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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 January 2004 Issue  Volume 5  Number 1

In This Issue . . .

Editor's Page

Not Just Taking Up Space: Almost-Infinite Job Possibilities at NASA

NASA's commitment to hiring people with disabilities, combined with a technologically pioneering environment, makes the stars the limit for its visually impaired employees--Deborah Kendrick

A Rosy Future for DAISY Books

Easy listening comes to Talking Books with DAISY--the Digital Audio-based Information System--Jay Leventhal and Janina Sajka

Read Me, Read Me Not: A Review of Four DAISY Book Players

One of these four stand-alone DAISY book players will plant the seeds of knowledge for readers--Jay Leventhal and Janina Sajka

Progress Toward Access: A Review of AOL 9.0

Our test of the new AOL 9.0 with JAWS for Windows 5.0 detects a giant step forward toward accessibility--Jerry Weichbrodt

Do Cell Phones Plus Software Equal Access? Part 2

The Nokia 9290, a combination cell phone and personal digital assistant, made accessible with TALKS text-to-speech software, is the best bet yet for accessibility--Darren Burton and Mark Uslan

Quite a Display: A Review of Two Video Magnifiers

A variety of unique features gives viewers a choice--Bryan Gerritsen

No Static at All: A Review of Low-Power FM Transmitters

With a low-powered FM radio transmitter, you can play the output of almost any audio device through the speakers of your car or home FM radio, even in another room. And, some of these transmitters are accessible--Jim Kutsch

AccessWorld News


Editor in Chief Jay Leventhal
Contributing Editors Paul Schroeder, Founding Editor
Deborah Kendrick, Senior Features Editor
Crista Earl
Mark Uslan
Managing Editor Ellen Bilofsky
Associate Editor Rebecca Burrichter

AccessWorld® is published bi-monthly by AFB Press, American Foundation for the Blind, 11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300, New York, NY 10001. Products included in AccessWorld® are not necessarily endorsed by AccessWorld® or AFB staff.

All rights reserved. Copyright © 2004 American Foundation for the Blind.

AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

Editor's Page

Welcome to the first web-only issue of AccessWorld, the American Foundation for the Blind's (AFB) technology magazine. AccessWorld began publication as a subscription-based magazine in five formats: large print, braille, cassette, ASCII disk and online in January 2000. Our decision to eliminate the subscription and change to a web magazine was driven by our desire to reach as many people as possible with the timely information we offer. Objective evaluations of both assistive technology and the accessibility of mainstream products are the centerpiece of AccessWorld. This is the place to read unbiased reviews of screen readers, screen magnifiers, optical character recognition (OCR) systems, video magnifiers, personal data assistants (PDAs), cell phones, electronic voting machines, music production software, and more.

All of our previous issues are available for your perusal here. You can use our "e-mail this article to a friend" link to share what you read here. You can print your own copy using our "printer-ready" option. The "braille embosser-ready" files have been translated and formatted and can be sent immediately to a braille embosser or loaded into a PDA such as the BrailleNote or PAC Mate. You can sign up to receive announcements when new issues are posted, as well as to receive AccessWorld Extra, the e-mail update that we send out in the six months in which AccessWorld is not published. Be sure to bookmark this page and tell anyone who uses assistive technology, or needs to make decisions about purchasing it, about AccessWorld.

In This Issue

In this first web-only issue, Deborah Kendrick interviews five employees of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) who are blind or visually impaired. She spoke with a manager of projects on energy utilization and weather prediction; a research chemist with a specialty in quantum mechanics; a database administrator; a web accessibility coordinator; and a mathematician. NASA has an agency-wide commitment to hiring people with disabilities, including programs targeting high school students with disabilities and paid summer college internships. Read about how five people using a menagerie of technology contribute to the fascinating work done at NASA.

Janina Sajka, Director of Information Systems Research at AFB, and I provide two articles on Digital Talking Book technology. The first describes the development of the Digital Audio-based Information System (DAISY) format, explains how features available in DAISY books will revolutionize reading for people who are blind or visually impaired, and tells you where to find DAISY books currently in the United States. We also document the hoops you must jump through, intended to safeguard publishers' copyrights, in order to read DAISY books. Bookshare.org requires members to "unpack" downloaded files using software available from their site and enter a password once before having unlimited access to a book. However, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) has instituted more stringent security measures that some users may find somewhat onerous and that go beyond what publishers require. RFB&D will only allow their DAISY books to be played on players that RFB&D has approved, which also have an Intellectual Property Protection key installed. You must purchase a player from RFB&D or ship a player bought elsewhere to RFB&D and pay a fee to have this key installed. You must enter your personal identification number the first time you attempt to read an RFB&D book after you turn the player on. Users are also required to sign a copyright agreement.

Our second article reviews four stand-alone DAISY book players available in the United States--the Victor Reader Classic Plus and Victor Reader Vibe from VisuAide, the Telex Scholar, and Plextor's PTR1 player/recorder. We give a physical description of each player, cover its functions, time how long each player takes to access both DAISY and music CDs, and give our overall opinion and ratings of each player.

Jerry Weichbrodt, Senior Project Engineer at General Motors in Detroit, evaluates the accessibility of AOL 9.0 with JAWS for Windows 5.0. AOL has made a major commitment to improving accessibility, and its staff has worked with screen reader manufacturers, with more progress having currently been made with JAWS. This article tests AOL installation, getting help, the log-on screen, e-mail, web browsing, instant messaging, the address book, and parental controls. There are still access problems throughout AOL, but huge strides have been made from a start as a totally inaccessible product which jammed several applications into one on-screen window. More needs to be done, but it is no longer necessary to tell a person who is blind to avoid using AOL.

Darren Burton and Mark Uslan of AFB's Technology and Employment Center in Huntington, West Virginia (AFB TECH), evaluate the Nokia 9290, a combination cell phone and personal digital assistant (PDA). Most of this device's functions are made accessible by installing TALKS text-to-speech software from Brand & Gröber Communications. The Nokia 9290's size (weighing 8.7 ounces and measuring 6.2 by 2.2 by 1.0 inches), and price ($795 with TALKS installed), are hefty. Nevertheless, it is the most accessible phone that we have tested so far.

Bryan Gerritsen, a low vision therapist practicing in Utah, reviews two video magnifiers: the Merlin by Enhanced Vision Systems and the Prisma by Ash Technologies. He highlights each product's strengths and weaknesses as well as its unique features. Find out if one of these machines is right for you.

Dr. James A. Kutsch, Jr., vice president of technology for a global leader in outsourced customer service and billing, writes about low-power FM transmitters for use in your home or car. An FM radio transmitter can be connected to the audio out or headphone jack of almost any device, including a PC sound card, Talking Book player, MP3 player, or tape recorder. The audio is transmitted to any nearby FM radio receiver. Read about some devices that will let you listen to music or sporting events on the web while you prepare dinner or sit in the sun.

We invite your comments and suggestions about AccessWorld's exciting transition to the web.

Jay Leventhal, Editor in Chief

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On-the-Job Profile

Not Just Taking Up Space: Almost-Infinite Job Possibilities at NASA

How long does it take a ray of sunlight to reach the earth? Who was the first astronaut to eat in space? And what are Saturn's rings made of? If you're a person who gets easily distracted by fascinating facts, stay away from the NASA web site <www.nasa.gov>. NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is only 45 years old, but in its relatively short life, it has been responsible for everything from putting people on the moon and searching for signs of life forms on other planets to inventing smoke detectors and Velcro. NASA has centers around the country, employing thousands of people--and many of those people are visually impaired or have other disabilities.

No Fear of Flying

Courtney Smith has always been interested in the space program. When she interviewed for various internships through a program at Mississippi State University, however, she calculated that her most likely possibility would be to get a job with a business-oriented company in the corporate sector. "I wasn't a science major," she explained, "so I didn't think I'd hear from NASA." But she was wrong.

Smith, a business-information major who has been totally blind since childhood, was offered a 10-week internship in summer 2001 at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Maryland. One interest that clearly emerged in her assigned tasks there was in the area of web-site accessibility. Upon her 2002 graduation from Mississippi State, she was offered a full-time position with Goddard as a full-time web-accessibility coordinator.

Before her job was created, no particular person was looking at GSFC's web sites to measure their accessibility to people with disabilities. In keeping with NASA's positive track record for using the talents of people with disabilities, serious attention was paid not only to compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (specifying that governmental sites must be accessible), but, Smith said, to go "beyond those requirements."

With 1,300 web sites at GSFC alone, there is plenty of work to keep Smith busy. Using a computer equipped with JAWS for Windows and an 80-cell PowerBraille display, she studies sites, writes accessibility instructions, and is generally available to take a quick look at a site that a coworker is updating.

Figure 1: A rear view of Courtney Smith wearing headphones and grasping the steering wheel of an airplane as she sits in front of an instrument panel full of dials.

Caption: Courtney Smith at the controls of a four-seater airplane.

At 26, moving 1,000 miles from a small suburb of Jackson, Mississippi, where she grew up, to Greenbelt and Goddard have been a bit of a culture shock for Smith. "Everything is just bigger here," she said, "and more confusing. But I think blind people need to go where the jobs are, and that often means traveling."

Inclusion in the workplace has never been a problem, Smith noted, although attitude shaping and awareness raising are still needed in some extracurricular areas. Smith's love of theater and music was a ready match for GSFC's music and drama group, where she has a role in the upcoming performance of Barnum. But when she joined the flying club, there were those who had a hard time accepting her.

"I've only flown a little four-seat Cessna," Smith demurred, "and that was with assistance. You need a sighted person's help, but in a small plane like that, you can tell quite a bit about what's going on from the sensations." Adapting instruments to let a blind person know when a plane is climbing or rolling to the left or right should be fairly easy, she said, just as web sites are made readable to screen readers with the addition of intelligible alt tags. "All of Goddard's web sites are pretty accessible already," she explained, "but we try to go beyond 508 compliance."

Figure 2: Courtney Smith, wearing a polo shirt with a NASA emblem, sitting at her computer keyboard with a large refreshable braille display.

Caption: Courtney Smith at her desk at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Managing Well

Although Smith's job as a web-accessibility coordinator is new, many other blind people have worked for NASA in a refreshingly broad range of categories. Chemist, computer scientist, mathematician, project manager, and even astronomer are among the titles of a variety of talented NASA employees who are blind. For example, Paul Mogan, who has worked at the Kennedy Space Center near Orlando, Florida, for 14 years, has served as project manager for undertakings that have garnered $13 million budgets and 30-person teams and has even been part of a group that was responsible for a patented NASA invention.

"NASA develops all kinds of technology that is patented and then farmed out as commercial product," Mogan explained. In his case, he and a group of colleagues developed an instrument to measure the amount of contamination that is deposited on equipment in a "clean" work area. (Other familiar products that were invented by NASA employees include bar-code scanners, smoke detectors, and Velcro.) Projects that Mogan has coordinated have included those related to energy consumption and weather. He explained that the object of the energy study was to examine how much energy is used to operate various buildings at the KSC facility to find ways to be more efficient. An example of a weather project was one involving lightning--predicting how often and where it will occur. "Lightning's a problem when you're launching rockets," he pointed out.

Mogan, who was diagnosed with Stargardt's disease at age 3 and has been legally blind since age 18, has been with NASA for 14 years. NASA has been wonderful about accommodating his needs as a person with low vision, Mogan said. His employers have purchased the ZoomText Extra (screen magnifier/screen reader) that enables him to use his computer; a collection of handheld magnifying devices; and, perhaps his favorite low vision aid, the Jordy. A head-mounted device, the Jordy resembles a pair of binoculars, offering two displays (one for each eye), for magnifying print. Although Mogan's vision is only 20/600 with correction, the Jordy makes it possible for him to fill out forms and handle other printed material visually that was previously impossible. It also has video output that allows it to serve as a video magnifier.

Figure 3: Paul Mogan wearing the Jordy, a head-mounted device that resembles binoculars.

Caption: Paul Mogan wearing the head-mounted Jordy low vision device.

The transportation system at Kennedy is particularly friendly to people with disabilities, Mogan said. In addition to a regular shuttle that transports employees from building to building, drivers are available for individual trips to facilities farther away. "If I have a meeting or training class in Cocoa Beach," he cited as an example, "which is about a half hour away, I just call a day or so ahead, and one of the drivers is assigned to me for that trip."

When Mogan first interviewed at Kennedy, he remembers being told that employees with better vision than his had been retired from NASA as disabled. Still, his conviction that there is always a way to do something if you want to do it was sufficiently persuasive. He has not only proved himself to be a valuable NASA professional, but has extended his zeal beyond assigned work. The Jordy, for example, has undergone improvements because of his suggestion that the product should be made smaller and lighter and offer greater image stabilization. Mogan teaches others to use low vision products and oversees a group of students at Georgia Tech who, under an agreement with NASA, are working to improve the Jordy. "I'm just a regular person," Mogan said, "who wants to contribute and who wants to improve my situation and the situation of other disabled people. I want to give disabled people one message: You can do it!"

Figure 4: Paul Mogan sitting at a desk with the Jordy mounted on a stand over a large book, while a magnified electrical diagram is displayed on the computer screen.

Caption: Paul Mogan at work at Kennedy Space Center using the Jordy as a video magnifier.

Molecular Magic

At NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, research chemist Craig Moore uses his specialty in quantum mechanics to study the properties of molecules, collecting and examining data to analyze them statistically. Totally blind since birth from retinopathy of prematurity, Moore said that he developed an early interest in mathematics and chemistry partly because of the encouragement of a scoutmaster in his Boy Scout troop in North Dakota. In 1981, while Moore was working on his doctorate in physical chemistry at the University of Cincinnati, a friend assembled a CP/M-based computer for him (CP/M is an early operating system similar to DOS) using "pieces salvaged from other machines" to create a unique system. Moore and his friend successfully interfaced the system with a braille display from Germany, a feat that enabled Moore to use the system not only as a word processor and a calculator, but as a mainframe terminal. For that era, Moore believes, he may well have been the first blind person in America, or certainly among the first, to use a refreshable braille display to read computer output. Without such access, he cannot imagine accomplishing his work.

Today, Moore, age 46, divides his time between Huntsville and Atlanta, where he frequently works with a colleague on research projects. Working off-site, he said, is an accommodation that is available to many NASA employees, with and without disabilities, but one that has worked particularly well for him.

Moore explained his complex work for the layperson as "studying simulations of different molecules, looking at them to see things like how fast they absorb light, how stable the molecule is, and how rapidly reactions occur. . . . Right now, we're looking at semiconductors, trying to make one with nitrogen and a new metal called indium. Gases are injected into it, and we look at the deposits that form. There are a lot of reactions, and we look at numbers and predict what kind of reactions there will be and how rapidly those reactions will occur." A practical application of such a study, Moore explained, would be the development of a material that would facilitate the storage of more data on a CD or DVD disc. While the uninitiated may expect that such work would be highly visual, Moore said that he has rarely used graphics or felt the need for them. Molecules are represented by coordinates, and numbers represent the energy of the molecules; everything, in short, is expressed in numbers.

For Moore, these numbers are conveyed through the JAWS screen reader and a refreshable braille display. At work, he uses an 80-cell ALVA, while off-site his 40-cell Millennium personal organizer doubles as a braille display. When the necessary information is conveyed in Greek symbols, however, he then needs sighted assistance to interpret them.

Accommodations throughout his 15 years at NASA--and, for that matter, in his days as a doctoral student--have always been available to him. Moore believes that the availability of accommodations may be due, in part, to the elitist nature of the work he does. Chemists, physicists, and engineers tend to be solution oriented, and hence have provided any pragmatic assistance he may have occasionally needed. In addition, supervisors have generally been helpful. Moore views every accommodation and piece of equipment as significant, however, stressing that "it's not trivial, my getting things that I need."

Facts at Her Fingertips

When Jill Noble was a computer science major at Cleveland State University, another college student told her about internships at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. With characteristic assertiveness, she called the hiring manager and landed two summer internships, in 1985 and 1986, as a computer programmer. When an opening occurred in the same department three years later, Noble was hired full time. Today, at age 42, she is an assistant administrator on "the business side of the house," no longer programming but still putting those computer--and other--skills to work.

One of Noble's main jobs is to maintain the center's Master Data Locator System, a database of all current and retired employees. Containing such information as the employee's title, position, room number, mail stop, and employment status (whether the employee is a civil servant or contract employee or has another status), the database is updated nightly from three sources and is constantly being changed. When Noble began with NASA as a programmer, her primary tool for access was a tape-based VersaBraille, the first widely distributed refreshable braille device for storing and retrieving data. It had a standard Perkins-style braille keyboard and stored data on cassette tapes. Noble has been through many generations of computer equipment since then, she said, and today uses JAWS for Windows and a 70-cell Tieman Braille Voyager refreshable-braille display to do her work. At this point, she noted, the braille is essential: "For one thing, I'm on the phone a lot, verifying an address or phone number or other fact about a person, and I couldn't do that without the braille."

Managing the database, however, is only part of her job with NASA. As a member of the Glenn Center's speakers' bureau, Noble travels once or twice a month to schools, civic organizations, or church groups who want to know something about the work that NASA does. "The two presentations I do mostly," she said, "are about the solar system and living in space." Videotapes and slide presentations often accompany such presentations, but Noble noted that these visual elements are no problem, since she has ready access to all the corresponding text. She is something of an ambassador for her employer in other ways, too. She enjoys conducting tours of her building or other parts of the 300-acre complex that comprises over 100 buildings. "Of course, there are still lots of buildings here that I don't know," she explained. As for traveling from one building to another, Noble said that a van is available, but she prefers "using my feet."

Other projects she has undertaken have included coordinating the production of a new disability-awareness video in conjunction with her role as a member of the 12-person disability advisory group. The group hosts awareness days for other employees and makes recommendations for improving access to the center's many buildings.

In addition to computer equipment and an available shuttle service, Noble noted that her employer has accommodated her in smaller, more personal, ways. "I've been given a key card for evening access to the building," she explained, "so that when I work evenings, I can take Cadet"--her guide dog--"outside and get back into the building." Another "accommodation," she pointed out with a laugh, is that "they keep a garbage can in the same spot, so I can find it when I take my dog out!" One accommodation that Noble hopes will be eventually added is telecommuting. "I love my job," she said with enthusiasm, "and I love coming to work." Her hour-long commute each way, however, involves traveling by train and bus, and when the snow falls in Cleveland, the option of working from home would be a welcome one.

Accommodations Over Time

Although all these individuals are valuable NASA employees--and all happen to be blind or have low vision--they are by no means rare exceptions in the NASA workforce. Of the 19,000 NASA employees, communications specialist Eldri Ferguson said that 1,131 have disabilities, and about 757 more choose not to be identified as disabled.

Employees with disabilities can be found at every NASA location, and the trend is not a new one. John Bogert, who was hired as a mathematician in 1969 to write computer programs for scientists in the Laboratory for Astronomy and Solar Physics, shares many examples of how he, a totally blind person, was accommodated over 30 years ago. "I'd never even seen a computer at the time," he said, "had no idea how a "program" worked, and no clue how to communicate with the machine. . . . With the help of many coworkers, I got braille output from the old 1401 IBM printers they used back then, learned FORTRAN, and started warping downlinked data into something more or less interpretable for several ace astronomers." Bogert, who is now near retirement, is quick with a joke about his role at GSFC. Resisting the title of computer scientist, he said that he runs a few programs to "keep the dinosaur breathing" and to give supervisors "headaches about accessibility."

NASA hired Bogert over 30 years ago, but the recently expanded strategies to recruit people with disabilities are new. Michael Hartman, GSFC's equal employment opportunity representative, commented, "Goddard has made it standard operating procedure to contact the campus office of services for students with disabilities when we go to a college or university for recruiting purposes. We also try to visit schools that have a critical mass of students with disabilities."

Goddard has programs that target high school students with disabilities and paid summer internships for those in college. ACCESS (Achieving Competency in Computing, Engineering, and Space Science), a program funded by NASA headquarters and managed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), is an agency-wide recruitment effort that places college students with disabilities in paid internships each year.

In an agency-wide commitment to expanding the recruitment efforts of people with disabilities, each center has some plan in place--to attend conferences, visit schools, place advertisements in relevant publications, and so forth. Goddard has collaborated with the National Federation of the Blind in developing an initiative that includes the accessibility of technology, education and outreach, and employment.

NASA Trivia

Clearly, NASA is an employment environment in which people who are blind or have low vision have long been recognized for talents ranging from mathematics to science and engineering to business and in which thriving and advancing are often possible. And if you're still wondering about those bits of NASA trivia, the answers are eight minutes, John Glenn, and ice chunks. But here's another piece of NASA trivia to contemplate: The names of the first African American, first woman, and first teacher in space are all facts available on NASA web pages. When, we can only wonder, will the name of the first blind person in space be added?

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Access Issues

A Rosy Future for DAISY Books

Digital Talking Book players and some books have been around for a number of years now. However, most people in the United States who are blind or have low vision have not used them and do not know how exciting it can be to read these books. Our aim in this article is to try to capture some of that excitement. We also cover issues that have been raised by the copyright protection now being used, and in an accompanying article we review the current players (see "Read Me, Read Me Not" in this issue).

In 1995, several libraries for the blind in various countries created the Digital Audio-based Information System (DAISY) Consortium to develop specifications for Digital Talking Books. In 1997, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) also began research in 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 to develop a single, worldwide standard. Digital Talking Books are sometimes referred to as DAISY books, as NISO books, or even as NISO/DAISY books. For more information on the background of DAISY books, see the May 2001 special issue of AccessWorld on Digital Talking Books.

What Are Digital Talking Books?

Digital Talking Books are not really things that you can hold, although they usually come on a CD-ROM today. The same Digital Talking Books may also be available on the web or from the Internet server at your school. To put it technically, Digital Talking Books are well-organized collections of computer files that are produced according to specifications that are published in the standards that define them (see the web sites <www.loc.gov/nls/niso/> and <www.daisy.org>). They are a medium-independent information access-and-delivery technology--the files can be stored on CD, in a directory or on a memory card--that is based on open standards, primarily the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) XML (Extensible Markup Language) and SMIL (Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language, pronounced "smile").

The traditional Talking Book is excellent for reading novels, which you usually begin at the beginning and continue reading until you come to the end. But this kind of reading is an inefficient way to get information from encyclopedias, dictionaries, and cookbooks. It is also a poor way to study anything because it is not easy to go back and forth to specific parts of a book, check cross references, underline parts for later review, and write notes in the margin. Tapes and even braille books have not served us well in such reading tasks. Finally, through Digital Talking Books, we have the same kind of random access to information that nondisabled readers take for granted. We have an alternative to dealing with a long table of contents on Tape 1 and rewinding Tape 4 to the beginning of Side 2. We can say good-bye to counting beep tones while cringing through the shrieking noises made by audiocassettes in fast forward. We will spend more time enjoying learning instead of struggling with cumbersome technology.

Driving Miss DAISY

A fully coded DAISY book can have many levels of navigation, accessed by using the player's keypad or buttons. For example, Level 1 could be chapters, Level 2 could be subheadings within a chapter, and Level 3 could be paragraphs. Using the appropriate keys, you can navigate forward or back through the book using these levels. You can also go to a particular page, navigate by phrase (as defined by the book's coding), or place a bookmark at a memorable passage or at the beginning of a section you need to study.

DAISY books can include both text and audio files. Without the text, only part of the promise in this technology is possible today. For example, there is no way to check the spelling of a word or search for specific text in audio-only books.

Where Are the Books?

Currently, audio-only DAISY 2.02 books from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) and DAISY 3.0/NISO text-only books from BookShare.org are available in the United States. Current stand-alone players play only audio DAISY books.

In September 2002, RFB&D began to distribute DAISY books as part of its 100,000-book collection. It is now circulating over 10,000 DAISY books. Currently, all these books are audio only with page and heading information, with 51% having been converted to DAISY format directly from cassette. The remaining 49% were recorded digitally.

To play a DAISY book from RFB&D, you must have a player that has been tested and approved by RFB&D in field tests. As of this writing, the Telex Scholar, VisuAide's Victor Reader Classic Plus, Victor Reader Pro (a discontinued player), and the PTR1 player/recorder from Plextor have been approved.

Copyright Concerns

Talking Book programs in the United States have historically used some kind of technology that is not commonly available to the general public, such as recording cassettes at half the speed of commercial recordings so that they cannot be copied and played on commercial machines by nondisabled readers. In addition, until 1996, organizations like NLS and RFB&D first had to obtain explicit permission from the copyright holders to produce any titles as Talking Books. Beginning in 1996, a new amendment to U.S. copyright law (known as the Chafee Amendment) gave these agencies blanket permission to make any title available, as long as it was produced in a format that is not generally available to the public.

Since DAISY titles are essentially HTML and MP3 files, RFB&D uses something it calls intellectual property protection (IPP) to make sure that only RFB&D subscribers read the organization's books. If you insert an RFB&D DAISY book CD into an approved player, you are asked to enter your personal identification number (PIN) to verify that you are an RFB&D subscriber. Once you enter your PIN on the player's keypad, you can listen to any book from RFB&D until you turn the player off. When you power the player on again, you must enter your PIN again. Players that have not been approved by RFB&D will not play RFB&D books.

While the process of authorizing a player involves installing a software key in the player's permanent memory, it can no longer be accomplished by users because RFB&D has stopped sending out keys on CD. Instead, subscribers must now either buy their players directly from RFB&D or ship their players to RFB&D to have authorizations installed. In addition, RFB&D now requires subscribers to sign copyright agreements (available at <http://www.rfbd.org/copyright%20indiv.htm>).

Why is RFB&D doing all this? There is rampant fear among publishers that people will start to post books online illegally, just as they have done with music on Napster and elsewhere. These issues are now also covered under a U.S. law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which is the result of an international treaty under the World Intellectual Property Organization. Of course, it is not legal or appropriate for people to redistribute RFB&D or other titles. However, we hope that the benefits to users of DAISY technology will not be overshadowed by anticopying concerns, even if the process seems to be excessive or burdensome on consumers.

Bookshare.org (see "A New Page that Speaks Volumes" in the January 2003 issue of AccessWorld) has a collection of over 15,000 books. Bookshare members can read DAISY books from Bookshare using any player that supports DAISY version 3.0 for text-only books--there is no recorded audio track. Currently, the only players on the market that will read Bookshare books are VisuAide's Victor Reader Soft and the open-source Emacspeak audio desktop software. Members can also download and read titles from Bookshare's 15,000-book collection using OPENBook and Kurzweil 1000 optical character recognition software. Bookshare books are also available as formatted braille files that can be read using a personal organizer, such as the BrailleNote or PAC Mate, or read or printed in braille on a computer.

Readers in other countries, including Japan, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, have been enjoying DAISY books for years. RFB&D and Bookshare are beginning to bring the tantalizing benefits of DAISY to the U.S. market. NLS is scheduled to begin distributing DAISY books in 2008. The future of reading is almost here.

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Product Evaluation

Read Me, Read Me Not: A Review of Four DAISY Book Players

This article reviews four stand-alone Digital Talking Book (DAISY book) players available in the United States--the Victor Reader Classic Plus and Victor Reader Vibe from VisuAide, the Telex Scholar, and Plextor's Plextalk PTR1 player/recorder. These players represent one of the two principal types of players for reading DAISY books; the other type is software players that are used on computers. The stand-alone machines are the easiest to learn to use, and they can be small and portable. They are also the most affordable players for people who do not own a computer. For more information on DAISY books, what they are, and where to get them, read "A Rosy Future for Daisy Books" in this issue.

Our tests were conducted using DAISY books from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) and other sources, as well as MP3 files and commercial music CDs that can also be played on these players.

The DAISY format is still new and unfamiliar to most potential users in the United States. Each book has to be coded by the producer, just as web-site designers code each web page. It is not possible to know how much coding is done in a book until you listen to it. As a result, if a player did not perform a function, such as going to a designated page of a book, we had to try the task using another player to determine if there was a mechanical problem or if the function was just not available in that book.

Victor Reader Classic Plus

Physical Description

The Victor Reader Classic Plus measures 9.3 inches by 8.2 inches by 2.1 inches and weighs 2.42 pounds. It is ergonomically designed; the top surface slopes upward from the front to the back. The built-in speaker is at the top left of the unit. Below the speaker is a carrying handle. On the right side of the unit, from the back to the front, are the AC (alternating current) adapter, a line jack, a remote jack, and an earphone jack.

Figure 1: Photo of the Victor Reader Classic Plus.

Caption: The Victor Reader Classic Plus.

The Classic Plus has 25 keys. To the right of the speaker, across the top of the Classic Plus, are three vertical sets of two keys each. From left to right, these keys control the tone, volume, and speed of the audio. Below these keys is a 12-key telephone-style keypad. The 5 key has a raised dot in the middle; the 4 and 6 keys have raised arrows pointing left and right, respectively; and the 2 and 8 keys have less-pronounced arrows pointing up and down, respectively.

Below the number keypad, from left to right, are the Rewind, Play/Stop, and Fast Forward keys. The Play/Stop key is square, and the Rewind and Fast Forward keys are shaped like arrows. The key that ejects CDs from the Classic Plus is to the right of the Fast Forward key. The Power On-Off key is above the Eject key.


The Classic Plus's manual and Quick Reference guide are provided on a DAISY CD. A print Quick Reference is also included. The Quick Reference does a good job of orienting the user to the Classic Plus's keys and basic functions. The manual is detailed and thorough. However, accessible documentation is provided only in DAISY format, so you must figure out how to play a CD on an unfamiliar machine to know how to operate that machine. We recommend that a Quick Reference guide be included on audiocassette tape, the format used by the most people.

Ease of Use

The Classic Plus is a full-featured Digital Talking Book player. It is ergonomically designed, and its keys are easy to find tactilely. It has a Key Describer mode that functions when the unit is turned on and there is no CD in the drive. Under these conditions, the Classic Plus will announce the function of any key that you press.

Most of the keys on the Classic Plus's numeric keypad have an additional function. The 2 and 8 keys are the Scroll Up and Scroll Down keys. You use them to change the navigation setting in a book--from phrase to page and so forth. The 4 and 6 keys navigate backward and forward, respectively, according to the navigation level you set with the 2 and 8 keys.

The 1 key is the Bookshelf key. It takes you to a list of all the books on the current CD. The 3 key accesses the History list, which allows you to return to places you have been reading in the book. For example, if you move from a subheading in Chapter 5 to the beginning of Chapter 7, you can then go back to the same subheading by accessing the History list and pressing the Move Back key.

The 5 (Where Am I?) key announces the current page and level of navigation. The 9 key is the Sleep key. It lets you set a period, up to 60 minutes in 15-minute increments, after which the unit will shut off.

The 0 key is the Information key. It tells you the total time elapsed and the total time remaining in the book you are reading. To the left of the 0 key is the Cancel key; to the right of the 0 key is the Confirm key.

When you insert a DAISY CD, the Classic Plus takes 10 seconds to access the CD and announce the book title. It takes 7 seconds to access a commercial music CD. Moving to the next track on an audio CD or going to a specified track using the Go To key takes 2 seconds.

When you insert a music CD, the Classic Plus announces "Track 1." You then hit the Play button to play the CD. The Classic Plus allows you to adjust the volume, tone, and speed of the music being played. When you press the Where Am I? key, the Classic Plus announces the current track number and time elapsed for the song. The Bookshelf key puts you in the track list and announces the track number and its total time--for example, "Track 2 total time 5 minutes, 18 seconds."

The Classic Plus is well designed. Its keys are easy to learn and use. The Classic Plus functioned well during our tests.

Telex Scholar

Physical Description

The Scholar measures 6 inches by 5.5 inches by 1 inch. It is a clamshell-style device with a distinctive, ergonomic shape. The case is gray. The AC adapter and a data port are on the back of the unit, near the left edge. On the right side of the Scholar are the earphone jack and the switch to lock the keyboard. You move this switch toward the back of the unit to unlock the player. On the front of the Scholar is a latch that locks the top in place. The Scholar has no built-in speaker, so you must listen using headphones or attach an external speaker.

Figure 2: Photo of the Telex Scholar.

Caption: The Telex Scholar.

The Scholar has 19 keys on its top surface. At the top are 5 blue buttons. The 2 buttons at the left edge control the volume of the audio, and the 2 buttons at the right edge control the speed. The longer button in the middle is the undo-redo button.

Below these five buttons is a telephone-style numeric keypad. The 5 key, which performs multiple functions, is a round red button half an inch in diameter. The 2, 4, 6, and 8 keys are arrow-shaped blue keys that are also half an inch long. The other numeric keys are small silver buttons.

There are two more small silver buttons at either end of the 4, 5, 6 key row of the numeric keypad. The key to the left of the 4 key is the Page key; the key to the right of the 6 key is the Bookmark key.


The Scholar's manual and Quick Reference guide are provided on a DAISY CD. The description of the player's buttons was somewhat confusing. For example, the 2 key is referred to as "The arrow on top of the Play button (the 5 key)." The description "If you pick up the player with two hands, your left and right thumbs should find two buttons near the edge of the player" is not specific enough. In general, the keys are described not in physical sequence, but by function. So, we were constantly searching for the key that was being described.

Ease of Use

The Scholar is not easy to use. The 5 key, which also serves as the Play-Stop, Power On-Off, and Menu key, is an overworked button. We were sometimes confused about which of this key's functions we had selected, especially when the Scholar was slow to respond. The fact that the arrow keys, 2, 4, 6, and 8, are so much larger than the other numeric keys left us searching around for the other keys when we needed them. People with low vision will appreciate the color-coded keys, but anyone with dexterity problems may have trouble finding the smaller keys. People who are blind are familiar with a telephone keypad on which the keys are all the same size. Adding tactile markings on the 5 key and possibly on the arrow keys would be sufficient.

Every time you turn the Scholar on, you have to listen to it slowly speak its serial number, tell you it is accessing the disk, and then hear numerous tones that sound like steel drumbeats until it recognizes the current CD. The volume of the unit's command voice is often louder than the volume you have set for the audio of the book, which can be startling.

When you insert a DAISY CD, the Scholar takes an average of 29 seconds to access the CD and announce the book title. We used an average of the access times for 5 CDs, since the times varied widely, from a high of 54 seconds to a low of 13 seconds. The Scholar takes 6 seconds to access a commercial music CD. Moving to the next track on a music CD takes 2 seconds. The Scholar tells you that a CD contains MP3 files by playing three musical tones and plays two different tones to identify a commercial music CD. While you are playing a music CD, you cannot adjust the speed of the music, and functions, such as Go To or bookmarks, are not available.

The Scholar was confusing and frustrating to use. Its use of sound effects as indicators of problems, such as an invalid entry on the keypad, were not helpful. We were left trying to remember what each buzz, click, or drumbeat meant and what we should do next. To our great surprise, we managed to "crash" the Scholar several times, as you would a Windows computer. One way was to hold down the Play button in an attempt to turn the Scholar off. After a few seconds, we were shocked to hear the Windows "Tada" sound effect as the Scholar "rebooted."

Victor Reader Vibe

Physical Description

The Vibe measures 5.5 inches by 5.5 inches by 1 inch. It is a clamshell-style device with 11 buttons on its top surface arranged in the shape of an old rotary telephone dial. The number 1 button is at the top right, and the numbers ascend moving clockwise. The buttons have multiple functions. The Vibe features visual icons and embossed tactile markings that group the buttons together by function. For example, the Fast Forward, Play-Stop, and Rewind buttons are grouped together by raised tactile lines.

Figure 2: Photo of the Victor Reader Vibe.

Caption: Victor Reader Vibe.

You turn the Vibe on by pressing Button 1 and turn it off by pressing and holding down Button 2. Buttons 1 and 2 also increase and decrease the volume and speed of the audio. Button 3 toggles between the Speed and Volume modes. Buttons 4, 5, and 6 are Fast Forward, Play-Stop, and Rewind, respectively. Button 7 is the Go to Page button, and Button 8 is for placing bookmarks in the text. Button 9 is the Menu button. Button 0 and the pound button move to the previous and next elements, respectively. In a DAISY book, an element can be a chapter, page, or paragraph; on a music CD, an element is a song.

On the right side of the Vibe, moving from the back toward the front of the unit, are the AC adapter, line-out jack, a port that is currently unused, the earphone jack, and the keyboard lock switch--sliding it toward the front unlocks the keys. To insert a CD, you move the only button on the front of the unit to the right, and the lid pops open. When you close the lid, it clicks shut. The Vibe has no built-in speaker, so you must listen using headphones or attach an external speaker.

The Vibe runs on two AA batteries. Rechargeable batteries are included.


The Vibe's manual and Quick Reference guide are provided in print and on CD. The description of the unit in the manual is clear. The manual does a good job of describing the Vibe's features and functions.

Ease of Use

The Vibe is relatively easy to use. However, some people may find the rotary phone-style key layout and the lack of tactile markings on the keys confusing. The tactile markings that group the keys together by function help, but checking for them, rather than instantly knowing that you are touching the right key, may slow some people down.

When you insert a DAISY CD, the Vibe takes an average of 25 seconds to access the CD and announce the book title. We used an average of the access times for 5 CDs. These times varied from a high of 30 seconds to a low of 19 seconds. The Vibe takes 19 seconds to access a commercial music CD and 2 seconds to move to the next track on an audio CD.

When you insert a CD, the Vibe automatically accesses the disk. If it is a DAISY CD, the Vibe announces "Welcome to Victor," followed by the name of the book. You then press the Play button to start reading the book. When you put an MP3 or commercial music CD into the Vibe, the player accesses the disk and begins playing the music. While playing a music CD, you cannot adjust the speed of the music. Functions, such as Go To or bookmarks, are not available.

The Vibe performed reliably during our tests. The digitized voice that confirms commands was clear and at a consistent volume level. A problem occurred when we inserted a DAISY book that used .wav files instead of MP3 files. Although the DAISY specifications allow .wav files, the Vibe does not play them.

Plextalk PTR1

Physical Description

The Plextalk PTR1 measures 7 inches by 6 inches by 1 3/8 inches and weighs 1.9 pounds. Its design, which will be familiar to anyone who is acquainted with Plextor's CD- ROM burners, is reminiscent of a hardbound book with a curved spine to the left, edges that stick out a little as a book's cover sticks out beyond the pages, and a ragged right edge suggesting well-thumbed content. It is also much more than just a stand-alone player. It can record and play DAISY titles, MP3, and .wav audio files and store them on a PCMCIA Type 2 card. You can use the PTR1 to create and edit your own DAISY book and burn a CD-ROM; it also provides built-in DAISY editing features. And, if you would rather edit on your computer, the PTR1 comes with Windows software to do just that.

Figure 2: Photo of the Plextalk PTR1.

Caption: The Plextalk PTR1.

The PTR1's "back cover" has four small rubber feet, so it is easy to tell that the PTRI is supposed to lie on its back cover. There are controls or input/output ports on all remaining surfaces.Continuing with the metaphor of a hardbound book, the spine contains one push-pull switch to turn the unit on and off. Push up to power the PTR1 on, and a distinctive audio logo is played immediately to confirm that the unit is powering up. Various bits of status information are spoken as the unit boots, telling you whether you are accessing a disk or the PC card and what book you have inserted or that you have inserted an audio disk, as the case may be. Pull down on the same switch, and the PTR1's Guide Voice immediately announces "Shutdown." There is even a brief audio earcon, an audible icon; that is, a sound used to represent a specific event to let you know that shutdown has concluded.

Also on the spine are three 1/8-inch jacks--line-in, external microphone in, and headphone out. Inserting a cable into any of them causes the Guide Voice to announce what connection you have made, so it is easy to know when you have plugged into the wrong connector.

A power connector and a USB connector are the only features on the top edge--the edge that would be the top of the printed pages if this were an actual book. The PCMCIA slot for additional memory cards and other add-ons is the only port on the right-hand edge. We had no problem using even a 5-gigabyte hard disk in this slot. The PTR1 comes with a rechargeable battery.

Most of the PTR1's controls are simply laid out on the front cover. The speaker and microphone are positioned at the top edge. A 12-key numeric keypad is positioned to the right side of the front cover, with Reverse, Stop-Start, and Forward buttons below it. The Stop-Start button is square, and the Reverse and Forward buttons are triangular arrows pointing left and right, respectively.

A column of five special-function keys is positioned along the left edge. Each of these five keys is larger than the one above it. The first four of these keys are diamond shaped, and the fifth, the Record-Pause key, is round. The topmost button lets you set the sleep timer or learn the current time and date. You enter the sleep time by typing numbers and then pressing pound (called Enter) on the numeric keypad. You can set the PTR1 to turn itself off as much as 999 minutes in the future--well beyond anything one may reasonably need, it seems to us. To hear the time and date, simply hold this button down.

The second key down is the Heading key. With a short press, you are placed in the "Go to Heading" function. Enter a number within the range of available headings in the current book via the numeric keypad to go directly to it. You cannot navigate effectively this way in an audio-only DAISY book, because you can't search for the text of a particular heading. To hear the current heading and how many total headings are encoded in the current book, simply hold this key down. The third key is the Page button. Press it briefly to enter the "Go to Page" feature and enter the page you want via the numeric keypad; hold it down to learn the current page and the total number of pages in the current book.

The fourth key is the Bookmark key. This key has four positions. Press this key once to enter the "Go to Bookmark" feature. As before, you can enter a bookmark number via the numeric keypad. But, if you press the Bookmark key a second time, you enter the "Set Bookmark" feature. Type a number on the numeric keypad to associate that number with the current position in the book. Press the Bookmark key a third time, and you access the "Set Voice Bookmark" feature. As before, you still type a number on the numeric keypad to identify the current position by bookmark number. But then you are instructed by the Guide Voice to hold down the Record key while you say whatever you want to record. Your recording is then associated with that bookmark, so that you hear your recording when you go to that bookmark. It is a clever way to store notes about what you are reading, and it is the only feature like it that we have found so far on stand-alone DAISY players. Finally, a fourth press of the Bookmark key takes you to the "Remove Bookmark" feature. Holding the Bookmark key down provides information about the current bookmark and the total number of bookmarks and total seconds of recorded voice bookmarks.

As we noted previously, the fifth key in this column is the Record-Pause key that you can use to record an entire lecture. If you do so, you can even put DAISY markers in your recording that you can navigate to when you listen to your recording.

The numeric keypad is used in a straightforward manner. There is a nib at the center of the 5 key, and there are left and right arrows, respectively, on the 4 and 6 keys for navigating to the previous and next element, according to the navigation level that you set with the 2 and 8 keys, which also have arrows on them pointing up and down, respectively.

The star key is Cancel on the PTR1, and the pound key is Enter. The 5 key exposes an extensive menu of settings and additional features that include recording settings; data about your unit, such as the serial number; all the DAISY editing functions that you need to edit your recordings; a calculator; a note recorder; and much more. These menus are navigated just as you navigate a DAISY book, using the 4 and 6 keys to move backward and forward through the various choices. Pressing 8 exposes any submenus that may be present for any given menu item or acts as Enter on that item. Pressing 2 eventually takes you out of the menus.

The remaining surface that faces you contains the opening to the motorized disk tray. Insert a CD a little way, and the motor will pull the disk into the PTR1 and start playing it. Below the disk opening are five buttons. The three to the left have a ridge and different functions that you toggle by pressing them. The fourth button is a simple two-position switch that toggles Keylock on and off. The last button at the far right is the CD Eject button.

Returning to the three controls to the left of this edge, they are, in order, Record and Monitor level, Speed-Tone, and Volume. Toggling the first allows you to set either the recording or the monitor level by then pushing to the right or left with the same button. Toggling the second allows you to set either speed or tone higher by moving the button to the right or lower by moving it to the left. Similarly, the third control allows you to set the volume higher or lower by pushing the button to the right or left. Pushing it in allows you to toggle between Playback and Guide Voice volume settings.


Documentation for the PTR1 is provided on a DAISY CD-ROM disk. We were particularly disappointed, however, by the poor quality of the writing in this manual. It was clearly not written by a native English speaker and hence was difficult to understand. Fortunately, a new, professionally written manual for the PTR1 is being prepared by the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB), which should make this feature-rich device far easier to learn and use. Plextor says that this manual will be available in the first quarter of 2004.

Ease of Use

The basic features of a DAISY book are easily accessed by the PTR1's well-organized keys. We found loading content to be straightforward, taking on average about 12 seconds, with a minimum of about 10 seconds and a maximum of 17 seconds to load DAISY and/or audio CD media. Moving forward or backward using the 4 or 6 keys took, on average, 1.5 to 2 seconds. Unfortunately, even this short amount of time was sufficient to trigger the "I'm working" audio signal. It is certainly handy to have an audio indication that the unit is doing an activity that is taking some time. However, we would like the threshold set significantly higher, especially since the audio clip that the PTR1 uses for this function is musically rich, incorporating the interval of a major seventh. Something less obtrusive than this startling interval, set to play at a higher threshold, would be better.

We also wish it were possible to set the speed of the Guide Voice independently. We got accustomed to the guidance provided by the Guide Voice and found it useful to push its speed high. But, especially with the content we recorded, but also with the content on DAISY books we obtained from the library, we frequently wanted playback at a different, usually lower, speed. Frankly, we would be happy to set both guide and content volume the same and have two speed controls--one for Guide speed and the second for Content Playback--but it is not possible to do so.

We also wish we could assign keys, perhaps on the numeric keypad, as shortcuts to our choice among the numerous menus controlled by the 5 key. Many of the functions that are available through these menus need to be used repeatedly to perform a task like editing out unwanted audio from a recording or assigning different level markings to the final edited recording. It would be nice to be able to return to that menu swiftly, rather than by navigating each and every time. Why not make it possible to insert bookmarks in these menus just as you can bookmark random points in content?

There is certainly much more we could say about this unit. With its many features, it could fill an article on its own. Generally, we like using the PTR1.

The Bottom Line

Since the previous evaluation of DAISY book players ("Who Are the Players: Reviews of Hardware and Software Digital Talking Book Players," May 2001 issue of AccessWorld smaller, more portable, players have come on the market. The four machines reviewed here represent three categories. The Vibe and the Scholar are small, lightweight portable machines that are ideal for traveling. They have no built-in speakers and offer a limited number of features. The Classic Plus is a full-featured digital Talking Book player that offers the full range of features that are available in this exciting new medium. The PTR1 includes everything that is found in the Classic Plus, along with the ability to record and edit in DAISY format. These products' prices reflect the differences in their features.

For DAISY to become a widely used format, players that are much easier to use must be developed. The average Talking Book reader will not use some of the features discussed here. Simpler machines with friendly documentation in familiar formats will go a long way toward making the DAISY format bloom.

Manufacturers' Comments


"VisuAide is known as the leading maker of digital Talking Book players, with over 40,000 Victor Reader units sold around the world, and has the largest DAISY product line. Victor Reader players are used by subscribers of leading libraries for the blind, including RFB&D in the United States and the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) in England. The Victor Reader Vibe and Classic Plus models are players with advanced functionality that can read complexly structured works, such as textbooks and reference works. The Victor Reader line also includes a simple-navigation model with basic functionality, the Victor Reader Classic, and a software application for reading DAISY books on PC, Victor Reader Soft. A member of the DAISY consortium defining international digital Talking Book standards, VisuAide actively participated in the development of the new DAISY and NISO Z39.86 Digital Talking Book standards."


"Telex introduced the Scholar Talking Book player as the first fully portable DAISY player in the world. We have designed a product that brings consumer technology to the DAISY market at pricing that is significantly lower than the traditional DAISY players. The Scholar offers the opportunity to take reading anywhere even while enjoying other activities. With the lower price and portable size, the Scholar also offers all the advanced navigation features of the higher-priced players.

"The Scholar allows users to access pages by typing the page number on the numeric keypad that is the same layout as a telephone. Users have access in seconds to pages that took many aggravating minutes to find in cassette books. The Scholar is also able to play many hours on four AA batteries and has an extremely rugged design.

"Telex will be offering DAISY 3.0 and NISO Z39-86 playback capabilities in March 2004 that will be available to download into existing players. Firmware upgrades are available at <www.telex.com/duplication/updates>."

Product Features

Features Classic Plus Scholar Vibe PTR1
Size (inches) 9.3 x 8.2 x 2.1 6 x 5.5 x 1 5.5 x 5.5 x 1 7 x 6 x 1 3/8
Weight (ounces) 2.42 pounds 7 ounces 6.8 ounces 1.9 pounds
Time required to access a DAISY CD (seconds) 10 29a 25a 12a
Time required to access a music CD (seconds) 7 6 19 12
Plays MP3 and commercial music CDs in stereo Yes Yes Yes Yes
Has a built-in speaker Yes No No Yes
Price $375 $249 $219 $995
aAverage of 5 CDs

Product Features

Classic Plus, Scholar, Vibe, PTR1

Size (inches): Classic Plus: 9.3 x 8.2 x 2.1; Scholar: 6 x 5.5 x 1; Vibe: 5.5 x 5.5 x 1; PTR1: 7 x 6 x 1 3/8, Weight (ounces): Classic Plus: 2.42 pounds; Scholar: 7 ounces; Vibe: 6.8 ounces; PTR1: 1.9 pounds, Time required to access a DAISY CD (seconds): Classic Plus: 10; Scholar: 29a; Vibe: 25a; PTR1: 12a, Time required to access a music CD (seconds): Classic Plus: 7; Scholar: 6; Vibe: 19; PTR1: 12, Plays MP3 and commercial music CDs in stereo: Classic Plus: Yes; Scholar: Yes; Vibe: Yes; PTR1: Yes, Has a built-in speaker: Classic Plus: Yes; Scholar: No; Vibe: No; PTR1: Yes, Price: Classic Plus: $375; Scholar: $249; Vibe: $219; PTR1: $995.

a Average of 5 CDs

Product Ratings
Product Ratings

Ratings Chart

Classic Plus; Scholar; Vibe; PTR1

Keys easily identifiable by touch: Classic Plus: 4.5; Scholar: 2.5; Vibe: 3.5; PTR1: 4, Documentation: Classic Plus: 4; Scholar: 3; Vibe: 4; PTR1: 2, Online help: Classic Plus: 4.5; Scholar: 2; Vibe: 4; PTR1: 4, Overall Rating: Classic Plus: 4.5; Scholar: 2.5; Vibe: 4; PTR1: 4.

Product Information

Product: Victor Reader Classic Plus

Manufacturer: VisuAide; 841, Jean-Paul-Vincent, Longueuil, Quebec, Canada J4G 1R3; phone: 888-723-7273 or 819-471-4818; e-mail: <info@visuaide.com>; web site: <http://www.visuaide.com>. Price: $375.

Product: Telex Scholar

Manufacturer: Telex Communications; 12000 Portland Avenue South, Burnsville, MN 55337; phone: 952-736-4233; e-mail: <info@telex.com>; web site: <http://www.rfbd.org>. U.S. distributor: Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic; 20 Roszel Road, Princeton, NJ 08540; phone: 866-732-3585; web site: <http://www.rfbd.org>. Price: $249.

Product: Victor Reader Vibe

Manufacturer: VisuAide; 841, Jean-Paul-Vincent, Longueuil, Quebec, Canada J4G 1R3; phone: 888-723-7273 or 819-471-4818; e-mail: <info@visuaide.com>; web site: <http://www.visuaide.com>. Price: $219.

Product: Plextalk PTR1

Manufacturer: Plextor Corp.; 48383 Fremont Boulevard, Suite 120, Fremont, CA 94538; phone: 510-440-2000; e-mail: <info@plextalk.com>; web site: <http://www.plextalk.com>. U.S. distributor: Innovative Rehabilitation Technology; 13465 Colfax Highway, Grass Valley, CA 95945; phone: 800-322-4784; e-mail: <info@irti.net>; web site: <http://www.irti.net>. Price: $995.

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Untangling the Web

Progress Toward Access: A Review of AOL 9.0

America Online (AOL) has long been a major player among Internet service providers (ISPs). With telephone connections across the country, it has often had a local telephone number in areas where no other ISP was available. AOL has also long had a reputation as a hostile environment for users of screen readers. Keyboard navigation was lacking, and the cluttered interface and numerous unlabeled icons meant that a person who is blind was frequently bewildered by getting into areas that were not designed for people who do not view the pictures and screen layout as a whole. Unlike most Internet providers, which represent little more than a connection to the Internet through which customers can use their various third-party browsers, e-mail programs, media players, and so forth, AOL is designed to be a whole environment that the user need never leave. AOL can act as a conduit to the Internet, and once AOL is launched, it provides connectivity for other programs.

This review focuses on the "AOL experience" itself, since this experience is what makes having an account on AOL unique. For this review, I used AOL 9.0, the current release at the time of writing. For my screen reader, I used the newly released JAWS for Windows 5.0. AOL has made a major commitment to improving accessibility, and its staff have worked with Freedom Scientific and GW Micro to improve AOL's performance with both companies' screen readers. Since the two screen readers access information from applications differently, you cannot assume that an improvement for one will bring better access for the other. Currently, efforts have progressed much further with JAWS. It is not yet advisable to use AOL with Window-Eyes.

Getting Started

New AOL customers usually receive a CD-ROM with the AOL software in the mail or pick one up at a retail store. When the AOL setup program starts, it immediately recommends that you shut down any other programs you have running. Fortunately, AOL and screen readers tend to get along well together, so people who are blind can install AOL independently.

In my evaluation, I was somewhat hampered by the fact that I was already an AOL subscriber and could not go through an entirely new installation from scratch. I did, however, establish a new account and install a new copy of the AOL software. I used a downloaded copy of AOL 9.0. Because I had no registration code, such as is normally provided with the CD-ROM, I had to establish my account by dialing a toll-free number and speaking with a customer service representative. The representative was friendly and helpful. He established my AOL user name (which AOL calls a "screen name") and a temporary password. I then used the AOL software to dial into the service and set up my account with my preferences.

Setting up my account was a straightforward and speech-friendly experience with a couple of notable exceptions. First, I was given the opportunity to read the member agreement, the rules for using the service, and I found that JAWS did not read the first screen of this agreement automatically. This was a real problem, since AOL presents the agreement in a window that contains no edit caret. It is not possible to scroll down through the page and read the agreement line by line, and each "page" of the agreement can take up more space than can be presented on the screen at one time. I had to use the JAWS cursor, a feature for moving the mouse pointer around the screen with speech, to read the window. Also, I had to perform simulated mouse clicks on the scroll arrows to move down in the agreement. When I hit the Next button and moved on to the second page of the agreement, however, JAWS read the window automatically. Even so, it would still be preferable to have the agreement presented in such a way that a blind person can review it using the arrow keys. After all, this is a technical document, and users of AOL agree to be bound by it when they use the service.

When I closed the member agreement, I ran into my second snag. I had two buttons to choose from: the one to view the member agreement, and a second button with no label. I guessed that the unlabeled button was the one that would let me proceed. My guess was correct, but such an important button should have been labeled properly.

The next screen permitted me to choose a "Navigation and Tools" tool set. Selecting a tool set was easy. I tabbed through the screen, listening to the descriptions of the tool sets, and hit the space bar on the one I wanted. Then I tabbed to the "Next" button and hit the space bar to continue setup.

I was now allowed to pick a "Stories and Features" lineup from several categories. Selection worked identically to the previous screen and was easily accomplished. By consulting AOL's help facility, I learned that the "tool set" I had chosen was used to customize the features that would appear on the AOL "Welcome Screen" and that the "Stories and Features" choice would determine what kind of material would appear in a marquee at the top of the screen. It would have been helpful to get this information when I was setting up these options, since a user who is blind does not get the immediate feedback of looking at the screen and seeing the results of changes made to settings.

Getting Help

AOL's online help facility is largely usable with speech. Many of the screens for AOL services provide a Help button that brings up help topics that are relevant to the area in question. You can also use the keyword "Help" to search for information on topics of interest. I ran into two significant issues with the help facility, however. First, I found that only some of the help information was presented as Web pages. Other help information, although it was usually read by JAWS, was presented in a window without an edit cursor. Thus, as was the case when I read the member agreement, I was limited in my ability to read through the help at my own pace. The other problem was that at times I would be placed in a window that asked, "Was this article helpful?" rather than in the article itself. Then I would have to hit Alt-Tab to switch to another program and back to AOL to get into the actual help topic. A user who is not prepared to do some experimenting may wind up simply losing out on the help information in that situation.

On the subject of online help, AOL keyword "accessibility" is worth mentioning. This help area has information that is grouped by type of disability and is well worth browsing. The Help for Screen Reader Users gives keyboard shortcuts that are applicable to Windows-based software, in general, as well as keystrokes that are specific to AOL. AOL and Freedom Scientific have produced tutorials that are helpful in introducing JAWS users to AOL's installation, AOL's screens, e-mail, instant messaging, and other services. These MP3 files are available at <www.freedomscientific.com/fs_products/training_audio_demos.asp>. At this point, I was ready to explore AOL.

The AOL Screens

At log on, AOL displays a few different windows on the screen. These windows are all displayed within the main AOL window as "child" windows, and you cycle among them with the Control-Tab keystroke. One of the initial windows is the "Welcome Screen." The Welcome Screen displays lots of content, customized by the "Tool Set" and "Stories and Features" options you made when you set up your account. At the time of writing, the Welcome Screen was not particularly accessible. It was possible to tab among different items of content and frequently to hear some indication of what was available, but the information I would get at the press of the space bar was often not accessible.

Another of the windows that is displayed when you log on is the "Quick Start" window. This is a set of buttons that provide access to several areas of content: news, personal finance, yellow pages, educational resources, and so on. The buttons generally speak well with JAWS, and some provide access to content that JAWS can read--often presented as web pages.

The other window that is shown by default at start-up is the "Buddy List" window, which you use to see which of your contacts is online and available for instant messaging between computers. I will have more to say about instant messaging later.

Winnowing Windows

To cut down on screen clutter, AOL provides a keystroke, Shift-F2, to close all but the "front" (or "active") window. It is worth mentioning, however, that the Welcome Screen cannot be closed. The various window-manipulation functions are available on AOL's "Window" menu and are worth exploring to become acquainted with how they work. Also, since AOL can easily accumulate a number of windows as you work with it, the Window menu can be a handy way to see a list of these windows and perhaps to close unneeded windows to reduce the clutter.

AOL Features

You've Got Accessible Mail

Unlike previous versions, AOL 9.0 devotes a whole pull-down menu to handling e-mail. In earlier versions of AOL, e-mail was available only from the toolbar or via hotkeys. The toolbar is not directly accessible from the keyboard, so the pull-down menu is a welcome addition. Several of the pull-down menu's options are available through Control-key combinations as well. For example, you can read new mail by pressing Control-R or compose a new message by pressing Control-M.

In the e-mail composition window, available on the Mail menu or by pressing Control-M, all fields are available by tabbing. JAWS announced the label for each field, so that I knew what was to be typed in the field. I also heard announcements of the various buttons, such as "Print," "Address Book," "Send Now," and "Insert Signature File." Once you have tabbed into the edit box for writing the text of the message, the Tab key functions like the Tab key on a typewriter, moving you ahead about five spaces each press. Thus, you have to Shift-Tab to get out of the body of the message. The various buttons in the e-mail composition window do not appear to have "accelerators," the Alt-key combinations that are typically used to activate a button from anywhere in a dialogue box. This means, for example, that sending a message requires you to Shift-Tab several times to get past edit boxes and buttons to reach the "Send Now" or "Send Later" buttons. It would really speed things up to have some sort of direct access to the "Send" buttons or perhaps have them available on the Mail menu, when appropriate.

AOL 9.0 normally creates e-mail messages as HTML text. Messages look like World Wide Web documents and can contain hyperlinks, pictures, and so on. While you are editing the body of a message, the context menu, accessed with Shift-F10, is extensive and permits you to insert hyperlinks and change the color, font, and justification of the text. You can even pick an option called "Compose as Plain Text" if you want to send a smaller plain-text message without special effects, a feature that may be helpful when you send messages to Internet mailing lists, for example.

The window for reading received mail is presented as a World Wide Web document. Most of the JAWS features for navigating in and manipulating a web page operate while you read an e-mail message. Unfortunately, as is the case for the "Send" buttons when you compose a message, replying, forwarding, and other such functions are available only by tabbing to buttons in the e-mail window. This is another case in which shortcut keys or menu options could really speed things up for a nonmouse user.

Little Black Book

AOL includes an address-book feature that lets you store a great deal of information about individuals you want to keep track of. You can use this address book to ease the process of addressing e-mail, store telephone numbers, create groups of people, and so on. The address book is largely usable with speech from the keyboard. However, highlighting a group of contacts to receive the same message using the shifted arrow keys is not supported.

AOL Keywords

Keywords have long been a hallmark of AOL. You type in text describing an area of interest, and AOL takes you into an area of content related to that subject. AOL provides the Control-K keyboard shortcut for bringing up a dialogue box into which you type a keyword that you would like to explore. This shortcut gets around the need to find the little keyword box at the top of the AOL screen.

On the basis of typing in a few likely keywords, however, I can only say that the results were varied and often disappointing. For instance, I knew that the web site <http://www.travelocity.com> was supposed to be available at AOL keyword "Travel," so I tried it. After I typed in the keyword "Travel," I found myself in an edit box. Tabbing once gave me a button that said, "Search." So far so good. It must be possible to do a search for a travel destination or activity of interest. However, further tabbing on the Travel screen just yielded button after button that JAWS described as "online area button." The issue of many AOL buttons being announced as "online area button" has been a long-standing problem that the AOL staff have been trying to change in the AOL software, but it was alive and well on the keyword "Travel" screen. I did manage to tab past the "online area" buttons and get to some more interesting material, including a button that said it would let me explore travel from my local city. I tried the search box mentioned earlier as well and was placed into a web page full of travel information that I could read.

Although a number of AOL keywords are likely to be problematic for users of screen readers, there are also keywords for which accessibility work is noticeable. For instance, the Radio at AOL service, at keyword "Radio," is usable with a screen reader. The content is presented as a web page in which you pick a station from an extensive list and then press Enter on the words "Play," "Mute," or "Stop" to control playback of the station. AOL made a special point of getting feedback from subscribers with disabilities to ensure that Radio at AOL was usable with assistive devices as soon as it was launched.

Web Browsing

With AOL being the "all-in-one" application that it is, web browsing is provided from within the program. The Control-K combination, used to access AOL keywords, may also be used to enter a web address. Web pages are displayed in Microsoft Internet Explorer-style windows within AOL. JAWS reads these windows readily, providing the same specialized navigation by headings, links, and so forth that is available with JAWS and stand-alone Internet Explorer.

Instant Messaging

AOL has its own built-in instant-messaging capability that works between AOL users and with others on the Internet who have the stand-alone AOL Instant Messenger program. AOL has worked with the screen-reader manufacturers to ensure that instant messaging in AOL works with speech. Once you add other people with instant-messaging capability to your "buddy list," you can see when they are logged on and available to chat. Setting up a buddy list is fairly easy, although, as is often the case in AOL, the screen of buddy-list options is extensive and can take some time just to tab through. You are alerted by squeaky-door noises when a buddy logs on or off, a nice touch that alleviates the need to review the buddy-list display constantly.

Once you have initiated a chat session with another person, a chime sound alerts you that the other person has sent you a text message. In my experiments, JAWS did a good job of reading each message as it appeared on the screen. The chief drawback with instant messaging is that it is difficult to review the messages that have already been sent. Again, the text is shown in a window with no edit cursor, so you cannot just cursor up and down through the messages. This drawback can be particularly irritating if you do not hear a message that the other person has just typed. In that case, you have to wander the screen looking for the text of the message just received while the person on the other end of the chat is wondering why you are taking so long to respond. Even so, instant messaging is quite doable. Typing a message to a buddy is easy. Just type in some text, hit Control-Enter, and the message is sent.

When You Get Older

AOL provides a powerful set of tools for parents to use when they create screen names for their children. Parents may decide whether and with whom their children may exchange instant messages and e-mail. They may also tailor the web sites that their children may visit. Parents may even have a report e-mailed to them that tells them what their children are doing online. In trying out the parental controls, I found that everything talked well. I again ran into informational screens for which there was no edit cursor, and I had to be satisfied with listening to JAWS read the information from start to finish at its own pace. Overall, though, the parental controls are usable with speech and can let parents thoroughly customize the experience for the needs of their children.

The Bottom Line

AOL has come a long way from the old DOS-based version that would not work with screen readers. A number of people who are blind now use AOL with reasonable success, especially for e-mail, instant messaging, and web browsing. AOL 9.0's powerful spam-filtering and parental controls can be valuable to parents and anyone else who is trying to deal with unwanted or offensive material. The AOL e-mail system is much less prone than other e- mail systems to the kinds of vulnerabilities that have been used in recent years to spread viruses.

By the same token, AOL is a vast service, and much of it is still difficult or impossible for a person who is blind to use effectively with speech. Even the areas that have been targeted heavily for accessibility still have problems. For instance, by default, AOL disables web links in e-mail messages as a means of protecting users from being sent to unknown and possibly undesirable web sites. The mail window includes a button to turn off this feature if you are reading a message with links you specifically want to follow. However, this button is not labeled, so you have to guess at its function.

The accessibility staff at AOL continue to be enthusiastic about transforming the service into a friendlier place for people with disabilities. It is no longer necessary for people who are blind to avoid using AOL, as it was before AOL made a commitment to accessibility. Time will tell how it all turns out.

Manufacturers' Comments

"At AOL, we recognize that accessibility is a continual journey, not a destination. Two crucial elements are assessments from beta testers and member feedback. We obtain feedback by conducting accessibility beta tests prior to every major software release, attending assistive technology and consumer conferences, and hosting regular meetings with the AOL Access Advisory Committee (AAC). The AAC is a cross-disability committee comprised of experts, including the American Foundation for the Blind, that advises AOL on a range of technology, marketing and policy issues. To date, we have been working proactively with access technology vendors including Freedom Scientific and AI Squared. Our most impactful accessibility work is still to come.

"This evaluation addresses the need for improved keyboard support and the ability to review text more effectively. A product that we believe will help address both concerns in 2004 is AOL Communicator, a suite of stand-alone applications that provides an alternative to the all-in-one environment of AOL 9.0. In other words, if you want to use AOL e-mail and nothing else, AOL Communicator's e-mail application is the only AOL application that has access to the keyboard. This will allow us to implement more industry-standard keyboard commands.

"JAWS compatibility with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), AOL's free instant message software, has improved recently. With JAWS 5.0 and AIM 5.2, you can now review incoming messages line-by-line and more easily access the BuddyList and other powerful features.

"AOLbyPhone makes reading, writing and replying to e-mail messages as simple as picking up the nearest telephone. It provides free access to 411 directory assistance and access to headline news, sports and weather. Call 800-265-1234, or visit AOL Keyword: AOLbyPhone."

For More Information

For more information on AOL accessibility, e-mail <aolaccessibility@aol.com> or visit the web site <www.aol.com/accessibility>.

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Product Evaluation

Do Cell Phones Plus Software Equal Access? Part 2

Funding for this product evaluation was provided by the Teubert Foundation, Huntington, West Virginia.

As promised in our article in the November 2003 issue of AccessWorld ("Do Cell Phones Plus Software Equal Access? Part 1"), in which we evaluated the Nokia 3650 cell phone combined with the Mobile Accessibility text-to-speech software, in this article we evaluate the TALKS text-to-speech software from Brand & Gröber Communications loaded onto the Nokia 9290 Communicator. The 9290 is a combination cell phone and personal digital assistant (PDA). We evaluated how well this combination provides access for a person who is blind or has low vision to the device's many functions and features. For comparison purposes, we also review the results we reported on the Nokia 3650 and Mobile Accessibility in November.

The Nokia 9290 Communicator

On first examination, the Nokia 9290 looks and feels like a normal cell phone that is fairly large and heavy by today's standards. But, when you feel the hinge on its side and open it up, you realize that inside it is also a PDA, much like a miniature laptop computer. So, it has an outside telephone interface as well as an inside PDA interface. It runs the Symbian operating system on a 32-bit CPU and has 56 MB of memory with a 16 MB removable memory card. Weighing 8.7 ounces and measuring 6.2 inches by 2.2 inches by 1 inch when folded up, it is the largest telephone we have evaluated, but it also provides the most functionality. When it is folded up, the Communicator works like a standard cell phone, with a set of dialing buttons arranged in a traditional 3 by 4 grid. Above these buttons is a set of six other keys that are used to control the phone, including the Call and End buttons. Between the two sets of keys are the Power button and a Profiles button. At the top of the panel is a traditional LCD (liquid crystal display) measuring 1.25 inches by 0.9 inch. Unlike other cell phones, the earpiece and microphone are actually on the back panel of the phone, opposite the buttons and display. This means that after you place or receive a call, you have to turn the phone over to talk and then back over again to press keys for navigating voice mail or other menu systems that you may encounter while on a call.

Figure 1: The Nokia 9290 closed.

Caption: The Nokia 9290 Communicator closed.

When it is opened up, the top half of the PDA interface features a large multicolor display measuring 5.4 inches by 1.4 inches, and it can be tilted at any desired angle. There are four "soft keys" along the right of the display, whose actions are dependent on the adjacent on-screen text. The bottom half is a full, albeit miniature, QWERTY keyboard.

The PDA interface features many programs that you may find on a personal computer, which are accessed via eight application keys along the top row of the QWERTY keyboard. The first key on the left opens the "Desk" window, which is much like a PC's desktop, where you can place links to frequently used programs and documents and write notes. The second key, moving left to right, opens the telephone window, where you can use the PDA as a speaker phone and to access your contacts list and many other advanced phone functions. The third key opens the "Messaging" window, used for e-mail, fax, and text-messaging functions.

Figure 2: The Nokia 9290 open to the PDA display.

Caption: The Nokia 9290 Communicator open.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth keys open the "Internet," "Contacts," and "Calendar" applications, respectively, and the seventh button opens the "Office" window. In the Office application, there is a word processor, file manager, spreadsheet program, and presentation viewer. The eighth and final application key opens the "Extras" window, which has 10 other programs, including the Control Panel, Help Program, Sound Recorder, and Calculator. You can download other applications and documents onto the Nokia 9290, and it will synchronize your calendar and contacts with Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes. Although the Communicator is obviously loaded with features and applications, it does not have some of the more popular features of today's top cell phones, such as voice dialing or a built-in digital camera. In addition to being compatible with the TALKS software, the Communicator can also be connected to the Braille Wave, a refreshable-braille display from Handy Tech.

The Nokia 9290's price has dropped over time. We purchased it in August 2003 for just over $500, but we priced it in November for $390 by itself or for $260 if you also purchase an extended service agreement (these annual agreements start at $29.95 per month).

One important thing to note about the Nokia 9290 Communicator and the Nokia 3650 is that they both use GSM cellular technology, which is the standard across Europe and is now being implemented in the United States and Canada. Although this technology is rapidly spreading across North America, it still does not have nearly the coverage of the more common CDMA and TDMA technologies that have traditionally been used in the United States and Canada. Before you purchase one of these cell phones (or any cell phone for that matter), you should ask your service provider about the types of coverage you will have in the areas in which you will be using it.

The TALKS Software Version 1.0

TALKS is a screen-reader program that allows a person who is blind or has low vision to access nearly all the PDA functions of the Nokia 9290 Communicator. You can also use the PDA as a speaker phone to place and receive calls and to access all the advanced telephone functions. Although the outside telephone interface is not supported by TALKS, the basic functions of placing and receiving calls can be done with that interface without speech assistance. TALKS works on the 9290 in the United States and Canada and on Nokia's 9210 and 9210i in Europe. It will soon be available on the Nokia 60 series of phones, including the 3650. It uses the ETI Eloquence speech synthesizer that is used by some other screen-reading packages, so many users will be familiar with its voice. It supports nearly all the applications on the Nokia 9290, but not the Internet browser or the Presentation Viewer. It supports some but not all of the calendar features, and it does not fully support the spreadsheet program.

The software costs $395, or you can purchase the Nokia 9290 with the software already installed for $795 from Beyond Sight. Alternatively, for $50, Beyond Sight will install the software on a Nokia 9290 that you purchased elsewhere. Using PC Suite software, you can install the software yourself. However, although the process is accessible, it is difficult, and no instructions for the process are provided.

The Sweet 16

As we reported in our previous cell phone evaluations, before we began our reviews, we surveyed 20 cell phone users who are blind or have low vision to determine which features they would most like to have made accessible. The 16 features that were rated the highest by the respondents became the basis for our evaluation. We looked at whether users would be able to access these features and noted the barriers to accessing them. The evaluation methods we used included

  • measuring the ability to identify and use the keypad tactilely,
  • determining the ability to navigate menus,
  • noting auditory and vibratory feedback, and
  • assessing the readability of the visual display.

The following analysis lists the 16 cell-phone features that the respondents rated as the most important for accessibility and how the Nokia 9290 Communicator/TALKS combination measured up on each feature. For comparison purposes, we also include the results from our November article on the Nokia 3650/Mobile Accessibility Combination.

Box 1: The 16 Most Desirable Accessible Cell Phone Features (in rank order).

Box 1. The 16 Most Desirable Accessible Cell Phone Features (in rank order)

  • 1.  *Keys that are easily identifiable by touch
  • 2.  *Voice output
  • 3.  *Accessible documentation
  • 4.  Battery level indicator
  • 5.  Roaming indicator
  • 6.  Message indicator
  • 7.  Phonebook
  • 8.  Phone lock mode
  • 9.  Keypad lock mode
  • 10.  Power indicator
  • 11.  Ringing or vibrating mode indicator
  • 12.  GPS feature
  • 13.  Signal strength indicator
  • 14.  Ringer volume control
  • 15.  Caller identification
  • 16.  Speed dialing

*Tied for first place.

Keys That Are Easily Identifiable by Touch

On the outside telephone interface of the Nokia 9290, the dialing keys are easily identifiable by touch, but the nib on the 5 key is placed on the bottom of the key and is not substantial. The other six buttons are nearly flush with the panel and are difficult to identify tactilely. On the inside, the keys of the PDA's miniature QWERTY keyboard can be distinguished by touch, but they take quite a bit of getting used to. Placing some locator dots on the keys will make it easier to use them. TALKS provides a training mode in which you can press keys and key combinations, and TALKS will tell you their functions. The "soft keys" (that is, keys whose function varies depending on the icons or text appearing on the display) that appear along the right edge of the inner display are difficult to distinguish, and locator dots are necessary to use them efficiently. Because the function of these "soft keys" varies, TALKS has a keystroke to read their functions.

On the Nokia 3650, by comparison, most of the keys are easily identifiable by touch, except for two "soft" keys near the display that are flush with the panel. However, the circular arrangement of the dialing numbers can be difficult to use. Having to count around the circle to find the numbers you want to press can be inefficient and time-consuming. The nib on the 5 key is placed on the top left corner instead of on the middle of the key.

Figure 3: Photo of the Nokia 3650. The screen menu lists Calls, Messaging, Contacts, Services, and Tools.

Caption: The Nokia 3650 has a circular dial.

Voice Output

TALKS begins speaking as soon as the Nokia 9290 PDA is opened up with the easy-to-understand Eloquence speech synthesizer. It provides text-to-speech access to nearly every function and application on the PDA, working similarly to a computer screen reader. Although there is only one voice, which is male, the rate and pitch can be adjusted. TALKS generally functions solidly, but it sometimes reads a word or phrase incompletely. However, there is a key combination to repeat the last phrase.

The use of Mobile Accessibility in combination with the Nokia 3650 creates an interface with voice output to provide access to many menus and features and much screen information, but it does not give a user who is blind access to all the menus or features of the 3650 phone, such as web surfing, voice dialing, and speed dialing. The quality of the voice is acceptable, but the voice is not as clear as what is found in today's speech synthesizers. A major problem is that Mobile Accessibility often does not speak when the phone's power is switched on, and sighted assistance is sometimes needed to activate the software manually.

Accessible Documentation

As we have found with every cell phone we have evaluated over the past year, the manufacturer does not provide accessible documentation for the Nokia 9290. The TALKS manual is available in Microsoft Word format, however, and, although it is incomplete, it is designed to give you enough information to get you started using the device. The biggest problem with the manual is that it does not provide any instruction for the software's installation process. In addition, it makes some other minor mistakes in describing some menu items. The PDA's help system is both accessible and highly useful in that it provides a context-sensitive Help button, as well as a traditional help system with contents, index, and search components. TALKS is relatively easy to use, especially if you have had experience with screen readers, but people who are blind or have low vision still need access to a device's full manual and other documentation.

The Nokia 3650 also has no accessible documentation, but the Mobile Accessibility manual is available in Microsoft Word format. However, the manual is incomplete and has some errors and a graphical description of the buttons, which is useless for a blind person.

Battery Level Indicator

TALKS has a status-indicator keystroke that will tell you whether the on-screen battery indicator has one, two, three, or four bars and will say, "Battery almost empty" when it is time to recharge. The Nokia 9290 also produces warning tones periodically over the last few hours of the battery's life.

Mobile Accessibility also has a keystroke for reading battery life, which indicates a high, medium, or low battery charge. The Nokia 3650 emits a warning tone every hour for three hours before the battery dies completely.

Roaming Indicator

The status-indicator keystroke also speaks the name of the service provider for the cell tower that the Nokia 9290 is currently using. If it is not your service provider, you will know that you are roaming and thus paying extra for your call. Mobile Accessibility does not provide access to the roaming indicator on the Nokia 3650 display.

Message Indicator

In addition to an onscreen indicator icon, the Nokia 9290 emits a tone to notify you that you have received a voice mail, e-mail, fax, or text message. You can then use TALKS to open the Message application to access your messages and reply. If you missed a call while you were away from your phone, a window pops up to notify you, which is read by TALKS. The Nokia 3650 also emits a tone to indicate messages, and Mobile Accessibility can access voice mail and text messaging, but not fax or e-mail services.

Phone Book

Nokia calls this phone book "Contacts," and all the functions available on the Communicator are accessible with TALKS. You can read your contact list; add, delete, or edit contacts; call contacts; and assign unique ring tones to your contacts. You can also record your own ring sounds and assign them to contacts.

The Nokia 3650's Contacts menus can be accessed with Mobile Accessibility. You can assign a shortcut or navigate through the menu system to the Contacts menu and perform most of the contact-management tasks that are available through the 3650 operating system.

Phone Lock Mode

The Nokia 9290 can be locked with password protection to prevent unauthorized use, and the process to lock and unlock is accessible using TALKS. The Communicator calls this function "Security," and it is found in the Control Panel. The Nokia 3650, by contrast, cannot be locked with Mobile Accessibility; you must do so with sighted assistance.

Keypad Lock Mode

The Nokia 9290 provides a way to lock the outside telephone keypad to prevent unintentional dialing while it is in a pocket, purse, or briefcase, but this feature is actually called "Phone Lock." Although TALKS does not support this process, it is fairly easy to do. The feature is toggled on and off by pressing the Menu key, followed by the asterisk key on the outside telephone. On the Nokia 3650, you can lock the keypad through the main menu of Mobile Accessibility and unlock it by pressing the Left Menu key, followed by the asterisk key.

Power Indicator

For the outside telephone of the Nokia 9290, if you cannot see the display, you have to press a dialing key and listen for a tone to know whether it is turned on. For the PDA, TALKS is on and speaks immediately when it is opened. So, if you press a keystroke and hear TALKS speak, you know it is on and that you have power. Power indication can be accessed in a similar fashion with the Nokia 3650/Mobile Accessibility combination.

Ringing or Vibrating Mode Indicator

The Nokia 9290 has no vibration feature, so there is no icon to indicate which mode is active. But TALKS can navigate the menu system to access and modify all the ringer settings. Mobile Accessibility can navigate the Nokia 3650 menus to determine which mode is active and to change the ringer settings.

GPS Feature

Some of today's cell phones have a GPS feature that uses global positioning satellites to help emergency services locate you if you make a 911 call, but neither the Nokia 9290 nor the 3650 has that feature.

Signal Strength Indicator

The status-indicator keystroke will tell you if the signal-strength icon on the Nokia 9290's display has one, two, three, or four bars. The more bars, the better the signal strength is. On the Nokia 3650, pressing and holding the pound key will cause Mobile Accessibility to speak this information.

Ringer Volume Control

TALKS can access the menu systems of the Nokia 9290 to adjust volume and all other ringer settings, as well as the speech-output volume. The earpiece volume can be adjusted using the up and down buttons on the outside interface while you are on a call. Mobile Accessibility can also be used to navigate the menu system on the Nokia 3650 and to adjust the volume settings. The optional headsets may be necessary to use either of these two phones in noisy situations or for privacy.

Caller Identification

There is a problem accessing Caller ID information with TALKS. The ringer has to be set to ring only once, or the ring tone will interfere with TALKS. After you hear the ring tone, you can open up the PDA, and TALKS will speak the number of the incoming call or the person's name if the caller is in your contacts database. You can then press buttons either to accept or decline the call. If the PDA is already open, you must press a certain keystroke after you hear the ring tone to hear the Caller ID information.

Caller ID is easier to use with Mobile Accessibility, since you simply press the Menu key to announce the number or name of an incoming call on the Nokia 3650. Again, the caller must be in your contacts database for his or her name to be announced.

Speed Dialing

TALKS can be used to access the Nokia 9290 menu systems to set up one-touch dialing for telephone numbers in your contacts database. Unlike all the other cell phones we have evaluated, no sighted assistance is needed with the Communicator.

On the Nokia 3650, all tasks involving speed dialing and voice-activated dialing must be done through the phone's interface and are not accessible via Mobile Accessibility. However, if sighted assistance is used to help program voice- and speed-dialing numbers, these features can be used with some memorization of the minor keystrokes. Voice dialing is not available on the Nokia 9290.

Low Vision Accessibility

The Nokia 9290 has a large, high-resolution display, and its contrast, brightness, and color settings can be adjusted. However, the font sizes are too small for most people with low vision to read. There is a zoom feature, but it only has three levels, adjusting the average font size to 8, 10, or 12 points. Glare is not a factor around the displays or keys, and although the text on the keys is also too small for most people with low vision to read, most keys are either identifiable tactilely or can be identified using the TALKS Training mode.

The display on the Nokia 3650 is large, 1.5-inch by 2-inch, with 4096 colors, but the text on the screen is small, ranging from 10 to 14 points, which is too small for many people with low vision. However, you can use the contrast feature, accessed through both interfaces, to adjust the contrast from normal to high. The keys on this phone are small and have text or icon labels that are too small for most people with low vision to read, but you can use Mobile Accessibility to learn the keys and their functions.

The Bottom Line

The Nokia 9290 Communicator/TALKS combination gives people who are blind or have low vision access to many more cell phone features than any of the other cell phones we have evaluated over the past year, and access to the PDA functions provides additional value. It really is like a miniature PC, but the miniature keyboard is too small to be used efficiently to write long documents or to be used as a notetaker. Other drawbacks include the price, which is just under $800 with the software installed. It is also a large device and will not fit in many pockets. Weighing nearly 9 ounces, it is twice as heavy as the Nokia 3650, which is $200 to $270 less expensive if you also consider the cost of the software. However, Mobile Accessibility does not provide access to nearly as many features, so the informed buyer must decide what is more important before he or she decides which phone to purchase. You must consider whether price is a major concern and which features are most important to you. The Nokia 9290 Communicator is certainly an intriguing gadget, but you will be paying for features that are not necessarily cell phone features, such as a word processor and a file manager. Also, many of the features discussed in this evaluation are network dependent, so you need to check with your service provider to ensure that the features are supported and the phones are available because not all service providers carry these phones.

Are We There Yet?

The Nokia 9290 Communicator and the Nokia 3650, combined with TALKS and Mobile Accessibility, respectively, represent what we can only hope to be the start of a promising trend in the cell phone industry. Both software packages will soon be available on additional phones. Mobile Accessibility will introduce a new version of its software with many reported improvements in early 2004, and TALKS is likely to issue an upgrade soon. As we mentioned in a previous article (see "The Future of Accessible Cell Phone Technology," a sidebar in "Answering the Call: Top-of-the-Line Cell Phones, Part 2" in the July 2003 issue), ALVA Access Group has now introduced its MPO, or Mobile Phone Organizer, which is a braille notetaker with a refreshable display and a built-in cell phone with speech output. The PAC Mate PDA from Freedom Scientific and the BrailleNote and VoiceNote from Pulse Data HumanWare can interact with certain cell phones to provide access to screen information, and Babel Technologies, whose software is used in the MPO, is introducing another phone with built-in text-to-speech in conjunction with the Spanish company Owasys. These developments will all lead to more choice for consumers who are blind or have low vision and, we hope, demonstrate to the major manufacturers that it is indeed possible to build accessible cell phones. Maybe these developments will also bring more players into the market and lead to more affordable prices, and perhaps the manufacturers will one day even provide accessible manuals, too.

Product Features

Features Nokia 9290 Nokia 3650
Size (inches) 6.2 x 2.2 x 1 5 x 2.24 x 1
Weight (ounces) 8.7 4.6
Display screen size (inches) Outside screen: 1.25 x 0.9 2 x 1.5
PDA screen: 5.4 x 1.4
Telephone style Flat phone opening up into a PDA resembling a mini-laptop PC Flat/one piece
Voice dialing No Yes
Accessible PDA Yes No
Pricea $260 to $500 (plus $395 for TALKS software); with TALKS installed: $795 $299 (plus $299 for Mobility Accessibility software)
a Cell phone prices change rapidly, so check with your service provider for current prices.

Product Features

Nokia 9290, Nokia 3650

Size (inches): Nokia 9290: 6.2 x 2.2 x 1; Nokia 3650: 5 x 2.24 x 1, Weight (ounces): Nokia 9290: 8.7; Nokia 3650: 4.6, Display screen size (inches): Nokia 9290: Outside screen: 1.25 x 0.9, PDA screen: 5.4 x 1.4; Nokia 3650: 2 x 1.5, Telephone style: Nokia 9290: Flat phone opening up into a PDA resembling a mini-laptop PC; Nokia 3650: Flat/one piece, Voice dialing: Nokia 9290: No; Nokia 3650: Yes, Accessible PDA: Nokia 9290: Yes; Nokia 3650: No, Pricea: Nokia 9290: $260 to $500 (plus $395 for TALKS software); with TALKS installed: $795; Nokia 3650: $299 (plus $299 for Mobility Accessibility software).

aCell phone prices change rapidly, so check with your service provider for current prices.

Product Ratings
Product Ratings

Ratings Chart

Nokia 9290; Nokia 3650

Keys easily identifiable by touch: Nokia 9290a: 3.0; Nokia 3650: 2.5, Access to screen information: Nokia 9290: 4.5; Nokia 3650: 3.0, Accessible documentation: Nokia 9290: 3.5; Nokia 3650: 2.5, Speech quality: Nokia 9290: 4.5; Nokia 3650: 3.0.

aRating is for the telephone keys, not the PDA keys.

Product Information

Products: Nokia 9290 Communicator; Nokia 3650

Manufacturer: Nokia Americas; 6000 Connection Drive, Irving TX 75039; phone: 972-894-4573; Sales: 888-256-2098; web site: <www.nokia.com>. Price: Nokia 9290: $390; Nokia 3650: $299.

Service available from AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile, and others. Check with your local service providers for the availability of phones and features.

Product: TALKS Software

Manufacturer: Brand & Gröber Communications GbR; Dresdener Strasse 2, 51373 Leverkusen, Germany; phone: +49-(0)180-5001579; e-mail: <talks@bugcom.de>; web site: <http://www.talx.de>. U.S. distributor: Beyond Sight; 5650 South Windermere Street, Littleton, CO 80120; phone: 303-795-6455; e-mail: <info@beyondsight.com>; web site: <http://www.beyondsight.com>. Braille Wave, a refreshable-braille display that can be connected to the Nokia 9290, is also available from Beyond Sight. Price: $395.

Product: Mobile Accessibility

Manufacturer: Code Factory, S.L. Rambla d'Egara; 148, 2-2, 08221 Terrassa (Barcelona) Spain; phone: 0049-171-3797470 or +34-93-733 70 66; e-mail: <sales@mobileaccessibility.com>; web site: <http://www.mobileaccessibility.com>. U.S. distributor: Speech and Braille Unlimited; phone: 760-880-0971; e-mail: <info@speechbraille.com>; web site: <http://www.speechbraille.com>.

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Product Evaluation

Quite a Display: A Review of Two Video Magnifiers

This article reviews two video magnifiers: the Merlin by Enhanced Vision Systems and the Prisma by Ash Technologies. These two were chosen because of the unique offerings they each bring to the field of low vision. The Merlin and the Prisma have made waves because of their comparatively low cost for color units.

What follows is a review of these two units, along with the advantages and disadvantages of each model. A "bottom line" evaluation and summation is then presented for each machine. A direct comparison of the models is not possible, since each unit has unique characteristics and features.


The Merlin is an "in-line" closed-circuit television (CCTV)--one that includes both the camera and monitor. Although in-line units generally have the monitor aligned on top of the camera unit (in line), the Merlin has the capability of positioning the monitor to the side of the camera unit. It caused quite a stir in the field by becoming the first autofocus color unit that costs less than $2,000. The degree of zoom magnification can be changed either with a large dial (positioned in the center of the controls) for continuous adjustment or with preset locks, allowing you to set and select two main preferred specified sizes of magnification, depending on the print size you are reading.

Figure 1: Photo of a man looking at a picture of a baseball player with a Merlin CCTV.

Caption: The Merlin CCTV.


In addition to its lower cost for a color in-line unit and a three-year warranty, with an optional lifetime warranty on the camera for an additional $100, the Merlin's monitor comes in two sizes: 14 inches or 20 inches. Furthermore, the large, ergonomic, and easy-to-control buttons are all front mounted, and the push buttons are concave and large. In contrast, many other comparable units have controls on the side or in more difficult locations for the user. The Merlin has the largest working space of any X-Y table for reading and other tasks. Also, the monitor is not permanently mounted on the camera table, so you can place the monitor at the desired position and height, which may allow for enhanced posture and ergonomics while viewing the monitor. The optional voice recognition for magnification controls may be helpful for persons with physical impairments, such as arthritis, or for older persons who have difficulty with controls. A preset magnification-level button helps you go immediately to either of two desired magnification levels that you select and set. Other advantages include an autofocus camera and an optional "Color Select" feature to select various color combinations when reading.


Despite its advantages, the Merlin has a number of disadvantages, including a relatively poor contrast of the control buttons against its background color plate, decreased resolution in the highest magnification levels when used in the color mode, and some reported problems with the locking and quick-release mechanism on the X-Y table. In addition, the current models have a steel webbed-based frame, compared to the plastic X-Y table, which was lighter in weight, in the original model.

The Bottom Line

The Merlin is a reliable, easy-to-use CCTV with a great warranty, for an affordable price.


The Prisma is a fold-up, portable color CCTV that is lightweight (weighing less than 3 pounds) and can be transported in a lightweight carrying case to desired operating locations and connected to a conventional TV monitor of any size. Unlike handheld CCTVs, the camera does not need to be moved by hand, which requires considerable tracking skills. Instead, the camera remains stationary, and text or objects are moved underneath the adjustable camera. The arm housing the camera can be raised or lowered, which adjusts the amount of magnification. The lens is manually focused.

Figure 1: Photo of the Prisma focused on a magazine with the text appearing white on black on a television monitor.

Caption: The Prisma.


In addition to its relatively low cost for a stationary CCTV and its portability, the Prisma has minimal controls, is easy to operate, has fairly good color for an inexpensive unit, and can be used with any size monitor.


The disadvantages of the Prisma are its reduced resolution and image quality, compared to most more expensive in-line units; its manual focus; and the fact that the arm that holds the camera is less sturdy and hence may loosen over time as the camera is moved and the height of the arm is altered (to adjust the level of magnification). In addition, the X-Y table is not movable; you must physically move text or materials under the camera.

The Bottom Line

The Prisma is a portable, inexpensive color CCTV that does not require you to hold and move the camera. However, it generally requires you to move the materials under the camera and has a somewhat diminished resolution and image quality than do standard in-line units.


Both of these CCTVs provide unique offerings to the field of low vision. Each holds a promise for the future: the Merlin because of its breakthrough in lowering the cost of color CCTVs and the Prisma because of its portability of a non-handheld color CCTV at an affordable price. Neither is without some need for improvement, yet each provides some solutions for the present and a hope of even better things to come.

Product Features

Feature Merlin Prisma
Color camera Yes Yes
Auto focus Yes No
Magnification range (in available monitors) 4x-66x 4x-50x
Magnification adjustment With a dial for continuous adjustment or with a button for two preset sizes of choice By raising or lowering the arm that houses the camera
Detachable monitor Yes Yes
Warranty 3-year 1-year
Color Select Optional No
Voice Activation Optional No
Portable No Yes

Product Features

Merlin, Prisma

Color camera: Merlin: Yes; Prisma: Yes, Auto focus: Merlin: Yes; Prisma: No, Magnification range (in available monitors): Merlin: 4x-66x; Prisma: 4x-50x, Magnification adjustment: Merlin: With a dial for continuous adjustment or with a button for two preset sizes of choice; Prisma: By raising or lowering the arm that houses the camera, Detachable monitor: Merlin: Yes; Prisma: Yes, Warranty: Merlin: 3-year; Prisma: 1-year, Color Select: Merlin: Optional; Prisma: No, Voice Activation: Merlin: Optional; Prisma: No, Portable: Merlin: No; Prisma: Yes.

Product Ratings
Product Ratings

Ratings Chart

Overall Rating

Merlin: 4; Prisma: 3

Product Information

Product: Merlin

Manufacturer: Enhanced Vision Systems; 17911 Sampson Lane, Huntington Beach, CA 92647; phone: 714-374-1829 or 800-440-9476; e-mail: <info@enhancedvision.com>; web site: <www.enhancedvision.com>. Price: Black and white, with 14-inch monitor: $1,795; color, with 14-inch monitor: $1,995; color, with 20-inch monitor: $2,145.

Product: Prisma

Manufacturer: Ash Technologies, Freedom Vision; 615 Tami Way, Mountain View, CA 94041; phone: 800-961-1334; e-mail: <info@freedomvision.net>; web site: <www.freedomvision.net>. Price: $995.

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Product Evaluation

No Static at All: A Review of Low-Power FM Transmitters

Have you ever had an excellent source of audio material that was in the wrong place in your home? Perhaps you would like to play your favorite Internet radio station or MP3 files from your personal computer's (PC's) hard drive on your back porch. Maybe you want to hear the television audio in your garage. Or perhaps you would like to hear your Talking Book player through the car's sound system on your next trip. For me, it was playing books from my Audible Otis through the car radio and other radios in my home. (For more information on Audible, see the web site <http://www.audible.com> or the article, "Books on Tape Without the Tape!" in the January 2003 issue of AccessWorld®.)

Making audio sources more portable within your home or car is easily accomplished with the use of a low-power FM transmitter. An FM radio transmitter can be connected to the audio-out or headphone jack of almost any device, including a PC sound card, Talking Book player, MP3 player, or tape recorder. The audio is transmitted to any nearby FM radio receiver, such as the car radio, a Walkman radio, or your stereo receiver. Note, however, that the range of a low-power, license-free FM transmitter is limited, so you will not be able to transmit from your home and receive the signal miles away while you walk around town. Nevertheless, many people who are visually impaired find limited-range portability of audio material to be convenient in their homes. In fact, these transmitters have been discussed extensively on the PC-Audio e-mail group. (To subscribe to the list, send a blank e-mail message to <pc-audio-subscribe@yahoogroups.com>.)

This article reviews two FM transmitters that are popular with audio enthusiasts who are blind or have low vision: the Arkon SF120 Sound Feeder and the C. Crane FMT Digital Wireless FM Transmitter. Two other transmitters are discussed for readers who want to explore the topic further. These units cover a range of price points and capabilities.

With any of these models, the transmitter needs to be connected to the audio source, typically by plugging an audio connecting cable into the headphone jack on the source. The transmitter must be tuned to a frequency on the FM radio band that is not in use in your area of the country. Finally, volume levels on the source or transmitter must be adjusted to provide an audio signal that is strong enough, yet not so loud that it overdrives the transmitter. A signal that is too loud will generate distortion of the audio as it is transmitted. After you finish these setup steps, your audio program is broadcast like any other radio station to a nearby FM radio receiver. Finally, the radio receiver you will be using needs to be tuned to the frequency that you selected when you set up your transmitter.

The Arkon SF120 Sound Feeder


The battery-powered Arkon SF120 Sound Feeder allows you to play your portable CD player, MP3 player, or MiniDisc player through your car's FM radio. It can also be used indoors with television, video games, keyboards, or computers.


The SF120 Sound Feeder is enclosed in a small plastic case, measuring 3 3/8 inches x 2 3/8 inches x 1 inch and weighs 2.6 ounces. It operates on one AA battery. A telescoping 3½-inch antenna is built into the top right of the case. Also on the top is a slide switch for power. Moving this switch to the right toward the antenna turns the unit on. At the top of the left side is the jack for the audio-input cable. Below this jack is a tuning knob that is used to select the SF120's transmit frequency. Below the tuning knob is a three-position switch that is used to select the portion of the 88-108 MHz FM band to be used. This frequency-range switch basically divides the FM band into thirds, allowing the frequency-tuning knob to offer finer tuning than would be possible if it were covering the entire range in one rotation. The battery compartment is located near the bottom of the back of the unit. It is opened by sliding the compartment's cover to the left.

All the controls of the SF120 are accessible. Operating the unit is fairly simple; all you need to do is to find an unused frequency on an FM radio, connect the SF120 to an audio source, turn it on, and tune the SF120 until you hear your audio source in the radio. There is no audio-level adjustment on the SF120, so the volume control on your audio source is used to control the transmitted audio volume.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The SF120 is an inexpensive choice to begin experimenting with audio broadcasting. However, the transmission range on the unit I evaluated was limited. The unit worked well transmitting to a car radio from anywhere within the car, so it was excellent for sharing Talking Books or the contents of an MP3 player with others on a road trip. But I found that the limited range made it impractical for transmitting farther than within one room at home. The audio cable that was provided was short, so that the SF120 had to be within a foot of the source. Also, tuning the transmit frequency was a bit of a problem. Although it was easy to accomplish without sighted assistance, even a slight movement of the tuning dial caused a fairly large movement in the frequency. Even after I set the transmitter on the open frequency I chose on my FM radio, it was easy to accidentally bump the transmitter frequency control and have to retune.

The C. Crane FMT Digital Wireless FM Transmitter


The C. Crane FMT Digital Wireless FM Transmitter is available directly from the C. Crane Company. With the FMT, you can listen to streaming or MP3 audio. Plug it into the headphone jack of your computer's speakers or sound card and listen on any FM radio anywhere in the house. The FMT does so by taking the audio and turning it into an FM radio broadcast. It has an approximate line-of-sight range of 70 feet. Walls and metal objects will reduce this range.


The FMT is enclosed in a small plastic case measuring 3.1 inches x 3.5 inches x 1 inch and weighs 5.8 ounces. It operates on two AA batteries or an included alternating-current power adapter. The case has rubber feet on both the back and the bottom sides, so it can be positioned flat or vertically on a desk or shelf. A telescoping 11-inch antenna is located on the top left of the unit. In addition to telescoping, this antenna has a swivel base, so that it can be adjusted to a vertical position, regardless of how the FMT is oriented.

With the FMT lying flat, the on-off button is just slightly above the center on the top surface. It is a wide oval-shaped button. Pressing it quickly turns the unit on. If the button is held down for more than a few seconds, it activates an automatic power-off feature. The FMT cycles through 1-, 2-, 4-, or 8-hour timer choices. To the right of the power button is a small red LED (light-emitting diode) that indicates that the input audio is too loud. Below the power button is a digital frequency display. To the lower right of this display are two buttons that are situated on a diagonal. The upper right of these two buttons increases the broadcast frequency, and the bottom one lowers the frequency. Each time these buttons are pushed, the frequency changes by 0.05 MHz. There is a transmit-volume control on the right side of the case. The built-in audio cable is attached on the lower left side of the case; it is a coiled cord that can be extended to about three feet. Below this cable is the jack for the included 110V power adaptor. The battery compartment is on the lower half of the back of the unit; the cover slides off to the left to allow the installation of two AA batteries.

Not all the FMT's controls and features are fully accessible to a user who is blind, but the unit is still easy to operate. The frequency can be set by pushing the frequency-increase buttons while listening for the signal on your FM radio tuned to an unused frequency. The transmit-audio level can be set by ear, again listening to the volume and quality of the signal in the radio.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The FMT is easy to tune. Once set, it is not easily bumped off the selected frequency. The stereo audio quality is excellent, and the range is good. The manual states that a range of 70 feet in an unobstructed area should be expected. I did not attain this range, but I was using the FMT in my home, so the signal was obstructed by walls and electrical systems. The included 110V power adapter is a handy feature when you use the FMT in a fixed location, such as when it is connected to a computer's sound board output.

However, I found that it was easy to turn on the FMT accidentally while I was carrying it in my briefcase. The power button was probably pressed by something while in transit. Without a radio to hear the signal, there is no way for a blind user to know if the FMT is on or off.

Other Choices

Two FM transmitters by two other manufacturers deserve a quick mention. Although I have not evaluated either of them, these transmitters from Veronica and from Ramsey Electronics have been discussed extensively by contributors on the PC-audio e-mail group. Veronica is a European provider of transmitters in both kit and assembled versions for professional applications. Many of its products exceed the U.S. power limits for license-free operation (see Veronica's home page at <www.veronica.co.uk>). Ramsey Electronics offers several AM and FM transmitters (see its home page at <www.ramseyelectronics.com>). Note that the Ramsey Electronics transmitters and some Veronica models are kits that require assembly by someone who is experienced in building electronic kits.

Rules and Regulations

In the United States, RF (radio frequency) devices are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FM transmitters that have been discussed in this article fall under these regulations. Anyone who operates such a device is responsible for understanding and complying with the appropriate regulations. A good introductory discussion of the FCC rules regarding low-power, license-free FM broadcasting can be found on the Ramsey Electronics web site at <www.ramseyelectronics.com/resource/default.asp?page=fcc>. If you buy a kit that requires adjustment to comply with regulations or a device that is not designed to be used in the United States, you are still responsible for operating it in compliance with the FCC rules.

Product Information

Product: SF120 Sound Feeder

Manufacturer: Arkon Resources; 20 La Porte Street, Arcadia, CA 91006; phone: 800-841-0884 or 626-254-9005; web site: <www.arkon.com>. Price: $24.95.

Product: FMT Digital Wireless FM Transmitter

Manufacturer: C. Crane Company; 1001 Main Street, Fortuna, CA 95540; phone: 800-522-8863; web site: <www.ccrane.com>. Price: $79.

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AccessWorld News

Ease Your Cabin Fever with a Good Book

It's cold outside, at least in the northern hemisphere. Why not curl up next to a warm computer with some good reading material? The following news stories detail a number of products, web portals, and services that are designed to allow you instant access to information.

Partners Plan to Deliver Audio Newspapers

The Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) and the text-to-speech (TTS) technology company Rhetorical Systems, both located in the United Kingdom, have formed a partnership to develop AudioRead. The handheld device is designed to operate like an MP3 player, allowing users to download files, such as current newspapers and magazines, into the device. AudioRead will employ Rhetorical Systems' rVoice TTS, which uses recorded human voices to create natural-sounding synthetic speech. You can listen to a demonstration of rVoice online at: <www.rhetorical.com/tts-en/languages/english.html>. It is hoped that the combination of digital text with rVoice technology will allow RNIB to quickly transform time-sensitive materials into live narrator-quality audio files that can be electronically navigated by article or section. "We'll be able to produce 400 hours of audio in one hour," said Steve Tyler, RNIB's senior strategic manager for digital technology, in an interview with BBC News Online. RNIB plans to begin trials with AudioRead in the new year and expects to offer access to newspapers and magazines through AudioRead as part of a subscription service. For more information, contact: Royal National Institute of the Blind; e-mail: <technology@rnib.org.uk>; web site: <www.rnib.org.uk>. Information for this piece was taken from "Talking newspapers get human 'voice'," published November 25, 2003, in BBC News Online; available: <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3233340.stm>.

Canadian Library Goes Digital

In November 2003, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) Library launched its digital library, which is available online at: <www.cnib.ca/library>. The digital library is the result of the money raised through CNIB's $33 million That All May Read campaign--so far one-third of the money, $13.4 million, has been raised--that seeks to re-engineer CNIB's Talking Book production facilities and convert its collection of published material into a digital environment. Designed to be accessible to consumers using most assistive technology products, including screen-readers and refreshable braille devices, the digital library offers 1,400 online digital Talking Books in Windows Media Player format, as well as access to 10,000 audio, text, and braille titles, including more than 40 Canadian daily, national, and community newspapers. A new search tool is designed to ease navigation of the site. A Children's Discovery Portal offers children who are blind or visually impaired access to online games, books, and chat rooms. For more information, contact: Julia Morgan, communications coordinator, CNIB Library for the Blind; phone: 416-480-7423; e-mail: <julia.morgan@cnib.ca>.

Institutional Accounts for Bookshare in 2004

In January 2004, Bookshare.org will offer institutional accounts for schools or groups that wish to download and deliver books to students. Benetech's Bookshare.org is a subscription service that provides an extensive online library of accessible digital books to people with visual impairments. The Institutional Access Account allows the purchase of a fixed number of books for qualified individuals throughout the year and the Multiple Subscription Account allows multiple individuals to have unlimited, independent access to Bookshare.org through sponsored subscriptions. The subscription price for the new Bookshare.org accounts were not immediately available. For more information, contact: Bookshare.org, the Benetech Initiative; e-mail: <info@bookshare.org>.

Talking Books Mailed to Your Home

You can gain access to a library of audio books with Talking Pages (<www.talkingpages.org>), a nonprofit lending library that mails Talking Books on audiocassette to people who are blind or visually impaired and live in the United States. Talking Pages was recently founded by Michael Page, whose aunt has macular degeneration. The service is free and the Talking Book will arrive on your doorstep with a postage-paid return mailing label. Registered users with Talking Pages-issued library cards can check out two books at a time, and there is no time limit for loaned publications. Talking Pages offers a range of titles--fiction, nonfiction, history, science fiction, fantasy--and radio shows. For more information, contact: Michael Page, founder, Talking Pages; e-mail: <talkingpages@att.net>.

Assistive Technology Training

Assistive Technology Applications Certificate Program (ATACP) workshops will take place at various U.S. locations in 2004. The training workshops given by the Center on Disabilities at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) offer 100 hours of practical training in assistive technology applications, techniques, and accommodations for people with various disabilities in a variety of settings. The "FastTrax" course has 76 hours of online instruction, 2 days of live instruction, and an 8-hour project. The traditional version of the course offers 52 hours of online instruction, 40 hours of live instruction, and an 8-hour certificate project. Each of the courses meets the 100-hour requirement for a certificate in assistive technology applications and 10 continuing education units from CSUN's College of Extended Learning and the Center on Disabilities. The FastTrax program will be offered January 13-14 in Orlando, Florida, in conjunction with the ATIA conference, as well as March 15-16 at the CSUN conference in Los Angeles, California. The traditional course is offered July 12-16 in Monrovia, California, and August 2-6 in Washington, D.C. Applications are due two weeks before each course commences. The FastTrax and traditional programs cost $1,995. Course information is available online at: <www.csun.edu/codtraining>. For additional information, contact: Kirk D. Behnke, Center on Disabilities, CSUN; phone: 818-677-2578; e-mail: <kirk.behnke@csun.edu>.

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January 14–17, 2004

Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) Conference and Exhibition

Lake Buena Vista, FL


ATIA; phone: 877-OUR-ATIA (687-2842) or 312-673-4838; e-mail: <info@atia.org>; web site: <www.atia.org>.

March 15–16, 2004

Assistive Technology Applications Certificate Program (ATACP) Workshop

Los Angeles, CA


Kirk D. Behnke, Center on Disabilities, CSUN, 18111 Nordhoff Street, Building 11, Suite 103, Northridge, CA 91330; phone: 818-677-2578; e-mail: <kirk.behnke@csun.edu>; web site: <http://www.csun.edu/codtraining>.

March 15–20, 2004

19th Annual Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference

Los Angeles, CA


Center on Disabilities, California State University, Northridge; phone: 818-677-2578; email: <ctrdis@csun.edu>; web site: <www.csun.edu/cod>.

July 12–16, 2004

Assistive Technology Applications Certificate Program (ATACP) Workshop

Monrovia, CA


Kirk D. Behnke, Center on Disabilities, CSUN, 18111 Nordhoff Street, Building 11, Suite 103, Northridge, CA 91330; phone: 818-677-2578; e-mail: <kirk.behnke@csun.edu>; web site: <http://www.csun.edu/codtraining>.

July 13–15, 2004

Sight Village: 8th Annual International Exhibition of Services and Equipment for People with a Visual Impairment

Birmingham, England, United Kingdom


Queen Alexandra College; phone: 011-44-(0)121-428-5050; e-mail: <enquiries@qac.ac.uk>; web site: <www.qac.ac.uk/sightvillage>.

August 2–6, 2004

Assistive Technology Applications Certificate Program (ATACP) Workshop

Washington, DC


Kirk D. Behnke, Center on Disabilities, CSUN, 18111 Nordhoff Street, Building 11, Suite 103, Northridge, CA 91330; phone: 818-677-2578; e-mail: <kirk.behnke@csun.edu>; web site: <http://www.csun.edu/codtraining>.

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Copyright © 2004 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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