features MP3 conversion, and soon will have the capability for user-designed scanning templates; it costs $149.95. Both the Lite and Pro versions are designed to magnify text up to 400 percent. Text Cloner is an OCR package that is designed to work with a screen reader and features a built-in spell check; it costs $69.95. Doc-Reader is an application that is designed to convert electronic documents into MP3 files; it costs $49.95. Premier Programming Solutions offers free copies of Scan and Read Lite to eligible schools in the United States and abroad. For more information, contact: Premier Programming Solutions; phone: 517-668-8188; e-mail: kenneth@premier-programming.com; web site: www.premier-programming.com.

LCD Telephone Software

Adaptive Innovations released BrailleStream-LCD 1.1, the newest version of its software product that is designed to translate the print display of LCD telephones into braille, speech, or large print via screen-reading software or screen magnification software. The cost is $1,500. For more information, contact: Adaptive Innovations; phone: 905-737-6388, extension 1139; web site: http://www.adaptiveinno.com.

Web Access and Screen Magnification Software

Freedom Scientific recently released Connect Outloud and MAGic 8.0. Connect Outloud can be installed on a computer with Microsoft Windows and is designed to provide speech and braille output for web browsers and accessories. The cost is $249.00. MAGic 8.0 Screen Magnification with Speech Software combines magnification features with the option of speech; a MAGic 8.0 without speech is also available. The cost is $295 for magnification only and $545 for magnification and speech. For more information, contact: Freedom Scientific; phone: 800-444-4443; web site: www.hj.com/MAGic/MAGic8.html.

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Various Assistive Technology Applications Certificate Program (ATACP) Training Workshops.

Locations throughout the United States.


California State University, Northridge, Center on Disabilities; phone: 818-677-2578; web site: www.csun.edu/codtraining.

June 1-5

Inclusion By Design International World Congress.

Montreal, Canada. The conference is hosted by the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work.


Inclusion By Design, Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work, 302-500 University Avenue, Toronto, ON, M5G 1V7, Canada; phone: 416-260-3060, extension 231, or 800-664-0925, extension 231; e-mail: info@ccrw.org; web site: www.ccrw.org/ccrw/worldcongress/sum-eng.htm.

June 22-26

Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) 2001 Annual Conference.

Reno, NV.


RESNA; phone: 703-524-6686; fax: 703-524-6630; e-mail: info@resna.org; web site: www.resna.org.

June 25-30

Ed-Media: World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia, and Telecommunications.

Tampere, Finland.


Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education; phone: 757-623-7588; e-mail: info@aace.org; web site: www.aace.org.

June 30-July 7

American Council of the Blind 2001 Convention.

Des Moines, IA.


American Council of the Blind; phone: 800-424-8666 or 202-467-5081; web site: www.acb.org.

July 1-7

National Federation of the Blind National Convention 2001.

Philadelphia, PA. Note that the conference venue has changed from a hotel in Detroit, MI to the Philadelphia Mariott.


National Federation of the Blind; phone: 410-659-9314; web site: www.nfb.org.

July 9-13

Interact 2001: 8th Annual Conference on Human-Computer Interaction.

Tokyo, Japan.


Interact 2001 Secretaraiat, NOVAS, 9-5 Shinsen-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0045, Japan; phone: 011-81-3-5489-7471; fax: 011-81-3-5489-7472; e-mail: interact2001@eie.eng.osaka-u.ac.jp; web site: www.interact2001.com.

August 3-5

2001: A Technology Odyssey.

Sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER). Pittsburgh, PA.


Mark Uslan, AFB, co-chair; phone: 212-502-7638; e-mail: muslan@afb.net. Barbara McCarthy, AER, co-chair; phone: 804-371-3661; e-mail: mccartbn@dvh.state.va.us.

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