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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 July 2006 Issue  Volume 7  Number 4

History

Legends and Pioneers of Blindness Assistive Technology, Part 1

In August 2001, I attended "2001: A Technology Odyssey," a conference co-hosted by the Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER) and the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). The conference was devoted to instructing professionals who work with people who are blind or have low vision to use the assistive technology they will eventually teach their students. Little did I know that the banquet luncheon would be professionally altering for me. By the time the luncheon ended, I was convinced that I would undertake the project described in this article.

Two speakers stood out. The first, Richard Chandler, an industry leader, spoke about his vision for the future of blindness assistive technology. The head of Freedom Scientific, a recently formed conglomerate of three well-known blindness technology companies, Chandler (who was replaced by Lee Hamilton in 2002) represented an ever-growing phenomenon on the world corporate landscape. Despite worries about the demise of small businesses at the hands of "mega-giants" in many industries, several of these small blindness technology companies merged in the early 2000s for competitive advantage. In the case of Freedom Scientific, three mainstays of the blindness technology industry (Arkenstone Blindness Products, Blazie Engineering, and Henter-Joyce)--companies that had occupied their own specialty niches--had suddenly disappeared.

The next speaker was Harvey Lauer, one of the early pioneers and inventors of blindness technology. Now retired and despite his advancing age, Lauer impressed me with his clarity and wit. While he took the audience back in time, relating adventures in his laboratory from a career that spanned more than 30 years, it became clear why he is considered such a prominent figure in blindness technology that AER's Information Services and Technology division named its professional award in his honor. As I listened, I realized that, as is the case for many of his era, Lauer's career has been, at best, only lightly chronicled.

After Lauer's speech, the award named in his honor was presented to Jim Allan of the Texas School for the Blind. Allan is a highly accomplished technology trainer and educator. His acceptance speech included a paraphrase of a quote from Albert Einstein, attributing his achievements to the "giants" (Lauer among them) upon whose shoulders he stood. I began to think, wouldn't it be wonderful to hear the first-person account of the history of blindness assistive technology directly from the mouths of the legends and pioneers themselves? My imagination began to race, and when Jay Stiteley, a techno-wizard in his own right and a former employee of both the Texas School for the Blind and AFB, broke into tears while presenting the award to his old friend Allan, I was hooked.

There is a lot of passion in the assistive technology community. Not only the legends and pioneers, but the business owners, salespeople, trainers, and technologists, have always been and continue to be committed to a labor of love. Money, although important, has rarely been a primary motive. Instead, the men and women who developed and purveyed the technologies that enable people who are blind or have low vision to use computers, operate personal digital assistants, scan and read printed documents, use their residual vision to read books, convert electronic files to hard-copy braille, and more, did their work to enable us who are visually impaired to function in the world on a level playing field.

Thus, I was inspired to preserve the memories of the giants--the legends and pioneers--upon whose shoulders we stand today. In doing so, I hoped not only to illuminate the history of this specialized technology industry, but to do so in a personal way.

They Don't Live Forever

Heightening the urgency for this project, Tim Cranmer, one of the "grandparents of the business," died on November 15, 2001. The immediate reaction from blindness technology buffs appeared to be shock; only a few eulogies were posted on the most popular blindness electronic discussion groups. I worried that we had lost a great deal by not having recorded Cranmer's story. Fortunately, shortly before Cranmer died, a historian, Harold Schneider, who was working on an unrelated project for the National Federation of the Blind, and a reporter, AccessWorld's own Deborah Kendrick, spent several hours with him, recording pearls of wisdom from the man who invented the talking calculator, the personal braille printer, and a special abacus for people who are blind. Kendrick's article appeared in the January 2002 issue of AccessWorld.

While working for the Kentucky Services for the Blind in the 1980s, Cranmer helped inspire Fred Gissoni to develop a precursor to a portable notetaker. Later, Deane Blazie, who as a teenager worked for Cranmer running errands as his "Saturday boy," was inspired to earn his engineering degree and enter the blindness assistive technology business. Blazie took Cranmer's and Gissoni's open-source specifications for the PortaBraille and developed them into the Braille 'n Speak and the long line of talking portable notetakers that followed.

Hearing It from the Source

Oral history is a great way to obtain and preserve firsthand accounts of events that took place during an individual's lifetime. Even though personal points of view may be slanted or memories may be incomplete or altered by time, listening to the stories of those who lived the events in question provides a flavor that is hard to get from more sterile and removed third-party renditions.

During the interviews, the oral historian can interact with the interviewees, asking questions that help direct them to a topic, clarify a particular point, or explore an angle they may not be thinking about at the moment. Next, using the stories as a rich source of information, the oral historian attempts to put together a history. Putting a few stories together can lead to the discovery of either a great deal of consensus or genuine disagreement about what actually happened. If you listen closely enough, you can even understand why the various persons may disagree and from this insight arrive at the "truth." Here is where secondary sources (such as time lines and histories written by others) come in. Ultimately, the challenge for the historian is to put several chunks of information together and create a well-rounded and comprehensive picture of the events as they actually occurred.

My primary goal in conducting the oral history project was not to write a comprehensive history (I am not a historian), but to audiotape extended interviews with as many legends and pioneers of blindness assistive technology as possible and to make them available for public consumption. I have done so through the generosity of AFB, which has archived the digitized interviews under the auspices of its M. C. Migel Library at the AFB headquarters in New York. Historians of technology and others who are interested in these fascinating stories can listen to all or parts of the interviews there.

A Long and Winding Road

To determine whom to interview, I asked people who might be interested and knowledgeable about the field to tell me whom they considered to be "legends" or "pioneers" in the field. I contacted currently practicing assistive technology specialists, as well as consumers who are blind or have low vision. The response to my inquiry was a daunting list of luminaries--far more than I thought I would ever be able to interview on my own. Thinking that the best course of action was simply to begin, I read a few books on oral history protocol, consulted a few professors of oral history, dusted off my interviewing skills (I am a counselor by training), and began making telephone calls. No one whom I asked refused to be interviewed. Even the extremely busy Ray Kurzweil, whom I literally accosted by running onto the stage after he received an M. C. Migel Award from AFB, said yes.

In May 2002, I began traveling around the country in my spare time, conducting three- and four-hour interviews. (AFB, for which I worked at the time, permitted me to piggyback a few of my interviews on trips made in its behalf and began funding the project in 2004.) By December 2004, when I arbitrarily decided to end my trek and begin analyzing what I had heard, I had completed 25 interviews.

The Telesensory Line

My first interview, in May 2002, was with Jim Bliss, who, along with John Linvill (whom I interviewed by telephone the following August), developed the Optacon and Telesensory Systems. Bliss recently retired from his latest company, JBliss Imaging Systems (which focused on easy-to-use PCs for older people who are visually impaired), and Linvill (now in his late 80s) lives with his wife Marjorie not far from Stanford University, where he headed the Optacon project at the Stanford Research Institute. It was Linvill's daughter Candy's blindness that inspired the creation in the 1960s of what is arguably the first electronic device for blind people. Marjorie Linvill helped create the Sensory Access Foundation to use money from the Federal Bureau for Education of the Handicapped (now the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services) to provide training to people who are blind in the use of the device. Under Telesensory, the Optacon hit the market in the early 1970s, marking, in my opinion, the beginning of the blindness assistive technology era.

In late August and early September 2004, I interviewed Larry Israel and Jim Halliday. Both live in Danville, California; were integral parts of the history of Telesensory systems; and, coincidentally, are interested in viticulture (the growing of grapes) and enology (wine making). Israel is a pilot and an excellent business investor, and Halliday is an accomplished piano player who has a plethora of musical instruments from all over the world in his home.

Israel founded VisualTek (closed-circuit televisions) in 1971 to market Sam Genensky's creation (closed-circuit televisions, to be described in Part 2 of this series) and to compete against Apollo Lasers. Telesensory purchased Apollo Lasers in the early 1980s and three years later bought VisualTek (then called VTek) from him. Five years later, after Bliss had been forcibly replaced as chairman and CEO by Jim Morrell, Israel took over from Morrell and became chairman and CEO of Telesensory.

In 1986, Israel earned his law degree. He still practices law. Resigning from Telesensory in 1999, Israel returned to the board in the early 2000s. He was on the board when Telesensory went out of business in 2005, about eight months after our interview.

Halliday (Telesensory, HumanWare, Pulse Data-HumanWare, and now the HumanWare Group) began his professional life as a Mormon missionary; got into media production in the California community college system; and found his way from there to Telesensory, where he headed its sales force. In 1987, he left Telesensory to pursue a new venture, one that would emphasize the human-factors aspect of assistive technology. It was then that he received a call from Russell Smith, who was managing the buyout from the Wormald International Group that led to the creation of Pulse Data in 1988. Smith hired Halliday to develop Pulse Data's American affiliate, the company called HumanWare. HumanWare was eventually purchased by the Tieman Group and, a few years later, repurchased by Pulse Data.

In June 2002, I spent a delightful morning in my home town of Haverstraw, New York, interviewing Bob Keenan, one of a small group of industry observers whom I included in this series. Keenan is a great storyteller with a wonderful sense of humor. He has been a sales representative for Telesensory and HumanWare, and was working as an assistive technology specialist for Lighthouse International at the time of our interview. Keenan had plenty to say about the good, the bad, and the ugly of Telesensory's product development and marketing approach. His conclusion: Telesensory's ultimate downfall would come from its engineering culture, which often supplanted a more customer-oriented approach. (It was a similar feeling that led Halliday to seek a new venture.) Little did Keenan and I realize how much our interview portended the eventual demise of this giant just three years later.

Still Others Leave Us Far Too Soon

In September 2004, I took a one-hour flight from Auckland, New Zealand, to Christchurch to interview Russell Smith, the head of Pulse Data International, now part of the HumanWare Group. Just two days earlier, I had interviewed Leslie Kay in Auckland, another pioneer of blindness assistive technology and the inventor of the Sonic Guide, one of a series of sonar-based mobility and environmental scanning devices developed in the 1960s. Smith was one of only two of Kay's graduate students at Canterbury University (the other being John Brabyn, now with the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Institute in San Francisco) to remain in the blindness assistive technology business after he earned his Ph.D. On August 7, 2005, Smith and his wife died when their small Cessna 182 crashed into the sea between New Zealand's north and south islands. He was 61. The legacy he left includes one of the most prolific and enduring assistive technology companies in history.

Kay acquired his knowledge of specialized sonar in the British Royal Navy after World War II. Observing blind children enjoying themselves in a community swimming pool in Birmingham, England, and studying the use of sonar by bats, Kay (whose degree is in engineering) decided to combine concepts of airborne sonar with human learning and to develop devices for people who are blind. By the mid-1960s, he had developed the Sonic Torch. The Sonic Guide (a headborne device) and the Mowatt sensor are offshoots of the original Sonic Torch. These devices, which sold for more than $2,000 in the 1960s and 1970s and required a great deal of training to interpret accurately the audible signals generated from sonar that were designed to bounce off objects in the environment and return to receivers on the device, were not well received by the American market. Today's KSONAR device mounts on a cane, is easier to learn, and is somewhat less expensive.

Boasting one of the largest research and development teams of any similar company in the world, Pulse Data emerged in 1988 from the Wormald International Group, which Smith headed, to develop and market Kay's sonar-based devices. By the late 1980s, Pulse Data's "blind-friendly" portable notetakers, driven by the specially designed KeySoft suite of programs, had begun to revolutionize the market of products for people who are blind. Like his main competitor, Blazie, Smith's philosophy of creating technology for blind people that operates according to their unique needs captured the loyalty of many consumers. Two well-known devices from that period included the Viewscan and KeyNote series of portable devices. The legacy of the KeyNote is the BrailleNote.

Smith's most recent gifts to consumers who are blind or have low vision include the BrailleNote PK, the Brailliant braille display, the myReader digitally based electronic magnification system, and the merging of Pulse Data International with VisuAide of Canada to form the HumanWare Group.

The Roads Not Taken

I do have a few regrets. I wish I could have interviewed representatives of several blindness assistive technology companies that have made a big splash. Among these companies are Quantum Technologies of Australia, Dolphin Computer Access of the United Kingdom, Optelec, ALVA, Enabling Technologies, Papenmeier, and VisuAide (now part of the HumanWare Group).

More individuals were recommended to me than I could possibly have interviewed. Among them (in no particular order) are Larry Skutchan (ASAP, ASAW, Book Port, Book Wizard), Ron Hutchinson (Votalker synthesizer and Enhanced PC Talking Program screen reader), Tom Benham (Science for the Blind Products), Vito Proscia (an early braille embosser, IRTI), Noel Runyan (IBM talking typewriter, Telesensory), Peter Duran (early machine-based speech, Braille, Inc.), Franz Tieman (braille cells and more), Steve Brugler (Optacon, Telesensory), Greg Vanderheiden (Trace Center), Doug Wakefield (tutorials, technology advocacy), Oleg Tretiakov (ELINFA cassette-based portable notetaker, piezo-electric braille cell), George Dalrimple (an early braille embosser), and Gayle Yarnall (Telesensory).

In Part 2 of this series, I will continue my trek down the long and winding road. I will outline the remaining 18 interviews in the series, which took me from Hawaii to Boston and northern California to Florida. Although, with the possible exception of Hawaii, none was as exotic as New Zealand's north and south islands, all were fun places to visit, and the people I interviewed were even more fascinating.

Related Articles

The Human Touch in HumanWare by Deborah Kendrick
A Catalyst for Technology by Deborah Kendrick


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