March 16-21, 2009, marked the 24th annual Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference, which has come to be known simply as the CSUN conference, after its hosting organization, the California State University at Northridge Center on Disabilities. More than 4,000 people were in attendance from around the world, and two hotels, the Los Angeles Airport Marriott and Renaissance Montura, were filled to capacity with exhibits and sessions. Assistive listening devices for accessing everything from telephones to televisions, environmental control products enabling people with mobility impairments to operate computers and other devices with breath or eye movement, and a plethora of communications devices for children and adults with speech-related disabilities were among the myriad products on display. For people who are blind or have low vision, products and workshops were once again in abundance, with the emerging themes centering on GPS (Global Positioning Systems), PDAs (personal digital assistants) and Smartphones, anything portable, and a mantra of "coming soon."
On the Move with GPS
A collaboration between Freedom Scientific and the Sendero Group was announced, resulting in a new face for the StreetTalk VIP navigation software for the PAC Mate Omni. Demonstrated in a session conducted by Jonathan Mosen, as well as on the exhibit floor, the new StreetTalk will offer many of the features that are already familiar to users of Sendero GPS on other platforms, including both vehicular and pedestrian navigation, millions of POIs (points of interest) compiled in both commercial and user databases, and more. The product is expected to be released in summer 2009.
Sendero's GPS software continues to be available on the Braille Sense and Voice Sense; Mobile Geo; and, of course, the BrailleNote family of products. Sendero itself announced the availability of a new GPS receiver. The iBlue 737 is described as "supersensitive," with the ability to access a signal within 15 seconds, and is smaller and lighter than previously available models.
Verizon Wireless jumped on the bandwagon with a new phone, introduced in time for the CSUN conference, that is completely accessible to users who are blind. The Motorola Q9C can be ordered already loaded with the TALKS screen-reading software--enabling the user who is blind to send and receive text messages and e-mail messages, to access Contacts and Calendar information, and to use the Internet. The product was the result of a collaboration among Verizon, Nuance, and Dolphin Computer Access.
The American Printing House for the Blind showed a docking station for the Braille+ Mobile Manager (the PDA that is based on the Icon from LevelStar) and a 12-cell refreshable braille display. The latter can provide braille output for the Braille+, Icon, or a variety of mobile phones.
Although initially introduced at the ATIA conference in January 2009, the knfb Reader Mobile's new version was new to many at the CSUN conference. This new version offers faster recognition and processing of print, multiple voices, language translation, and more onscreen feedback for low vision users. Knfb Reading Technologies is also offering the software on another phone, adding the older Nokia 6220 to the already available Nokia N82 phone.
HumanWare Canada provided private demonstrations of a prototype product that will allow text-to-speech access to the ubiquitous BlackBerry. Called Orator, the plans for the product include complete access to all BlackBerry features and--you guessed it--is expected to launch in summer 2009. Orator is a joint project of HumanWare, Code Factory, and Research in Motion (RIM), the BlackBerry manufacturer.
Also from HumanWare were interesting upgrades for the Victor Reader Stream and BrailleNote products. The Stream upgrade, version 3.0 (released on March 31, 2009), offers two voices, search capabilities in text files, and multifolder capabilities in the Music and Other Books folders. For BrailleNotes PK and mPower, Keysoft 8.0 introduces KeyChat, an instant messaging application that allows the user to send and receive instant messages via a number of popular IM services and to do so in contracted braille.
DAISY Book Players
Known for its superb recording capabilities, Plextor has introduced a handheld book player, the PLEXTALK Pocket. Although promising, the unit does not, at this time, play books that are downloaded from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) or Audible.com. Similarly, GW Micro introduced the Book Sense, a handheld book player and voice recorder (expected to be launched officially in summer 2009). The unit offers excellent sound quality and easy navigation. At this stage, however, it allows only one bookmark and cannot yet play NLS or Audible.com material.
One of the most intriguing products in the exhibit hall was the prototype of a machine designed by IRTI that defies simple categorization. A stand-alone scanner with optical character recognition and read-aloud capabilities, the device allows the user to save documents in a variety of formats, including DAISY. In addition, however, the same machine includes an Internet radio and a talking DVD player. Not all features were yet functional, but thus far, the device has a definite charm. It, too, is expected to be released in summer 2009--and, who knows, maybe by then it will have incorporated a coffeemaker!
Even More Products
Enhanced Vision introduced the Pebble, a handheld video magnifier that magnifies from 2-10x and weighs 7.7 ounces. The Pebble has an LCD (liquid crystal display) monitor and sells for $595.
Franklin Electronic Publishing showed the Franklin Bill Reader, a product that uses a camera to identify U.S. currency. The Bill Reader speaks in English and Spanish and will sell for about $300.
Dolphin Computer Access previewed version 11 of its Supernova/Hal screen-magnification/screen-reading software. Due out later this year, the new version will include support for Microsoft Windows 7 and Internet Explorer 8 and support for dual monitors.
The Big Picture
The CSUN conference has long been a leader in providing accessibility of all sorts to people with disabilities. All venues are wheelchair accessible. Assistive listening devices are readily available. Materials were provided in braille and on CD in DAISY format. The tactile maps--while improved from the 2008 version--were still not as useful as the ones provided 8 or 10 years ago. Although the CSUN staff has always distinguished itself by offering sighted guides upon request to facilitate navigating the immense number of exhibits, the quality of that particular assistance has diminished over time. In the past, the volunteer sighted guides were fluent speakers and readers of English, sometimes even familiar with blindness and guiding techniques. This year, unfortunately, although assistance was always available when requested, the abilities of the individuals who provided it to read exhibit signage or communicate verbally were inconsistent.
That said, the CSUN conference maintains its status as an event that is teeming with innovative products, techniques, and people who are related to the world of assistive technology. Perhaps the biggest news at this year's event, in fact, was that the conference is so successful that it has outgrown the venues that were used for 19 of its 24 years. Next year, for the first time, the conference will not be in Los Angeles, but in San Diego, where all the exhibits, workshops, and speakers will occupy a single facility. See future issues of AccessWorld for details.
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CSUN 2008 by Deborah Kendrick
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