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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 September 2008 Issue  Volume 9  Number 5

In This Issue . . .

Editor's Page

Letters to the Editor

Versatility Is Bringing a New World into Focus: A Shift in the Design of CCTVs Is Clear

This article evaluates the Clarity DeskMate and the Acrobat LCD and discusses differences between desktop CCTVs and more streamlined models--Lee Huffman

Now Playing: A Review of the Accessibility of Digital Audio Players, Part 2: Assistive Technology Players

We compare adapted players, including the BookCourier, Victor Reader Stream, Milestone 311/312, Plextor PTR2, and more--Darren Burton

Gone Shopping: An Update on the Accessibility of Kitchen Appliances

We found some encouraging news on our latest shopping trip--Brad Hodges

AccessWorld News


Editor's Page

In this issue, Darren Burton presents the third article in a three-part series on audio players. This article reviews adapted players, including: the BookCourier, the Victor Reader Stream, the Milestone 311/312, and the players from Plextor. The Book Port is not included, since the American Printing House for the Blind has discontinued that product. This article also looks at the media players included in several assistive technology PDA devices, including the PAC Mate, BrailleNote/VoiceNote, Braille Sense/Voice Sense, and Braille+/Icon. Read our reviews of all of these devices.

Lee Huffman, of AFB TECH, evaluates two closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs), the Clarity DeskMate and the Acrobat LCD from Enhanced Vision. These two products represent more streamlined models (monitor with attached arm and camera), that weigh between 11 and 19 pounds and have a 17- or 19-inch flat panel monitor with a camera mounted to an adjustable arm. This article also discusses a few of the pros and cons of the standard large desktop and the more streamlined model CCTVs.

Brad Hodges, of AFB TECH, has been out shopping again, and provides an update to AccessWorld's series on the accessibility of kitchen appliances. He reports improvement in controls for some wall ovens and dishwashers. Stoves, he reports, still present significant accessibility challenges. This article also introduces the AccessWorld Appliance Accessibility Guide, which will keep you up-to-date on the latest news on each category of appliance. You can read the Guide at www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=4&TopicID=380.

Jay Leventhal
Editor in Chief

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Letters to the Editor

Debating Innovation in the CCTV Market

Regarding the article, "Rootbound Thinking in an Anemic Low Vision Industry," by Jim Halliday [in the July 2008 issue of AccessWorld], as a 30-year veteran of the low vision and CCTV industry, I have seen numerous changes over the years.

I also had the privilege to know Jim Halliday and to work with him at Telesensory in 1985–86. I have tremendous respect for Jim and his work.

Historically, he has his facts essentially correct. However, his conclusions are wrong, and, as I read the article, I could not help feeling it was a thinly disguised advertisement for the myReader. Now, there is no question that the myReader was, and still is, an innovative device that has attempted to advance the state of the art in CCTV technology. However, it has fallen far short of its potential primarily because of two factors—a high price and a fairly complex interface. The attempt to eliminate the x-y table in favor of OCR [optical character recognition] scanning technology and a reformatted presentation that the user can manipulate are innovative and useful for some people with low vision. There is just one problem! It does not work very well for the majority of seniors who have low vision.

Jim also asserts that most CCTV users get fatigued quickly when using a traditional CCTV. That does happen sometimes. However, it is not a universal truth, and it has not prevented thousands of people from buying and using CCTVs every day. A brief rest period every 30 minutes or so enables many people to use their CCTVs all day long.

The fundamental design of CCTVs, which was pioneered by Sam Genensky more than 35 years ago, was so good that it has indeed evolved slowly. However, many CCTV companies continue to utilize improvements in video technology to improve their own devices. The company I currently work for, Enhanced Vision, has introduced or made improvements in several important aspects of the basic design over the years. These improvements include the use of flat screens, flexible monitor arms, simplified controls, and both portable and head-mounted devices. We have also significantly reduced prices over the years, which has made the devices more affordable and attractive to a larger number of visually impaired users.

CCTV companies have come and gone. I have worked for several of them. However, to call the industry "anemic" only serves to point out HumanWare's failure to capitalize on the technology and the opportunity that still exists in the marketplace. Enhanced Vision continues to grow and prosper and to introduce new CCTV products annually. We see the CCTV industry as dynamic and challenging with considerable growth potential still ahead. If Jim sees it as anemic, he is missing the point!

Marc Stenzel

Vice President, Sales

Enhanced Vision

I have been a CCTV user for about 15 years, so I have noticed the changes and the stagnation in the industry. There are a lot more manufacturers and model choices than there were in 1993. Yet the basic concept has not progressed, as the author states. Personally, I have never felt the need for all the enhanced features, like auto focus and color schemes. I am a basic white-text-on-black background user.

I do have a color CCTV at home, but I find it only marginally useful. I used to use it for looking at photos, but now with the popularity of digital photos, I can just look at them on my computer monitor with magnification from ZoomText. Both of my CCTVs have manual focus.

Don't think that I am a Luddite for having such bare-bones CCTVs. I am in the IT industry and keep on top of the latest technological trends. This brings me around to the real reason why I think that CCTV technology is stalled. With the proliferation of online reading content and the wide availability of audio books, it just doesn't even make sense to read a book under a CCTV. In my early days of CCTV use, I would take the newspaper and struggle to get through an article after wrestling with the newsprint pages. Now I sit comfortably in front of my computer and have my newspaper read to me by ZoomText. I can also magnify it and spot read sections of interest.

I still find a CCTV to be an important tool in my life, but I find that I no longer use it on a daily basis. It shouldn't be marketed to users as a replacement for pleasure reading. However, for everyday tasks like reading mail, medicine bottles, instruction manuals, and so forth, it is invaluable.

David Cleveland

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Product Evaluation

Versatility Is Bringing a New World into Focus: A Shift in the Design of CCTVs Is Clear

"Wow! This CCTV is really heavy and would take up a lot of space on my desk. Do I really need all this?" People sometimes say something like this when they look at a standard desktop closed-circuit television (CCTV) with x-y table, since the sheer size of the machine can be off-putting. Others often say, "I need to use a CCTV at work or at school, too, and there is no way I can move this one around. Isn't there another style of CCTV that can give me many of the same features without being so heavy and taking up so much space?" As a matter of fact, the answer is yes.

Although standard large desktop CCTVs with x-y tables are still needed, an increasingly vocal group in the low vision community is speaking up for the need for portability in full-feature magnification. Students need magnification in different classrooms, as well as at home; working professionals need magnification in meeting rooms or when traveling to conferences, as well as at their desks; and retirees need magnification in different parts of their homes, when visiting friends and relatives or while on vacation.

Many times, a person's particular type of work simply does not require a good deal of in-depth reading, so an x-y table may be an unnecessary and unwanted feature because it accounts for much of the additional size and weight of large desktop models. Portability is not the only issue that drives the need for a more streamlined style of CCTV, however. Many people with low vision also need a self-viewing feature to assist with personal grooming, as well as a distance feature for seeing objects across a room, such as a poster or chalkboard. Unfortunately, the vast majority of large standard desktop CCTVs do not facilitate either of these two functions, further illustrating the need for a different design.

Generally, the more streamlined models (that have a monitor with an attached arm and camera) weigh 11 to 19 pounds and have a 17- or 19-inch flat-panel monitor with a camera mounted on an adjustable arm. A few companies now offer such models, including Clarity USA and Enhanced Vision. This article discusses a few of the pros and cons of the standard large desktop CCTVs and the more streamlined CCTVs, and evaluates features of the Clarity DeskMate and the Acrobat LCD from Enhanced Vision.

Which Style of CCTV Would Work Best for Me?

This question evokes individualized answers. Before you make a decision, take your specific situation and your answers to the following questions into consideration:

  1. Will I be using the CCTV at home, at work, at school or while traveling?
  2. For which tasks, such as lengthy reading sessions, filling out forms, spot reading, paying bills, handwriting, schoolwork, or hobbies, will I be using the CCTV most of the time?
  3. How much space do I have to accommodate the CCTV?
  4. What specific features, such as artificial colors, line markers, an x-y table, computer connectivity, or distance- or self-viewing, will I need to use?
  5. Do I need a monitor whose height and tilt can be adjusted?

Compare your answers to these questions to the features of the two CCTV styles noted next. Then, consider some of the pros and cons of the two styles. Doing so should give you a good idea of which style would work best for you. As always, I recommend researching any product that you consider purchasing by visiting the manufacturer's web site; reading product reviews; speaking to people who use the product, if possible; and trying out the product by visiting a demonstration center or requesting a demonstration from the manufacturer.

Pros and Cons of the Two Models

Pros of Large Desktop CCTVs
  1. They have x-y tables that better facilitate longer reading sessions.
  2. They may have a better-quality display.
  3. They generally enable the user to customize the display, in terms of the number of available artificial colors or the levels of brightness or contrast, more fully.
  4. Most offer a flat-panel monitor whose height and tilt can be adjusted.
  5. They have a significantly more stable image because the camera does not shake.
Cons of Large Desktop CCTVs
  1. They have a large footprint and take up a considerable amount of desk space, especially when the x-y table is used.
  2. They are heavy and difficult to transport. Basically, once you place one on your desk, it stays there.
  3. Most do not offer self- or distance-viewing.
  4. Most have a fixed camera that does not allow for any adjustment of the viewing angle.
  5. You always have to bring the material to be magnified to the CCTV and do not have the flexibility of bringing the CCTV to the material.
Pros of Streamlined Models
  1. They are relatively lightweight and can be moved around a room or transported from one location to another.
  2. They have no x-y table and take up significantly less desk space.
  3. They have adjustable cameras which make self- and distance-viewing possible.
  4. They have adjustable camera arms to allow for versatility in how you view documents or objects.
Cons of Streamlined Models
  1. Because the camera is attached to the end of an adjustable arm, the image displayed on the monitor can be unstable and shake from vibration when you touch the camera or bump into the table on which the unit sits.
  2. These CCTVs may have a lower-quality display image.
  3. You may not be able to customize the display characteristics of these CCTVs, such as the number of available artificial color choices and brightness or contrast levels, as fully as with the large desktop CCTVs.
  4. The height and tilt of these CCTV display monitors are not as adjustable to suit your specific preferences as are those of the large desktop CCTVs.

The Clarity DeskMate and the Acrobat LCD from Enhanced Vision

If you have considered these issues and think a more streamlined-style CCTV may fit your needs, two options to investigate are the DeskMate from Clarity and the Acrobat LCD from Enhanced Vision. Both CCTVs have the following features and functionality:

  1. Adjustable camera on a movable arm
  2. Battery-operated remote control
  3. Self-viewing feature
  4. Distance-viewing feature
  5. Auto Focus
  6. Focus Lock (for handwriting and looking at three-dimensional objects)
  7. Line markers (to help follow a line of text)
  8. White balance adjustment
  9. Various viewing modes (for those who prefer higher contrast or reverse polarity)

In addition, both products have the option of computer connectivity, and both have a custom case for transporting them. The DeskMate has a shoulder-strap carrying case that is shipped along with the product, and the Acrobat LCD has a rolling, luggage-style case that is an optional accessory. Even with these similarities, there are significant differences.

Standout Features of the Clarity DeskMate

A student viewing a colorful map using her Clarity DeskMate.

Caption: A student looks at a wall map using the Clarity DeskMate.

  1. A Contrast Adjustment feature that allows you to increase the brightness and contrast of the display to suit your particular preferences. It is an important feature to have, especially in the Natural Color mode. This feature is not available on the Acrobat LCD, whose contrast is fixed at the manufacturer's defaults and cannot be adjusted.
  2. A Manual Focus option that allows you to set the focus point to suit specific situations when Auto Focus may not work best.
  3. A Page Masking feature that allows you to darken areas of the screen to help you focus on the specific area of interest.
  4. An Electronic Media Mode, which should be used when watching television, a computer-driven overhead projection, or a computer screen. Although this feature may not be used often, it improves the quality of the picture on electronic screens.
  5. The DeskMate is available in three models. You may choose a 17- or a 19-inch monitor. In the 17-inch model, a built-in battery is optional. The 19-inch model comes without a battery, although a battery can be added to create a custom device. The battery allows you to use the DeskMate for approximately 4 hours without needing to be plugged into a wall outlet. This is a helpful option, especially if you need to use the CCTV in places, such as a library or lecture hall, where finding a convenient wall outlet could be a challenge.

Standout Features of the Acrobat LCD

A young woman reading a book in high-contrast yellow letters on a blue background.

Caption: A college student reading a geography textbook on the Acrobat LCD.

  1. The camera and camera arm are flexible. In addition to rotating 340 degrees, the camera can slide left and right along a bracket that is attached to the back of the monitor. This design provides a great deal more viewing possibilities than that of the DeskMate.
  2. The Acrobat LCD was designed to allow you to slide printed materials under the monitor, which gives you even more flexibility to position reading and writing material.
  3. The controls on two sides of the camera allow for an easy reach in both the tabletop and distance-viewing modes.
  4. Because of their lighter weight and more portable design, the camera in both models shakes, which results in a shaking displayed image. When placed side by side on a table, when the table was bumped, both display images shook, but the DeskMate shook more and took longer to become still than did the Acrobat LCD.
  5. The Acrobat LCD has seven viewing modes, including high-contrast color combinations, while the DeskMate has three viewing modes, including natural color, black and white, and reverse polarity.
  6. The Acrobat LCD has a Freeze feature, which allows you to capture an image of what is placed under its camera, and will keep it on the screen, so you can study the image even after it has been taken from under the camera.
  7. The Acrobat LCD also has an Object Locater feature, which helps you find specific areas on a page to be magnified. To use the feature, you press the Find button on the camera, and the camera zooms out to the widest view, placing a target on the screen. You position the specific material under the target. When the Find button is released, the camera zooms in on the targeted spot.

What Would Make Them Better?

The Clarity DeskMate
  1. The camera arm should be redesigned to allow a greater number of viewing possibilities. Now, the camera mounts to the right side of the monitor, which limits the placement of reading and writing materials, as well as the materials, both near and distant, that can be viewed by the camera. It could also put left-handed users at a disadvantage.
  2. The amount of shaking of the camera also needs to be reduced. A stable image is important, especially when working in higher levels of magnification, because the higher the level of magnification, the more noticeable the shaking.
  3. Artificial colors should be added to the viewing modes to benefit those who see high-contrast colors best.
  4. The monitor needs to be raised a few inches to allow written materials to slide under the monitor to provide more flexibility in the placement of reading and writing material.
The Acrobat LCD
  1. A Contrast Adjustment feature should be added. This feature would be most useful to people in the natural color mode.
  2. Even though the Acrobat LCD weighs only 17 pounds, reducing its weight would increase its portability. Although the extra weight surely adds to the stability of the camera, it would be helpful if the stability of the camera could be increased and the device's overall weight was reduced.
  3. A left-handed mode is built into the Acrobat LCD, but it is not mentioned anywhere in the documentation. This is a feature that people need to know about, and it should be mentioned in both the manual and promotional materials.
  4. The addition of a battery feature would increase the Acrobat LCD's usability, since it is not always convenient or even practical to find an electrical outlet when you need to use the device.

The Bottom Line

At a price of $2,395 (19-inch monitor), the Acrobat LCD costs $400 more than the DeskMate's base price of $1,995 (17-inch monitor). Depending on your needs, however, you may find it worth the extra cost. Both magnifiers provide a good-quality magnified view for desktop-, distance-, and self-viewing, but the more varied your needs, the more you may find the Acrobat LCD to your liking. The Acrobat LCD can provide the most versatile options for viewing various objects because of its left and right moving camera arm, and the ability to push your reading and writing materials under the display monitor provides more flexibility when working with printed materials.

If you need a lighter-weight CCTV, if your viewing needs are more basic, and you do not need the additional artificial color viewing modes, or if you need a battery-powered option, the DeskMate may be the choice for you.

Whether you choose the DeskMate, Acrobat LCD, or another model, it is important to investigate the different styles of CCTVs that are on the market before you make a purchase. While there is no perfect piece of assistive technology, become and stay informed about your electronic magnification options, and choose one that best fits your particular needs.

Manufacturers' Comments

Enhanced Vision

"Enhanced Vision would like to thank AccessWorld for the review. We are a company that constantly listens to the market and responds to the ever-changing needs of the low vision community.

"Our goal in the development of Acrobat LCD was to exceed the standard in this product category. With Acrobat LCD, we believe we have achieved the best of all worlds. The ultimate flexibility of the arm, like no others, is unique in its ability to provide in-line viewing. By allowing the camera to pivot in the front and center of the monitor, we have simulated a traditional CCTV, along with many other advantages illustrated in your review. With regard to the weight, it is important to note that our unit has a larger 19 inch standard monitor.

"Thank you again for your positive review and for educating the end users on the choices available."

Clarity USA

"Clarity is pleased to announce the introduction of the Deskmate Duo. We have taken our standard Deskmate platform and combined it with the Clarity Real® Technology which is used in our next generation platforms.

"This technology is a combination of hardware and software that, if applied between a video source and display, better enhances the contrast of the display. Key features of this technology include:

  1. Superior contrast
  2. High-contrast color combinations
  3. Optional video sources (such as a mouse camera)
  4. Optional battery management, including smart power-saving modes
  5. Better camera/picture stability."

Product Information

Product: DeskMate.

Manufacturer: Clarity USA, 6776 B Preston Avenue, Livemore, CA 34551; phone: 800-575-1456; web site: www.clarityusa.com.

Price: $1,995 (17-inch screen); $2,295 (17-inch screen with battery); $2,395 (19-inch screen without battery).

Product: Acrobat LCD.

Manufacturer: Enhanced Vision: 5882 Machine Drive, Huntington Beach, CA 92649; phone: 888-811-3161; web site: www.enhancedvision.com.

Price: $2,395 (19-inch screen).

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail us at accessworld@afb.net.

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Product Evaluation

Now Playing: A Review of the Accessibility of Digital Audio Players, Part 2: Assistive Technology Players

This is the last in a series of articles, funded by the Reader's Digest Partners for Sight Foundation and the Huntington Foundation, covering what I call portable media players—that is, players with built-in memory storage or removable storage cards, not CD-based players. In the July 2008 issue of AccessWorld, Part 1 of this review focused on mainstream players, such as Apple's popular iPod and the Creative Zen Stone. This article focuses on players that were designed from the outset specifically to be accessible to people with visual impairments. I have heard these players called adaptive players or assistive technology players, but, for the purposes of this article, I call them simply assistive players. I focus on using these players with digital music, books, and other sources of digital information. This article examines the BookCourier, the Victor Reader Stream, the Milestone 311/312, and the players from Plextor. The Book Port is not included, since the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has discontinued it. This article also discusses the media players that are included in several assistive technology PDA (personal digital assistant) devices, including the PAC Mate, BrailleNote/VoiceNote, Braille Sense/Voice Sense, and Braille+/Icon, as well as accessing digital media on cell phones using the third-party screen-reader software products TALKS, Mobile Speak, and Smart Hal. You can go to the View the Product Features links at the end of this article to get a quick comparison of each player's features, such as the types of book and music formats they play.

Handheld Portable Media Players

I start with the handheld assistive players that were designed specifically for accessing digital media files.

The BookCourier

Priced at $395, the BookCourier, manufactured by Springer Design, is a descendant of the Road Runner, a text file reader. It is sold by Springer Design. The BookCourier has 15 keys with various sizes and shapes, measures 5 inches by 2.5 inches by 1 inch, and weighs six ounces with batteries. It plays electronic files in text formats using the DoubleTalk speech synthesizer for reading those files, and although DoubleTalk is not the most popular synthesizer on the market, people who are familiar with using speech synthesis can certainly get used to it. The BookCourier also plays audio books recorded by live narrators. It plays books and music in several formats, including MP3, WAV, HTML, TXT, RTF, BRF and Microsoft Word DOC, and books from Bookshare.org, audible.com, and Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D.) It does not yet play the new downloadable books from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) or books from Overdrive or Net Library.

The BookCourier gives you several ways to navigate text files, including by page, paragraph, sentence, and word. The volume, pitch, and speed of the synthetic voice are adjustable, and you can switch between DoubleTalk voices. The BookCourier keeps your place in books and music when you turn it off or when you move to another book or song, but it does not have the ability to shuffle your music or use playlists. It has a built-in recorder to record voice memos, such as a telephone number or a to-do list, and allows you to set bookmarks in files, a valuable feature for students who need to highlight sections of textbooks.

The BookCourier stores your books and music on compact flash cards, up to 4 GB in size. It runs on 2 AA batteries and has a command to tell you the remaining battery level. It does not have a built-in speaker, so you have to use headphones or an external set of speakers. It has accessible documentation on board.

Springer Design announced that it is planning to release an updated BookCourier, but its web site says that the release has been pushed back because of technical issues with its vendors. The web site claims the following about the enhancements that will be part of the new BookCourier:

  • SD memory. The new BookCourier will support SD (secure digital) cards as well as compact flash cards. In the first release, it will support SD cards up to 4 GB, with support for 8 GB cards in a future update, and will continue to support compact flash cards up to 4 GB.
  • USB 2.0. The new BookCourier will support the USB 2.0 communication protocol, allowing high-speed data transfers to and from your PC.
  • Time scale modification (TSM). While BookCourier has always had the ability to control the playback speed of text files, the new TSM feature will allow you to adjust the playback speed of audio files as well.
  • New audio formats. The new BookCourier will play lots of new audio file formats, including OGG Vorbis, WMA, WAV PCM, and IMA-ADPCM.
  • State-of-the-art recording. Improved audio circuitry, as well as an external microphone jack, will allow you to create high-quality recordings in meeting rooms or classrooms.
  • NLS compatibility. NLS support will be available as a firmware upgrade shortly after the new BookCourier starts shipping.
  • DoubleTalk. BookCourier will continue to use the DoubleTalk voice set.
  • The next firmware update following the release of the new BookCourier will include character navigation in text files, direct downloading for compatible files (so you can copy files to BookCourier without using the Transfer software), and the ability to copy a folder with all its files and subfolders from your PC to BookCourier.
  • For $149 plus shipping, you can return your existing BookCourier for an updated BookCourier, but you will have to wait until the new BookCourier is available. You can go to www.bookcourier.com for more information.
The Victor Reader Stream

Priced at $329, HumanWare's Victor Reader Stream is a versatile player and one of the most popular products to come on the assistive technology market in quite some time. It measures 4.6 by 2.6 by 0.9 inches and weighs 6 ounces, including the rechargeable battery. In her review of the Stream in the January 2008 issue of AccessWorld, Deborah Kendrick describes its physical layout as follows:

The Stream is a handheld device similar in size to a deck of cards. Its controls are all tactile and easy to operate, with the only visual indicator being a small LED (light-emitting diode) that enables the user with low vision to know when the unit is off, on, or charging. There are, of course, audio indicators for all the operations as well.

The Stream fits in the palm of your hand. The front contains a 12-button telephone-style keypad. The 5 key has the familiar nib for quick orientation. Above the 1 key is a square button, the Go To page or Heading key, and above the 3 key is a diamond-shaped button, which is the Bookmark key. At the top are the small speaker grill and internal microphone. Below the keypad is a raised-line separator, below which are four more buttons. The bottom three are the Play/Stop button, flanked by the Rewind and Forward keys. The fourth key, centered above them, is a sleep timer. On the left edge of the unit are the round Power button and two arrow-shaped buttons that are used to control volume, speed, and tone. On the right edge are headphone and external microphone jacks and the Record button. Across the top is the small USB port, the AC adapter jack, and, in the center, the slot for the SD (secure digital) card, which stores all content played on the Stream.

In addition to Deborah's description of the Stream, our low vision testers add that it has high-contrast keys and buttons, making it attractive to people with low vision.

The Stream plays several types and formats of audio files and electronic text files. You can choose from three English-speaking Vocalizer speech synthesizers from Nuance to play electronic text in TXT, RTF, BRF, and HTML formats, and it has synthesizers in seven other European languages. The audio file formats that the Stream can play include DAISY, WAV, MP3, AMR-WB+, and unprotected Windows Media Audio (WMA) version 9.0 files. The Stream is also now compatible with files in the FLAC format, which is popular for archiving CDs. The Stream is compatible with books from Bookshare and Audible.com, as well as the new downloadable books from NLS. It is also compatible with the new NLS book cartridges that you can have mailed to you. However, the Stream is not compatible with protected WMA books from Net Library or Overdrive.

The Stream has a versatile navigation system, using the 2 and 8 keys to scroll through the navigation options, and the 4 and 6 keys to move by the chosen option. Text files and Bookshare books in DAISY format have many navigation options, including by character, word, sentence, line, phrase, page, and level, which usually moves to the beginning or end of the book. It also has Rewind and Fast Forward buttons, so you can quickly review missed segments or skip past segments. Audio books from Audible.com and NLS have less markup, usually limited to chapters and the beginning and end of the book, and the Stream does not have the ability to add word, sentence, and paragraph markup to unstructured audio files. However, the Stream has a Time Jump feature, allowing you to jump 1, 5, or 10 minutes at a time. It has a Key Lock feature to avoid accidental button presses that may cause you to lose your place in a book.

No special transfer software is necessary with the Stream, so you can transfer books or music from any PC or PDA. You can adjust the playback speed of both text and audio files on the fly with the Stream and can adjust the volume and pitch. The Stream's Go To features allow you to jump to a specific page, heading, book, or bookmark. Unlimited bookmarking is available, and the Stream has a unique audio bookmark feature that allows you to insert a voice memo to highlight a point in the text. This feature is valuable for a student, who could, for example, mark a passage by adding the memo, "The professor says this page will be covered on the test."

Those audio bookmarks take advantage of the Stream's built-in one-touch voice recorder, which allows you to record a voice memo or lecture quickly. The Stream records in AMR-WB+ format, which cannot be played on a PC, but the Stream Companion software can convert it to WAV format if you want to access your recordings on a PC or e-mail them to friends. The software can also help you organize books and music and transfer them to the Stream.

With the version 2.0 upgrade of the Stream, you can now organize your music into playlists in addition to playing your songs straight through or shuffling them randomly. I have owned the Stream for about 10 months and have already had three upgrades to enhance features and functionality. The original speaker power was quite low, but an early fix increased its power enough to play loud enough to read books in a quiet environment. They have also added additional format compatibility and improved its ease of use, so we expect this to be a continually evolving product. One improvement that we at AFB TECH would like to see in later hardware updates is a more substantial nib on the 5 key.

One useful feature of the Stream is that it is compatible with the media content that is available with Serotek's System Access services.

The Stream's documentation is fully accessible, with DOC and HTML versions of the manual available at the humanware.com web site, and it is saved on the Stream itself, where you can access it at any time by pressing and holding the 1 key. The Stream also has a key describer mode, which you can access by removing the SD memory card.

Overall, the Stream is a solid product, and it is rarely too far from my side. It does not require you to remember a lot of key commands. It has a built-in speaker. It is a fast process to transfer files to the Stream, and for those of us who are avid readers, the Stream's ability to play NLS books is a big advantage.

The Milestone 311 and 312

Manufactured by Bones, the Milestone 311 costs $369 and is available from Independent Living Aids. Deborah Kendrick's review of the Milestone in the September 2006 issue of AccessWorld had this to say:

The Milestone 311 says it measures 2 inches wide by 3 inches tall (the size of a credit card, but a bit narrower at the bottom than at the top) and is about a half-inch thick. On the top edge is one tiny button (the Selector button), a USB port, and a connection for an AC power adapter. On the bottom edge is a headphone jack that doubles as an external microphone jack. The remaining five buttons on the face of the unit are distinctly shaped and textured, so that even those with limited finger sensitivity can readily identify them. These buttons are arranged after the fashion of a cursor cross around a center circle. There is a tiny round button with a raised rim for Record, a large concave circle for Play, prominently defined left and right arrow shapes for Rewind and Fast Forward, and a large button with a distinctly raised X at the bottom, called the Mode button. The front of the unit also sports a tiny built-in microphone and built-in speaker. On the right-hand edge is a slot for a secure digital (SD) card. All these elements are readily discernible by touch. The audible prompts and feedback messages are all spoken in a clear female voice.

The Milestone 311 is a fully accessible device with a well-designed tactilely identifiable interface, and the voice is easy enough to understand. We found it a bit difficult to learn and use all its keystrokes and keystroke combinations. However, the real drawback of this device is that you are paying a lot of money for not a great deal of functionality. The Milestone 311 is a fine MP3 player and voice recorder, but the price is higher than that of the Victor Reader Stream, without nearly the level of features and functions.

Although the new Milestone 312 was not yet available at the time this article was written, a posting at www.magnifiers.org claims that the new model will have the following enhancements:

  • Universal audio playback and recording: no hassle with file formats anymore. Milestone 312 plays back DAISY 2.02, DAISY 3.0, MP3, AAC, WAV, OGG, WMA and Audible.com. Recording is possible in MP3 or WAV, either to an SD memory card or to the internal Flash memory. Playback in variable speed is possible in any of the mentioned formats.
  • Universal text playback: Milestone 312 reads TXT, DOC and HTML files, in 19 available languages. Five of them can be stored simultaneously inside the internal memory. The TTS engine is from Acapela.
  • Integrated FM tuner.
  • Integrated RFID Speakout functionality to identify tags and associate messages with them. Milestone 312 works with technology from Texas Instruments, a global leader for RFID solutions.
  • The integrated clock allows the time stamping of messages as well as alarm functions. For instance, time-controlled recording from the FM tuner is possible.
  • As of autumn 2008, hardware options, so-called Add-Ons, will be available. The first two Add-Ons will be a Color Detector and a High-End Stereo Microphone.

With these enhancements, the Milestone 312 promises to be a competitor to the Victor Reader Stream, especially with its smaller size, as long as there is not a significant price increase.

The Players from Plextor

Many AccessWorld readers are familiar with Plextor's Plextalk products, which are CD-based players and recorders. These devices do not really fit into the category of handheld players. However, as we were conducting this project, Plextor announced a new handheld player, the Plextalk Pocket, that will fit well into this category. Unfortunately, the product has not yet been launched, and we have not been able to test one in our lab. However, Plextor did send us one of the PTR2 devices, and we did get a chance to examine it.

Priced at $895, the PTR2 is much more expensive than the other players reviewed in this article. Also, its 8.1 by 6.6 by 2-inch size is more than double the others' sizes. Then again, this is a different animal. If you are really into recording or editing music and creating DAISY books, this player may be perfect. The player has two modes—one for normal use and another for more advanced creating and editing of DAISY books and music. It can also act as an external CD burner. The PTR2 is mainly a powerful recording tool for creating audio CDs and DAISY books, but it also can play files in MP3, WAV, and DAISY formats. The buttons are tactile, and the user guide is well written, giving references to the size and shape of these buttons in its text and providing fully accessible instructions in its use.

For your basic needs of listening to music and DAISY books, you can get a smaller, less expensive unit that will fill your needs just as well as the PTR2. That leads me to the new Plextalk Pocket. In examining the PTR2, we discovered that it is certainly a solid, accessible, well-built product, and we hope that the Pocket is of the same quality. I had a demonstration of the Pocket at this summer's American Council of the Blind convention and found that it is a bit smaller than the Victor Reader Stream. I also noticed that it has tactilely identifiable buttons and a text-to-speech synthesizer that reads menus, and I used it to play an MP3 song and a DAISY book. It also has a built-in microphone and recorder, so it may have many of the same recording features as the PTR2. The Pocket will be launched later this year, and AccessWorld will bring you details when they are finalized. As we completed this article, it was not clear which file types the Pocket would play upon its release, so we did not included it in the Product Features chart at the end of this article.

Media Players Built into Assistive Technology PDAs/Notetakers

All of today's popular notetakers/PDAs can play electronic text and audio files. Here, I briefly discuss the media players that are built into HumanWare's BrailleNote/VoiceNote line of PDA/notetakers, Freedom Scientific's PAC Mate line, GW Micro's Braille Sense/Voice Sense, and the Icon and Braille+ products from LevelStar and APH, respectively. I will not go into all the details of all the features of these powerful devices because that is an article or two in itself. Instead, I just briefly discuss their abilities concerning playing books and music.

Icon and Braille+

These small devices could have been in the handheld category, but because of their much more diverse feature set, they fit better in the PDA/notetaker category. They are nearly identical devices, except that the Braille+ has a braille keyboard for input. They play WMA, MP3, BRF, TXT, HTML, and WAV file formats, and they are compatible with the new downloadable books from NLS, as well as books from RFB&D and Bookshare. They do not yet work with Net Library or Overdrive books. You can also download books and music wirelessly if you have a wireless Internet connection. These devices also have built-in recorders and speakers. You can play your music in file order, shuffle it randomly, or organize it in playlists.

The PAC Mate

Freedom Scientific's PAC Mate has the mobile version of the Windows Media Player and can play audio files in many formats, including WMA, MP3, and WAV. It can also access electronic files in many formats, including DOC, RTF, TXT, and HTML. It has the ability to play protected books, so it is compatible with books from Audible.com, RFB&D, Net Library, and Overdrive, but not from NLS. It also works with Bookshare books and has a free Bookshare unpack utility. Freedom Scientific sells a DAISY player for the PAC Mate for $80, and it will synchronize the audio and text of a DAISY book that has both.

The PAC Mate can play your music files in file order or shuffle them and has the ability to organize music by genre, artist, and album, just like the iPod and other mainstream portable media players can. It also has a built-in voice recorder.

The Braille Sense and Voice Sense

Available from GW Micro, these devices can play many audio formats, including WAV, MP3 and WMA. They are also compatible with electronic text files in several formats, including TXT, RTF, DOC, and HTML. They are not compatible with books from Audible.com, RFB&D, Net Library, or Overdrive, but I have been told that access to NLS books will be available in future updates. They support Bookshare books and have a built-in tool for unpacking them. They also have a built-in DAISY player.

These devices have external buttons for accessing their media players, so you can listen to music while you use them for other tasks, such as writing a letter. We worked with the Voice Sense in our lab, and its small size is unique in the notetaker/PDA market. It fits in a large pocket fairly easily.

The BrailleNote and VoiceNote

These devices from HumanWare have a built-in media player that plays several types of audio files, such as MP3, WMA, and WAV formats. They are also compatible with electronic text in several formats, including TXT, DOC, RTF, BRF, and their own KeyNote file format. They do not play books from Audible.com, NLS, Net Library, or Overdrive, but they do play books from RFB&D and Bookshare. These devices have built-in support for downloading and unpacking Bookshare books. They have a built-in DAISY book player and support audio and text-only DAISY files, synchronizing the two file types when both are included in a DAISY book. In addition, they can play music organized in playlists and have a built-in voice recorder. Their FM radio player does not get good reception.

Cell Phone Media Players

Again, I will not go into a lengthy discussion of all the cell phones that can play books and music. Instead, I briefly discuss how some cell phones, along with third-party screen-reading and screen-magnifying software, can access various types of electronic text files and audio media. You can read my many articles on cell phones in AccessWorld to learn more about cell phones and screen readers.

Basically, there are three types of cell phones that have media players and are compatible with third-party screen readers and magnifiers. Cell phones with the Symbian operating system are compatible with the TALKS screen reader and ZOOMS magnifier from Nuance, as well as the Mobile Speak and Mobile Magnifier products from Code Factory. Those with the Windows Mobile Smartphone or Windows Mobile Pocket PC operating system are compatible with the Code Factory products, as well as with the Smart Hal and Pocket Hal screen readers. You can learn more, including which cell phones are compatible with which products, at the products' web sites: www.nuance.com/talks, www.codefactory.es, and www.yourdolphin.com.

The Symbian cell phones play WMA and MP3 music and books from Audible.com and Bookshare.org. However, you have to unpack your Bookshare books on a PC first and then transfer the HTML version to your phone. These cell phones have limited options for navigating books, but they do have the ability to organize music by genre, artist, and album, as well as by playlists. The Windows cell phones, along with Dolphin's Hal screen reader and the Mobile Speak products, perform similarly to the Symbian cell phones. However, there is an advantage in using Mobile Speak with Bookshare books because Code Factory has an optional DAISY player and Bookshare unpack utility. So, you can download a Bookshare book with the Web browser, unpack the book, and read it from anywhere that you can pick up a cell signal. None of the cell phones can yet play books from NLS or RFB&D.

User Study

AFB TECH gathered eight people with various degrees of visual impairment to conduct an informal user study to get their opinions on the various assistive players that are reviewed in this article, as well as the mainstream players that were reviewed in the July 2008 issue of AccessWorld.

The participants had different levels of technological savviness and ranged in age from 27 to 65. Each user spent an entire afternoon learning to use the various players and performing some basic tasks, such as transferring files and listening to books and music files.

On the mainstream side of things, seven participants preferred the Creative Zen Stone and Apple's iPod shuffle, citing the ease of use and the nearly complete accessibility of these products. However, one tester, the youngest of the group, preferred the iPod Classic because of the wider range of features and functions that are available. He said that he did not mind memorizing all the processes using the "count and press" method to listen to books, music, and movies. All the participants agreed that the iPod Touch and Microsoft Zune player are virtually unusable.

On the assistive side of things, seven participants preferred the Victor Reader Stream, citing the overall ease of use and the ease and speed of transferring files. They also valued the Stream's ability to play the new downloadable books from NLS, but several said that they wished the NLS books had more markup for more navigation options. However, we again had one dissenter, who preferred the now-discontinued Book Port. She agreed that it takes longer to transfer audible.com books to the Book Port, but that the Book Port more than made up for this failing with its ability to mark up audible.com books and its braille-input functions for searching for text in a text file and for using it as a braille notetaker.

Additional Players

One of the promising things that we noticed while working on this project is all the new players and updates that became available. At the time that I submitted this article, Dean Martineau's Top Tech Tidbits announced yet another player: Mobil-Eyes, a device that is a reading machine, audio player, and PDA all in one, and is sold by ATC. You can download a video demonstration of Mobil-Eyes at (www.atechcenter.net/downloads/MobilEyes.mpg); just know that it is a large file.

We also heard of a device called the VIPlayer, but it was not available in the United States when we did this study. The VIPlayer is produced by Saks Electronics, and you can learn more about it at www.viplayer.co.uk.

The Bottom Line

After working on this project for several months, we concluded that the assistive technology industry is paying serious attention to accessing books and music. In the category of handheld players, the Victor Reader Stream is now the leading product. AFB TECH testers generally preferred the Stream because of its slightly-easier-to-use interface and because it plays NLS books. We continue to hear about new players entering this market, and current players are being updated. We hope that this industry continues to pay close attention to accessing books and music and that more players continue to come on the market.

One final cautionary note: With all these devices, you have to invest the necessary time to learn how to use them. They are much more powerful than cassette players, but are more difficult to use. That being said, it is by no means an exercise in rocket science to use these players. Some due diligence and reading the manual, along with a little basic computer expertise, is all that is necessary to enjoy the numerous benefits of these players.

Additional Resources

In A Pocketful of Sound, an excellent book from National Braille Press, Anna Dresner provides many more details on the operation of many of the devices that are covered in this article.

Brian Hartgen's web site, found at www.hartgen.org, provides lots of information about players.

www.Blindcooltech.com often has informative podcasts regarding portable media players.

Dean Martineau's weekly e-mail message of Top Tech Tidbits often has useful information about media players and sources of books and music at www.topdotenterprises.com/tidbits.htm.

There is a tutorial for JAWS users of Windows Media Player at http://vip.chowo.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/jaws/Windows-Media-Player-11-Guide.html.

Dolphin, Freedom Scientific and HumanWare all have PC-based Daisy players that you can purchase at their web sites, www.yourdolphin.com, freedomscientific.com, and www.humanware.com.

Sources of Books and Music

Now that you know about the players, what about the music and books you will want to play on them? There are a myriad of online sources for books and music, but here are just a few that we found useful.

Bookshare: www.bookshare.org

This is just a fantastic resource for books, magazines, and newspapers in electronic text formats.

The NLS's downloadable books program: https://www.nlstalkingbooks.org/dtb/DownloadPilot.html

This is an excellent source for books in recorded audio format.

www.audible.com is another great source for recorded audio books, but it requires a $14.95 monthly subscription.

www.cdbaby.com is an accessible source for purchasing music from independent musicians.

www.amazon.com is an accessible site for purchasing unprotected commercial music in MP3 format.

www.emusic.com is another site for purchasing unprotected music, but the site has some quirks that take some getting used to.

www.rfbd.org is the site to order books from Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic, a leading source for accessible text and reference books for students.

Product Information

Product: BookCourier.

Manufacturer: Springer Design, 375 Diablo Road, Suite 105, Danville, CA 94526; phone: 925-838-1885; e-mail: sales@bookcourier.com; web site: www.bookcourier.com.

Price: $379 (discounts are available for Bookshare.org subscribers and users of Kurzweil 1000).

Product: Victor Reader Stream.

Manufacturer: HumanWare, 175 Mason Circle, Concord, CA 94520; phone: 800-722-3393; e-mail: us.info@humanware.com; web site: www.humanware.com.

Price: $329.

Product: Milestone 311/312.

Manufacturer: Bones, Böhnirainstrasse 14, CH-8800 Thalwil, Switzerland; phone: +41-41-726 42 70; e-mail: info@bones.ch; web site: www.bones.ch.

U.S. Distributor: Independent Living Aids, P.O. Box 9022, Hicksville, NY 11802-9022; phone: 800-537-2118; e-mail: can-do@independentliving.com; web site: www.independentliving.com.

Price: Milestone 311: $369; Milestone 312: not yet available.

Products: Icon and Braille+.

Manufacturer: LevelStar, 1500 Cherry Street, Suite D, Louisville, CO 80027; phone: 800-315-2305; e-mail: info@levelstar.com; web site: www.levelstar.com.

Icon distributor: LevelStar.

Braille+ Distributor: American Printing House for the Blind, P.O. Box 6085, Louisville, KY 40206-0085; phone: 800-223-1839 (toll free) or 502-895-2405; web site: www.aph.org.

Price: both Icon and Braille+: $1,395.

Product: MobilEyes.

Manufacturer: Guerilla Technologies, 5029 SE Horseshoe Point Road, Stuart, FL 34997; phone: 772-283-0500; e-mail: Sales@GuerillaTechnologies.com; web site: www.GuerillaTechnologies.com.

U.S. Distributor: Assistive Technology Center, 5330 Power Inn Road, Suite F, Sacramento, CA 95820; phone: 916-381-5011; e-mail: sales@atechcenter.net; web site: www.atechcenter.net/zencart.

Price: MobilEyes Basic: $3,500; MobilEyes Professional: $5,000.

Products: Braille Sense Plus and Voice Sense.

Manufacturer: Human Information Management Services, 139-9, Gajung-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon, Korea, 305-350; phone: +82-42-864-4460 (ext. 200); e-mail: hims@himsintl.com; web site: www.braillesense.com.

U.S. Distributor: GW Micro, 725 Airport North Office Park, Fort Wayne, IN 46825; phone: 260-489-3671; e-mail: sales@gwmicro.com; web site: www.gwmicro.com.

Price: Braille Sense Plus: $5,995; Voice Sense: $2,395.

Products: BrailleNote line of products.

Manufacturer: HumanWare, 175 Mason Circle, Concord, CA 94520; phone: 800-722-3393; e-mail: us.info@humanware.com; web site: www.humanware.com.

Price: Various prices.

Products: PAC Mate line of products.

Manufacturer: Freedom Scientific, 11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, FL 33716-1805; phone: 800-444-4443 or 727-803-8000; e-mail: info@freedomscientific.com; web site: www.freedomscientific.com.

Price: Various prices.

Products: PTR2 and Plextalk Pocket.

Manufacturer: Plextor, Chuo, Ueda-shi Nagano-ken, 386-0012 Japan; phone: 81-268-28-8282; e-mail: sales@plextalk.com; web site: www.plextalk.com.

U.S. Distributor: Innovative Rehabilitation Technology, 13453 Colfax Highway, Grass Valley, CA 95945; phone: 530-274-2090; e-mail: info@irti.net; web site: www.irti.net.

Price: PTR2: $895; Plextalk Pocket: $359.

Products: TALKS and ZOOMS.

Manufacturer: Nuance Communications, 1 Wayside Road, Burlington, MA 01803; phone: 781-565-5000; web site: www.nuance.com/zooms. (The web site includes free downloads of demonstration versions and a list of vendors).

U.S. Distributors: Beyond Sight, 5650 South Windermere Street, Littleton, CO 80120; phone: 303-795-6455; e-mail: jim@beyondsight.com; web site: www.beyondsight.com.

Sendero Group: 1118 Maple Lane, Davis, CA 95616; phone: 530-757-6800; e-mail: Talks@senderogroup.com; web site: www.senderogroup.com.

VisionCue: 4858-A S.W. Scholls Ferry Road, Portland, OR 97225; phone: 888-318-2582 or 503-297-1510; e-mail: at.info@visioncue.com; web site: www.visioncue.com.

Price: $295.

Products: Mobile Speak and Mobile Magnifier.

Manufacturer: Code Factory, S.L., Rambla Egara, 148, 2-2 08221, Terrassa (Barcelona) Spain; phone: 34-93-733-7066; e-mail: info@codefactory.es; web site: www.codefactory.es.

Price: $295.

Also available from AT&T for $89 on selected phones. For more information, call AT&T's National Center for Customers with Disabilities at 866-241-6568.

Products: Smart Hal and Pocket Hal.

Manufacturer: Dolphin Computer Access, Technology House, Blackpole Estate West Worcester UK, WR3 8TJ; phone: 650-348-7401; e-mail: info@dolphinusa.com; web site: www.yourdolphin.com.

Price: Smart Hal: $295; Pocket Hal: $495.

We at AFB TECH would like to thank the Reader's Digest Partners for Sight and the Huntington Foundation for the funding provided to conduct our project on portable media players and to write this series of articles.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail us at accessworld@afb.net.

Product Features

Plays DAISY books: BookCourier: Yes; Victor Reader Stream: Yes; Milestone 311: No; 312: Yes; Plextalk PTR2: Yes; PAC Mate: Yes; BrailleNote/VoiceNote: Yes; Braille Sense/Voice Sense: Yes; Braille+/Icon: Yes.

Plays NLS books: BookCourier: No; Victor Reader Stream: Yes; Milestone 311: No; 312: pending; Plextalk PTR2: No; PAC Mate: No; BrailleNote/VoiceNote: No; Braille Sense/Voice Sense: No; Braille+/Icon: Yes.

Plays RFB&D books: BookCourier: Yes; Victor Reader Stream: Yes; Milestone 311: No; 312: Yes; Plextalk PTR2: No; PAC Mate: Yes; BrailleNote/VoiceNote: Yes; Braille Sense/Voice Sense: No; Braille+/Icon: Yes.

Plays Audible.com books: BookCourier: Yes; Victor Reader Stream: Yes; Milestone 311: no; 312: No; Plextalk PTR2: No; PAC Mate: Yes; BrailleNote/VoiceNote: No; Braille Sense/Voice Sense: NO; Braille+/Icon: Yes.

Plays protected OverDrive and NetLibrary books: BookCourier: NO; Victor Reader Stream: Pending; Milestone 311: no; 312: No; Plextalk PTR2: No; PAC Mate: Yes; BrailleNote/VoiceNote: No; Braille Sense/Voice Sense: No; Braille+/Icon: Pending.

Plays plain text (TXT) files: BookCourier: Yes; Victor Reader Stream: Yes; Milestone 311: NO; 312: Yes; Plextalk PTR2: No; PAC Mate: Yes; BrailleNote/VoiceNote: Yes; Braille Sense/Voice Sense: Yes; Braille+/Icon: Yes.

Plays iTunes file formats: No assistive devices play proprietary iTunes file formats.

Plays MP3 files: All these assistive devices play MP3 files.

Plays Windows Media Audio: BookCourier: No; Victor Reader Stream: Yes; Milestone 311: No; 312: Yes; Plextalk PTR2: No; PAC Mate: Yes; BrailleNote/VoiceNote: Yes; Braille Sense/Voice Sense: Yes; Braille+/Icon: Yes.

Plays WAV files: BookCourier: Yes; Victor Reader Stream: Yes; Milestone 311: No; 312: Yes; Plextalk PTR2: Yes; PAC Mate: Yes; BrailleNote/VoiceNote: Yes; Braille Sense/Voice Sense: Yes; Braille+/Icon: Yes.

Has a Recording function: All these assistive devices have a recording function.

Note: We did not include the cell phone screen readers and screen magnifiers in this features list because the answers would depend on the actual phone on which the software was loaded.

Back to top

Access Issues

Gone Shopping: An Update on the Accessibility of Kitchen Appliances

AFB TECH returned to the appliance departments of the big-box stores in midsummer and evaluated the controls on the current crop of major appliances. I can report that the picture is a bit brighter than it was in earlier visits. Several categories of appliances, including both wall ovens and free-standing ranges, were virtually unusable at the time of my previous visit. I was pleased to observe that at least three manufacturers have included some manageable controls in the current models of wall ovens. The most promising of these controls are found on some GE ovens, which I found at Home Depot, Lowe's, and Best Buy. These controls resemble the bubble-style controls on Whirlpool dishwashers. They behave well, allowing you to set not only the oven temperature, but the oven timer, by hours and minutes, independently.

At the same time, Frigidaire, Professional Series, and some Whirlpool wall ovens offer tactile textured regions on the surfaces of controls that make nonvisual use much easier than did the earlier, all-smooth, controls. The Frigidaire controls are found on a range of models at several price levels. Some include direct key entry of the temperature, using 10 numbered controls, while others offer an up-down control. In both the GE and Frigidaire ovens, the default temperature is 350 degrees for the Bake setting, with 5-degree changes when using the up-and-down controls.

Dishwashers, which had become far less usable over the past year, appear to be trending toward renewed usability. KitchenAid, which had usable controls only a few years ago, replaced those controls with smooth touch strips in more recent designs. I am pleased to report that it has once again included usable textured controls on many of its machines. KitchenAid offers both on-the-door and hidden controls in several models that are priced from about $600 to more than $1,200. While all the models do not include the textured controls, many do.

Sears offers an almost bewildering array of dishwashers in its retail locations. In addition to the usable KitchenAid and Whirlpool machines, many Kenmore and Kenmore Elite dishwashers are usable. Since many of these machines are manufactured by Whirlpool, the similarity in the controls is not surprising.


Stoves remain the glaringly inaccessible gap in accessible appliances. I found that GE ranges, which included textured controls only a year or so ago, now use totally smooth oven control surfaces. This is also the case with Frigidaire, Maytag, Bausch, Sears Kenmore, and Whirlpool. I did encounter a Frigidaire slide-in range that features tactilely identifiable controls of contrasting textures and a Whirlpool slide-in range that uses textured regions on a smooth background. The Whirlpool model was discontinued, however.

Unfortunately, KitchenAid wall ovens, which used to include a somewhat usable keypad and subtly textured controls, have jumped on the "totally smooth control" bandwagon. I also note the passing of the once-accessible Panasonic microwave oven. At this time, I am not aware of any usable microwave ovens that are available in retail outlets. Independent Living Aids confirmed that the Hamilton Beach talking microwave oven is still available, however.

Washing Machines and Dryers

The controls on washing machines have changed little in the past 12 months. I confirmed that Bausch models, in the 500 series and, I believe, in the 100 series, do not beep or offer any audible feedback when the control buttons are pressed, which is necessary to change cycles.

Whirlpool's full-size Duet models still offer the highest level of nonvisual usability of any washing machine or dryer. The unique and innovative system of descending tones to indicate the choices of cycles puts Whirlpool's laundry-room design at the head of the line.

The trend of separating frontloading washers into size categories continues. The most accessible washer-dryer offerings are in the largest size category.

A number of manufacturers offer washers and dryers that can be used with a "count and press" method, which means that when the appliance is turned on, the controls default to a predictable state or setting. By turning controls and listening to beeps and counting button presses and listening to beeps, it is possible to change cycles and settings. This method is not suitable for everyone, but is possible over a large range of brands and models, including GE, Samsung, LG, Frigidaire, and Maytag.

Top contenders in the traditional top-loading washer category include Maytag, GE, and Whirlpool. Their matching dryers offer traditional accessibility as well. The Fisher and Paykel top-loading, high-efficiency washer, GLE-15, is an amazingly usable machine and offers what is perhaps the most usable nonvisual appliance control that is currently available.

Since not all sales associates are equally knowledgeable, it is worth noting that among the associates whom I talked with while conducting this survey, those who were trained by Whirlpool regional representatives all knew about the tone controls on the Whirlpool laundry equipment. They included those at two Best Buy stores and two at Lowe's stores. As I noted in the past, our experience at Sears was the most consistent. Of the six associates I talked with, five clearly grasped the concepts that were important. Similarly, the four at Best Buy were engaged and able to offer informed observations once I explained the concepts. Since the Lowe's representatives know the AFB TECH staff, an accurate assessment is not possible. Unfortunately, Home Depot and the Great Indoors are at the bottom of the pack again. We visited a Home Depot and the Great Indoors, spending at least half an hour examining dozens of appliances. Despite the amount of time we spent in these departments, we were never approached by a sales associate offering assistance.

The bottom line in mid-2008 is somewhat brighter than earlier in the year. With the exception of free-standing ranges, there are at least two usable choices in each of the major appliance categories.

Introducing the AccessWorld Appliance Accessibility Guide

Technology moves forward at an increasing pace, or so the technology prognosticators, pundits, and proponents observe. If the appliance industry is any example, then their predictions of ever-faster changes in technology, and in our lives, are certainly true. For this reason, tracking the availability of today's appliances through traditional AccessWorld articles is difficult at best. We also realize that information that describes the features of yesterday's appliances is of no assistance if the appliances are not available today.

For all these reasons, and to direct you to the most current information about this continuingly important topic, we are pleased to introduce you to the AccessWorld Appliance Accessibility Guide (www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=4&TopicID=380), which is designed to accomplish three important objectives.

The first objective is to bring together, in a clear and consistent layout, our current understanding of the accessibility of major household appliances. We offer an introductory section with important information about purchasing an accessible appliance, as well as a description of some basic concepts that AFB TECH research indicates are important.

The second objective is to offer a category-by-category focused breakout for the major appliance groups, including stoves, dishwashers, washers, and dryers. In these category-specific sections, you will learn about the important characteristics of the appliances and read an overview of the appliances' current accessibility.

The third objective is to build an index of specific brands and models of appliances that the staff of AFB TECH believes are worthy of particular consideration. This index is new and will grow with time. It will also reflect the ever-changing nature of the accessibility beast as out-of-stock models are removed.

Using the Brand and Models Usability Index

The purpose of the index is to call to your attention models of appliances that may offer controls that are more usable than those of other brands and models of appliances in the same category. It is important to note that the most accessible stove may not be as usable as the most accessible washing machine, so comparisons of usability are relative to the category.

We are refining the index and appreciate your feedback. Please keep in mind that each individual has certain techniques to accommodate his or her nonvisual or low vision use of appliances. Earlier articles in AccessWorld described some of these techniques and highlighted our research findings.

New and Usable, Summer 2008

Wall Ovens

GE model JTP70sMSS convection oven, at $1,399, and GE Model JKP30BMBB standard oven, at $949 (note that other models with similar controls are available in a range of colors and with different features), have bubble controls, some with direct-entry keys, others with up-down controls. The more elaborate models have round and oval controls and separate temperature, hour, and minute controls. Beeps confirm the Bake setting (the default temperature is 350 degrees) and Start. No beeps sound when you move the temperature up and down, but there is tactile feedback as each button press moves 5 degrees.

Frigidaire Professional Series, $850–$1,500, includes model PLEB3059FCB. This model has textured controls on a smooth background with confirmation tones for each button press. The error tone is clearly different from the other tones. Both direct-entry with 10 keys and up-down choices are available. There is no sensation of the movement of the mechanical buttons as the controls are used.


LG models, including LG CDF6920ST, at $799, have hidden controls, on the top surface of the door, facing up when the machines are closed. They have easy-to-feel buttons and several door and button styles. A Cancel feature is activated when you press two adjacent buttons: Power and Normal, for example.

KitchenAid models, including Model 17902, at $649, have textured controls in several configurations that resemble the traditional Whirlpool models. A Cancel button is included on several machines.

Kenmore Elite, Model 8542578, at $874.93, has rough background features that contrast smooth, circular control surfaces and a mechanical surface that is behind a plastic membrane. Other Kenmore models have a wide variety of designs and include both usable and inaccessible machines.

Looking to the Future

Looking to the future, we plan to create an AccessWorld reader opinion tool that will allow you to share your thoughts and experiences about the accessibility of appliances, tentatively called "Awpinions." We will keep you informed as its development progresses.

On the broader stage of the development of appliances, communication between appliances and other systems and/or among appliances in the home continues to be discussed. To date, manufacturers have been reluctant to include technology that makes it easier to purchase an appliance from another brand. At the same time, the prevalence of computerized technology would appear to make the day when all brands will be able to communicate a question of "when," not "if."

The interest that GE has given to the sale of its appliance unit also holds significance for nonvisual access. If the brand, historically one of the least accessible, is purchased by developers who value technology and rapid engineering over usability, then there is little hope that the accessibility of GE's offerings will increase. If the opposite is true, however, then the trends we have noted for this round of assessments may continue in our favor.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail us at accessworld@afb.net.

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AccessWorld News

Freedom Scientific Files Patent Suit Against GW Micro

On July 15, Freedom Scientific filed suit against GW Micro, alleging infringement of U.S. Patent No. 6,993,707 for a "Document Placemarker." The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court, Middle District of Florida. According to a press release on Freedom Scientific's web site: "Freedom Scientific follows the standard business practice of filing patents for good reason. Not filing for, and then enforcing patents would stifle innovation. If Freedom invests resources into developing new technologies, only to find that other companies can benefit from our investment at no charge to them, then there would be no incentive to invest. Those with vision impairments would be the poorer for that in terms of independence and employability." In a press release, Dan Weirich, GW Micro's corporate president said: "As many of our users know, our screen reader—Window-Eyes—has had the capability of returning to a specific line within a web page since version 3.1, which was released over nine years ago, well before Freedom Scientific's alleged invention. The implication in a recent Freedom Scientific press release that GW Micro is 'benefit[ing] from [Freedom Scientific's] investment at no charge' is simply not accurate nor in line with GW Micro's tradition of success and fair play." To read the complete Freedom Scientific press release, visit www.freedomscientific.com/news/pressroom/2008/GW-Micro-suit-7-24-08.asp. To read GW Micro's response, visit: www.gwmicro.com/blog.

Feel the Breeze

In June, HumanWare announced Trekker Breeze, a new, easy-to-use GPS product. This simple orientation tool is designed for use when traveling in familiar surroundings or on predefined routes. It is also meant to be appealing to people who are not comfortable with computers and screen readers. You can record routes as you walk them with sighted assistance. Routes can then be previewed and activated for future use. You receive information, such as street names, intersections, and reference landmarks, as you travel. If you become lost, you can retrace your steps. Trekker Breeze sells for $895. For more information, go to HumanWare's web site: www.humanware.com/en-usa/products/gps.

Download Books from RFB&D

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) has introduced AudioAccess, a new downloadable audio textbook that plays on Windows Media Player (version 10 or higher) and can be synchronized with most Windows-compatible portable media players. RFB&D members can not only order the books they need from the organization's online catalog of more than 46,000 educational titles, but can now download those books directly to their computers. For more information, go to www.rfbd.org/audioaccess/index.htm.

New Duxbury Version Does Math

Duxbury Systems and Design Science have announced the availability of Duxbury Braille Translator (DBT) version 10.7, with support for the direct importing of Microsoft Word documents containing mathematical equations created with MathType. This improvement will allow users to author math with MathType in Microsoft Word and then translate these materials to braille via DBT for Windows. For more information about DBT, visit www.duxburysystems.com/dbt.asp. For information on MathType, visit www.dessci.com/mathtype.

Book Port Discontinued

The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) has discontinued the Book Port, its DAISY book—MP3 player. Larry Skutchan of APH told AccessWorld that readers should watch APH's web site (www.aph.org), for a future announcement about the development of another audio player. You can still find some Book Ports for sale on eBay.

Free Screen Reader Access for Children from Serotek

Serotek is providing the ability to use a computer anytime, anywhere, with help from Keys for K-12. Keys for K-12 means a free license to carry the System Access Mobile capabilities on a U3-enabled USB thumb drive. With the System Access Mobile software, a student can plug a flash drive into any computer and have instant access—through text-to-speech and/or magnification—to all Windows-based applications that are already there. For more information, visit the web site www.serotek.com/kk12.html.

Call for Nominations for 2009 Migel Medals

The American Foundation for the Blind Migel Medal, the highest honor in the field of visual impairments, was established in 1937 by the late M. C. Migel, the first chairperson of AFB, to honor professionals and volunteers whose dedication and achievements have significantly improved the lives of people who are blind or have low vision.

The Migel Medal Awards are given in two categories—Professional Award and Lay Volunteer Award. Nominees for the Professional Award should be those whose career work has had a significant impact on services to people who are visually impaired on the national level. Prospective candidates include professionals with specific training and expertise in education, rehabilitation, assistive technology, vision rehabilitation, personnel preparation, administration, and related fields. They may work in the public or private sector, and their work should span several years. Nominees for the Lay Volunteer Award may be volunteers or employees within the field of visual impairments whose efforts have supported or extended service to people who are visually impaired. Professionals from other disciplines may include those who develop assistive technology equipment and software, health care devices, and improved medical services. Nominations are due by Friday, September 26, 2008, and should be e-mailed to Mary Ann Siller, National Project Manager, Professional Development, at siller@afb.net.

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September 20–25, 2008

Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students

Huntsville, AL

Contact: Dan Oates, coordinator, Space Camp for Interested Visually Impaired Students, West Virginia School for the Blind, P.O. Box 1034, Romney, WV 26757; phone: 304-822-4883; e-mail: scivis@atlanticbb.net; web site: www.tsbvi.edu/space/.

October 16–18, 2008

26th Annual Closing the Gap Conference: Computer Technology in Special Education and Rehabilitation

Minneapolis, MN

Contact: Closing the Gap, P.O. Box 68, 526 Main Street, Henderson, MN 56044; phone: 507-248-3294; e-mail: info@closingthegap.com; web site: www.closingthegap.com.

November 11–14, 2008

Accessing Higher Ground: Accessible Media, Web and Technology Conference for Education, Businesses, Web and Media Designers, University of Colorado-Boulder

Boulder, CO

Contact: Disability Services: phone: 303-492-8671; e-mail: dsinfo@colorado.edu; web site: www.colorado.edu/ATconference.

January 28–31, 2009

Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) 2009 Conference

Orlando, FL

Contact: ATIA, 401 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611; phone: 877-687-2842 or 312-321-5172; e-mail: info@atia.org; web site: www.atia.org.

March 16–21, 2009

California State University at Northridge (CSUN) Center on Disabilities' 24th Annual International Conference: Technology and Persons with Disabilities

Los Angeles, CA

Contact: Center on Disabilities, CSUN, 18111 Nordhoff Street, BH 110, Northridge, CA 91330-8340; phone: 818-677-2578; e-mail: conference@csun.edu; web site: www.csun.edu/cod/conf/index.html.

October 28–31, 2009

Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) 2009 Chicago Conference Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel & Convention Center

Schaumburg, IL

Contact: ATIA, 401 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611; phone: 877-687-2842 or 312-321-5172; e-mail: info@atia.org; web site: www.atia.org.

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Copyright © 2008 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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