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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 July 2009 Issue  Volume 10  Number 4

In This Issue

Navigating by Phone: A Review of Wayfinder Access GPS and Mobile Geo, Part 2

We evaluate Mobile Geo, the second of two cell phone-based GPS programs--Daren Burton and Tara Annis

Are You on BARD? The Long-awaited Switch to Digital Talking Books

We cover the transition to Digital Talking Books, from concept to reality--Guido D. Corona

Good News on the Home Front: An Update on the Accessibility of Appliances

We report on new, accessible stoves, washers and dryers, and air conditioners--Bradley Hodges

Lowering the Price of Braille: A Review of the Seika Braille Display

We review a 40-cell display that is far less expensive than comparable products--Deborah Kendrick

Even More Ways to Communicate: A Review of Twitter and Google Voice

We review the hottest social networking site and a new way to manage phone calls--Janet Ingber

Combating the Small Visual Display Invasion: AFB Works to Set a Display Quality Standard

We document the proliferation of small visual displays, and summarize recent survey results on that topic--Lee Huffman

Editor's Page

AccessWorld News

Calendar


Product Evaluation

Navigating by Phone: A Review of Wayfinder Access GPS and Mobile Geo, Part 2

This article is the second in a two-part series evaluating accessible cell phone-based GPS navigation systems that can be used in conjunction with cell phone screen- reading software. The first article, which appeared in the May 2009 issue of AccessWorld, focused on Wayfinder Access, and this one focuses on Mobile Geo. This article also includes a comparison of the two products' features and functions, as well as descriptions of our experiences with Mobile Geo.

A woman holding the dog guide's harness in her left hand and the Smartphone in her right hand. There is a Starbucks in the background.

Caption: One of the authors testing Mobile Geo.

What Do These GPS Products Do?

For readers who did not have a chance to read our initial article, we present some basic information about these products here. These cell phone-based GPS software products do much of the same things as their notetaker-PDA (personal digital assistant) predecessors have done, but in a smaller, more convenient package. To access the many features of these products, you must also have a screen reader installed on your cell phone. The features include providing

  • directions and planning routes
  • your current location
  • pedestrian and automobile directions
  • a spoken itinerary and alerts of upcoming turns
  • an announcement of, and directions to, points of interest, such as restaurants, hotels, banks, gas stations, churches, and dozens of other categories of places
  • settings to configure how you want the information presented
  • compatibility with cell phone screen-reading software

Priced at $399, Wayfinder Access is manufactured by Wayfinder Systems AB, a Swedish company. It is compatible with both the TALKS and Mobile Speak screen readers and works on cell phones that run the Symbian operating system. Symbian phones run on the GSM cellular network, so you need to be a customer of a service provider that uses this network, such as AT&T or T-Mobile, to use Wayfinder Access.

Priced at $895, Mobile Geo is a Code Factory product powered by Sendero GPS, the GPS software from the Sendero Group that is used on Humanware's BrailleNote line of products, GW Micro's Braille Sense, and soon on Freedom Scientific's PAC Mate. It is compatible with Code Factory's Mobile Speak screen reader and runs on Windows Mobile-based Smartphones, Pocket PC phones, and PDAs. Windows Mobile phones run on both the GSM and CDMA cellular networks, so Mobile Geo users are not limited to specific service providers.

The interface for both products uses your screen reader's voice to convey information and your phone's keys for input, but the latest version of Mobile Geo also has a voice-command feature for input. Some of the phones with which Mobile Geo and Wayfinder Access are compatible have their own built-in GPS receivers, but others require that you purchase a wireless Bluetooth receiver. One of the main differences between Wayfinder Access and Mobile Geo is the way they access data from maps. With Mobile Geo, you load maps onto your phone's memory or its memory card and may need to purchase and install new maps if you travel abroad. Wayfinder gets its maps over the air via your cellular connection, so you do not need to install any maps. However, Wayfinder's functions are limited if you are in an area with no cellular service, and you need to have a data plan as part of your cellular service. One of us pays an extra $15 per month for an AT&T data plan, and T-Mobile charges $19.99 per month. You also need to establish an Internet Access Point on your phone. Since we published this information on maps in our initial article, we learned that Wayfinder has a map-downloader tool on its web site, allowing you to download and store maps on your phone and avoid the data plan charges. However, the map-downloader tool is not accessible to users of screen readers.

Both products allow for a free trial period to test the products, and you can access user manuals and learn more about the products, including the compatibility of phones and PDA devices, at their web sites. For Mobile Geo, go to www.codefactory.es or www.senderogroup.com. For Wayfinder, go to www.wayfinder.com.

Testing Mobile Geo

To help us test Mobile Geo, Mike May, of the Sendero Group, lent us an HTC S730 Smartphone with Mobile Geo version 1.5 and Mobile Speak version 2.1 installed. The phone came with maps already installed, and he also sent us a Bluetooth Holux M-1000 external receiver for better GPS accuracy. The HTC S730 is a flat, candy bar-style Smartphone with fairly good tactile keys and a decent nib on the 5-key. It also has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard with keys that are satisfactory, but that require some getting used to. However, you do not have to use the QWERTY keyboard to use Mobile Geo. The Holux M-1000 is a small, wireless GPS receiver. It is just a simple rectangular box with one tactile On/Off switch and a USB port for connecting it to a computer for charging. It measures 1.7 by 2.5 by 0.7 inches and weighs 2.0 ounces. We found that we had to expose the GPS receiver to the sky to establish a connection, but once the connection was established, we could put the receiver back in a pocket or purse.

A Smartphone showing the Mobile Geo main screen next to a Bluetooth GPS receiver.

Caption: The Smartphone with a Bluetooth GPS receiver.

The software came already installed, so we did not test the installation process. However, the user guide provides a detailed description of an accessible installation process that can be completed independently. Since the HTC S730 is a Smartphone, we will describe how Mobile Geo is used with a Smartphone. Using Mobile Geo on a Pocket PC phone will be different, and you can learn more about that by reading the Mobile Geo manual found at www.codefactory.es.

The Mobile Geo Interface

Mobile Geo uses a text-only interface with no graphics to worry about, so it is perfectly compatible with the Mobile Speak screen reader. You launch Mobile Geo by navigating to its shortcut in your mobile phone's Start menu. It also appears in the Mobile Speak Control Panel on the Start menu, and you can also set a speed dial to launch it with one keystroke. When it is launched, Mobile Geo's main screen appears, and you are placed in a list of informational items that you can move among with your Up/Down arrows. These items, depending on whether or not you have a route set, will include most or all of the following: GPS status, current position, destination, nearest intersection, nearest point of interest (POI), current speed and heading, pedometer, city, mode, kind of GPS receiver, date and time, and battery status. If a plus sign is spoken before an item, you can press OK/Enter on your joystick and get more detailed information or perform an action. For example, if you press OK/Enter while on the position item, you are taken to the "Where Am I" screen with more detailed information about your current position, including address information and your latitude and longitude.

The rest of Mobile Geo's many features and functions can be accessed via either the menu system or shortcut commands using the numeric keypad. The manual states that Mobile Geo is also compatible with Microsoft Voice Command, allowing you to control Mobile Geo via speech input. Speech input would provide more of a hands-free experience when combined with a wireless headphone and microphone, but we did not test this functionality.

You access Mobile Geo's menus via your phone's soft keys. The left soft key opens up the Functions menu, and the right soft key opens up the Application menu. Each menu has eight items, but the items on the Functions menu also have submenus.

The Functions menu includes all the main controls for accessing all the route-planning and wayfinding features of Mobile Geo, as follows:

  • Set Positions includes the tools for setting your starting and destination points for planning a route and your position for exploring the map around a certain address or latitude and longitude.
  • Route Functions has 10 submenu items with various options for creating and saving routes and accessing previous routes you have saved.
  • Search allows you to scroll through POIs in your current vicinity and includes an option to use its advanced POI search tool for searching for a specific POI. You can enter, for example, the name of your favorite fast-food joint and find its location. This tool has eight options for customizing your search, including the category of POI, such as restaurant, and the distance from your current position that you want to search.
  • Virtually Explore the Map allows you to use your phone's joystick or arrow keys to move block by block around your map.
  • The Modes function allows you to switch from the GPS mode using your satellite connection to a virtual mode for simply exploring your map without using satellites. It also allows you to turn on or off the "look around announcements" that alert you to POIs as you travel.
  • Settings has several options for configuring how Mobile Geo works and communicates with you. The settings are far too numerous to describe here, but some of them include controlling your connection to your GPS receiver, whether Mobile Geo gives you directions using a clock-face style or using front-left and back-right style of directions, and whether to use vibrations to alert you to turns and other route information.
  • Announcement History brings up a list of the last 10 announcements that Mobile Geo has spoken, in case you missed one.
  • User Favorites allows you to bring up a list of the POIs you created previously and to name or delete a route that you saved previously.

The application menu has several options for Mobile Geo screens, or windows, including Go to Previous Screen, Return to Main Screen, Refresh Current Screen, About Mobile Geo, Minimize to the Background, and Exit. This menu also has an option to reconnect your GPS receiver and to turn Bluetooth on or off. There are also shortcut keys for most of these options.

Mobile Geo's shortcut commands are a convenient way to execute commands by simply pressing a button on the numeric keypad. These commands are divided into two categories: short and long presses. Short presses give you general information, while long presses provide more in-depth information. For example, while on a route, a short press of the 4-key gives the name of the next intersection, while a long press gives you the type of intersection, such as three-way or four-way intersection, its cross streets, and its location from your current position. While testing, we found that as we became more familiar with and comfortable using Mobile Geo, these shortcut commands were a convenient way to access information quickly. The commands we used most often were the 1-key to determine our current GPS position, the 4-key to hear about the next intersection, and the 8-key to learn about the nearest POIs.

You can also use all the same shortcut commands when Mobile Geo is minimized and you are using another application, such as your phone's web browser. Just precede each command with a press of your phone's Home button, and you will hear the information that you need.

Command Describer Mode

To learn the various shortcut commands, you can press the Home key four times quickly to enter Mobile Geo's convenient Command Describer Mode. You can now press any key with a long or short press, and instead of taking the action that command usually takes, Mobile Geo will speak the command's name and a brief description of what it does. To exit Command Describer Mode, you again press Home four times quickly.

Testing Routes

To test Mobile Geo, we planned and followed several routes for both pedestrian and vehicle scenarios. We conducted our testing in and around Huntington, West Virginia, home of AFB TECH. Huntington is a town of roughly 50,000 people and has wide, four-lane streets with buildings that rarely exceed 3 stories. There are a handful of buildings with 10 stories or so, but they are dispersed, so, in general, there should be little of an urban-canyon effect in Huntington. Urban canyon is a term that is used to describe cities that have tall buildings that block a GPS system's access to satellites. Creating a route with Mobile Geo is an entirely accessible process, but it can be a bit cumbersome and time consuming, as you have to set your beginning and end points before Mobile Geo can calculate a route. Mobile Geo can also take a couple of minutes to calculate and display a route. However, for actions like planning a route that may take a while, it provides a swoosh sound every few seconds to indicate that it is progressing. While traveling along a route you have planned with Mobile Geo, Mobile Speak's voice provides guidance, and you can customize the amount of information that is spoken. For example, you can have it announce all the POIs along the way or simply the turns you will have to make. Mobile Geo also has a feature using vibrations to produce short Morse code alerts. For example, to alert you to an approaching turn, Mobile Geo can produce Morse code vibrations for the letters A and T, which stand for Approaching Turn. Next, we describe some of our experiences traveling along various routes.

Vehicle Routes

In general, Mobile Geo performed solidly when using it in a vehicle, properly getting us to within 50 to 200 feet of our destinations. However, we found that it worked best if we set it to announce only the turns along our route and not all the waypoints because it was too verbose when it was set to announce all the waypoints and street crossings along the way. In that case, Mobile Geo's announcements lagged behind our actual progress along the route. For example, if Mobile Geo was set to announce all the waypoints, and we were lucky enough to catch several green lights in a row, Mobile Geo would announce intersections that we had actually passed two blocks earlier. Its announcements were much more timely when we had it set to announce only our turns, but we sometimes had to go to the Settings menu twice to make sure it was set to announce only turns.

While driving down one route that we had created with Mobile Geo, we ran into some road construction and had to take a detour. Mobile Geo was set to recalculate a route automatically if we went off-route, and it did recalculate the route. However, it did not audibly announce that it had created the new route, so we were not aware that it had done so until it again began announcing turn-by-turn directions. Similarly, when we reached our destination and had Mobile Geo plan a reverse route back to our point of origin, it again did not announce when the route was created. Also, a couple of times when creating a reverse route, it did not bring up the old route, so we had to create the new route from scratch.

We found that Mobile Geo was fairly accurate in announcing when to make a turn when on a vehicle route. We also liked how you can minimize Mobile Geo and work on other phone applications, yet still have access to Mobile Geo information at the press of a button. While on a long route, which included a 60-mile stretch of interstate highway, one of us minimized Mobile Geo and wrote several text messages with marching orders for our AFB TECH interns at the lab, but we could easily check the estimated time of arrival to our destination by pressing the Home key followed by the 3-key.

Mobile Geo's Getting Warmer feature was useful, especially when traveling on a bus. You can set a destination, and Mobile Geo will alert you as you are approaching your destination, which helps you avoid missing your stop when traveling on a bus.

Pedestrian Routes

We had more mixed results when using Mobile Geo on pedestrian routes. The routes that Mobile Geo created to our desired destinations were always accurate, but while we walked along the routes, we found that the satellite positioning information was often not as accurate as we would have liked. For example, sometimes we would be walking along a route, but Mobile Geo would not announce a required turn until we were about a half a block past the actual intersection. Other times, though, Mobile Geo would announce a turn within 50 feet of the intersection. A couple of other times, we lost our connection to our GPS receiver, but Mobile Geo neglected to inform us that we were no longer connected on one occasion. The POI feature, conveniently accessed with a press of the 8-key, was a helpful tool for learning all the businesses, restaurants, and hotels in the vicinity while on a route. On one long route, the first author learned via the POI feature that an Indian restaurant that he was not aware of was around the corner, and he used Mobile Geo to find the phone number and made a reservation for dinner. However, the directions to the POIs that Mobile Geo provided were sometimes not accurate, placing them on the opposite side of the street from where they actually were.

One thing that we really liked about Mobile Geo while testing it in Huntington is how it avoided guiding us across dangerous train crossings. Huntington was built around the train industry, and in several places, roads are built with viaducts dipping down under the train tracks. Whenever we planned a route across the tracks, Mobile Geo would properly guide us to the viaducts, rather than right across the tracks themselves. Although Mobile Geo's guidance and accuracy while walking along a route are not always perfect, it is a good tool for planning a route and getting close to your destination. You just have to remember that you still need all your cane or guide dog skills, and you may have to supplement Mobile Geo's information with information gathered from other pedestrians.

Low Vision Access

In addition to working with Mobile Speak, Mobile Geo is also compatible with Mobile Magnifier, responding properly to all Mobile Magnifier's screen-manipulation commands. However, using Mobile Magnifier outside in the sunlight can cause significant screen washout on nearly all cell phones, so people with low vision may have to rely on Mobile Speak when using Mobile Geo outside. Also, the button labels on most Smartphones are too small for most people with low vision, so tactile techniques are necessary to use Mobile Geo.

Documentation

Mobile Geo's User Guide is an accessible HTML document that is designed to work well with screen readers and screen magnifiers, with a linked table of contents and section headings for easy navigation. It provides a great deal of information about using the product and about GPS in general. One minor complaint that our testers had with the manual is that it does not provide enough step-by-step instructions for planning and following a route. One tester also voiced a desire to have a clearer description of the difference between virtual mode and GPS mode. To find more information about Mobile Geo, including the User Guide, you can visit the following web pages: www.senderogroup.com and www.codefactory.es. A good place to obtain links for all accessible GPS products is www.accessiblegps.com. This site includes users' and manufacturers' reviews of both Mobile Geo and Wayfinder. You can also listen to several Blind Cool Tech podcasts about Mobile Geo and other GPS products at www.blindcooltech.com.

The Bottom Line

Mobile Geo is perfectly accessible because it has been specifically designed for people who are blind or have low vision, and is 100% compatible with Mobile Speak and Mobile Magnifier. We found it to be a great tool for learning about our surroundings in our home town and when traveling in other towns. When traveling for work, we found it useful when venturing outside our hotel and learning what is around with just one keystroke. We even learned a lot about some of the stores and businesses in our home town that we had never known about before. We also found Mobile Geo to be a helpful tool when traveling in vehicles because it will get you close enough for your sighted driver to locate the destination visually. And, you will never feel useless riding in a car when your sighted friends are having trouble finding their way.

Although the GPS's inaccuracy while on a pedestrian route was a problem during our testing, Mobile Geo can still be a useful tool for finding your way while walking around, and it performs well when searching for and finding points of interest. However, as we stated in our article on Wayfinder Access, you still need to have had all your orientation and mobility training and properly use your cane or guide dog when using Mobile Geo. You should also be comfortable asking passersby for directions, especially to pinpoint your final destination.

Because Mobile Geo can take several minutes to find a destination and create a route, you may want to create your route ahead of time and load it when you are ready to travel. That way, you can avoid being late or making your driver impatient as you begin a journey.

Should You Buy Mobile Geo or Wayfinder Access?

If you are in the market for a cell phone-based GPS system, the question of choosing between Mobile Geo and Wayfinder Access really comes down to the specific phone you have. Mobile Geo works on Windows Mobile Smartphones and Pocket PC phones, and Wayfinder Access works only on Symbian phones. Therefore, if you have a Windows Mobile phone, then Mobile Geo is for you. But if you have a Symbian-based phone, such as one of the many Nokia phones that are compatible with TALKS and Mobile Speak, then Wayfinder Access is for you. If you are starting from scratch and are going to buy a new phone, then we hope the information we have provided in these two articles on Mobile Geo and Wayfinder will help you make a decision. Here is a little bit more comparative information on the products, and you can also check out our features and ratings charts at the end of this article.

Although installation is accessible with both systems, the installation process is easier and faster with Wayfinder Access. However, Mobile Geo's manual provides detailed instructions, and it is a one-time-only process.

Mobile Geo has more ways to customize and configure your GPs experience, but that adds some complexity for the beginner. Although you may get overwhelmed with all the bells and whistles with Mobile Geo, once you learn how to use it, you can access most features with a single press of a button.

Because Mobile Geo loads its maps directly onto your phone, you can explore your maps inside even when you do not have a GPS connection. Having maps placed on the phone also eliminates the need to keep an expensive data plan with your cellular service provider. Also, because Mobile Geo does not require a cell connection, you do not even need to have a cell phone service plan if you just want to use your phone for GPS wayfinding. Wayfinder also has a downloadable tool for loading maps directly on your phone, but the tool is not compatible with screen readers.

Mobile Geo takes quite some time to create a route, five minutes or more at times, and Wayfinder is much quicker, taking only seconds. However, Mobile Geo emits periodic swoosh sounds to let you know it is still working on the route.

Mobile Geo is significantly more expensive, but that difference will be made up over time by not having to pay for a data plan from your cellular service provider.

Manufacturer's Comments

Sendero Group

"1. Although the Holux M1000 is an excellent GPS receiver, Sendero now recommends and ships the IBlue GPS receiver with even better accuracy, acquisition time, and longer battery life. The HTC S740 is the newest phone, and it has a built-in GPS receiver but not nearly as good as the IBlue."

"2. Wayfinder and Mobile Geo use the same Tele Atlas maps, so street accuracy or inaccuracy should be the same. However, Mobile Geo has a much more extensive points-of-interest database--15 million versus 3 million on Wayfinder, although the basic travel categories of points are the same. GPS and data accuracy should be fairly similar among all the products. It is the amount of content that is much greater in all the Sendero products, including the shared user points of interest."

"3. The time to calculate a route depends on the length and density of the route as well as on the processor speed and memory of the Windows device being used. A typical route calculation on the HTC S740 takes about 22 seconds for a 2-mile route and 38 seconds for a 5-mile route."

"4. The Virtual Exploration mode is a significant benefit of Mobile Geo, something Wayfinder does not have."

"5. The automatic triggering of LookAround information like points of interest is much more extensive and easier to understand on Mobile Geo than on Wayfinder, especially with Wayfinder's use of the 360-degree compass to indicate where points and intersections are."

"6. Whereas Sendero tells you to head South on the Street and provides a Continue Straight message or Turn Around message, Wayfinder just says to walk along the street with no indication of which way to walk. You would have to manually review the Guide or Itinerary views in order to figure out the route. You do not hear automatically what to do. Wayfinder does not indicate the side-of-street whereas Sendero tells you the side of the street for both POIs and destinations."

"7. It is common for users to want to switch regularly between vehicle and pedestrian route following. In Wayfinder Access, you have to change to your desired mode by going into the Settings and choosing Passenger, Taxi, or Pedestrian mode. Then you calculate your route. If you need to change the type of route you wish, you have to go back into Settings, which takes quite a few key presses. It only takes a couple of keystrokes to do this on any of the Sendero GPS products including Mobile Geo."


Product Features

Feature Mobile Geo Wayfinder Access
Both vehicle and pedestrian routes Yes Yes
Virtual map exploration Yes No
Requires cellular connection No Yes
Provides POI information Yes Yes
Compatibility with cell phone
operating system
Windows Mobile Symbian
"Where Am I" feature Yes Yes
Speedometer Yes Yes
Pedometer Yes No

Product Feature

Both vehicle and pedestrian routes: Mobile Geo: Yes, Wayfinder Access: Yes.

Virtual map exploration: Mobile Geo: Yes, Wayfinder Access: No.

Requires cellular connection: Mobile Geo: No, Wayfinder Access: Yes.

Provides POI information: Mobile Geo: Yes, Wayfinder Access: Yes.

Compatibility with cell phone operating system: Mobile Geo: Windows Mobile, Wayfinder Access: Symbian.

"Where Am I" feature: Mobile Geo: Yes, Wayfinder Access: Yes.

Speedometer: Mobile Geo: Yes, Wayfinder Access: Yes.

Pedometer: Mobile Geo: Yes, Wayfinder Access: No.

Product Information

Product: Wayfinder Access.

Manufacturer: Wayfinder Systems, Kunsgatan 5 S-111 43, Stockholm, Sweden; phone: 866-467-4761; web site: www.wayfinder.com.

Price: $399.

Product: Mobile Geo.

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

Distributor: Sendero Group LLC, 429 F Street, Suite 4, Davis, CA 95616; phone: 530-757-6800; web site: www.senderogroup.com.

Price: $895.

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

Product Ratings

Overall accessibility: Mobile Geo: 5, Wayfinder Access: 4.5.

Documentation accessibility: Mobile Geo: 5, Wayfinder Access: 5.

Speed of route creation: Mobile Geo: 3, Wayfinder Access: 5.

Route accuracy: Mobile Geo: 4.5, Wayfinder Access: 4.5.

Location accuracy: Mobile Geo: 3.5, Wayfinder Access: 3.5.

Level of customization: Mobile Geo 5, Wayfinder Access 4.

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Access Issues

Are You on BARD? The Long-awaited Switch to Digital Talking Books

On April 30, 2009, an e-mail message from the administrator of the brand-new Braille and Audio Reading Service (BARD) of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), popped into my Outlook in-basket. The note urged all users to exercise a modicum of restraint in stressing the capabilities of the then one-day-old—yet so-long-awaited—Digital Talking Book (DTB) download service, which had gone live just the previous day. According to the NLS, the facility, now available to registered NLS patrons without any of the earlier download limits of 30 titles per month, was already successful beyond the agency's most optimistic forecast: "We are experiencing an enormous load on the system at the current time," the message admitted with some pride, while implying that the NLS load management would resolve any residual performance issues within the first few weeks of operation.

The e-mail message brought back a sudden flood of memories. It was during my Toronto days, in the mid-1990s, while I was chairing the technology committee of the National Library of the Canadian National Institute for the BLIND (CNIB), when Lloyd Rasmussen from the NLS joined us for several key meetings. The CNIB National Library, and its technology committee in particular, were abuzz with excitement about a combination of new promising technologies that were being considered for bringing the next generation of Talking Books to Canadians who were blind or had low vision. Even back then, the strategic planners of major service providers to the community of consumers who are visually impaired the world over were realizing that the era of Talking Books recorded on analog audiocassettes, using the tried-and-true Library of Congress Talking Book format, was coming to an unavoidable end. The proverbial writing was already on the wall—sales of audiocassette players were dwindling, while various incarnations of small CD (compact disk) players were becoming cheaper. So many Walkman portable audiocassette players proudly looped to the belts of millions of techno-savvy consumers on seven continents were being swapped for an even greater number of even "cooler" Discman portable CD players, and the CD medium was becoming progressively ubiquitous. Before long—the strategic library planners knew—it would become increasingly difficult to manufacture new Talking Book players, source replacement parts for old units in the field, and even find reliable suppliers of C-60 and C-90 audiocassettes. In other words, an unavoidable crisis was looming in the land of Talking Books for people who were visually impaired.

My wise better half, born and raised at the edge of the most populous nation in the world, many times pointed out to me that in the Chinese ideographic script, the glyph for "crises" is formed by twinning the symbols for "danger" and "opportunity." I am not quite sure if she ever served in an advisory role to strategic library planners, but even at the time, it was pretty obvious to me that no one was succumbing to the desperate cries of that renowned prophet of doom by the name of Chicken Little and to her self-defeating pronouncements about the ever-impending ruin of the heavenly vault.

Rather, even before the meetings with Lloyd Rasmussen, I had started to play with an amazing machine developed by Plextor, a Japanese leader in the manufacturing of computer CD drives, often dubbed CD-ROMs. The impressive, and just slightly intimidating, desktop unit literally swallowed a somewhat clunky cartridge containing a CD-ROM into its motorized maw. After several seconds of silence and intermittent whirring, clanging, and clicking, an elegant British-accented voice announced "Aligoté to Zinfandel," the title of a book extolling the subtle bouquets of, well, Canadian wines, of course. While the implications of the subject matter and the improbable claims in the volume left this writer, accustomed to the earthy bouquets of his native Italian Barolo, Amarone, Barbaresco, and Grignolino somewhat perplexed, having been shell-shocked a few times too many by the arid vintages of the Niagara peninsula during the 1970s and 1980s, I was nevertheless stunned by what I was hearing. The entire book, several hundred pages long, was narrated with a spectacular voice quality, infinitely superior to anything I had ever heard. The volume was recorded on a single 650 MB (megabyte) silvery CD-ROM platter.

A combination of then trend-setting technologies—digital recordings; MP3 audio compression; the proposed DAISY Digital Talking Book standard; and CD-ROM, of course-- made the magic happen. Through the impressive control panel of the Plextalk desktop machine, I could fly around the book. I readily skipped over the front matter and then navigated around the volume in a drill down, by major section, chapter, subsection, and even paragraph, through the simple touch of a key. I dropped "bookmarks" at will, virtual incarnations of the mythical bread crumbs of so many children's fairy tales, and magically returned to them at the push of another button. I felt like a modern fusion of Tom Thumb and Superman. With just a single key press, I could refresh my obviously flawed experiential memory anytime and return to the passage discussing the misunderstood virtues of that sublime Niagara Zinfandel, whose quality I had such an unfortunate and only subtly different recollection of: one fine day, while quietly resting horizontal in my wine rack, the bottle decided to launch its own celebration of a sort, when Champagne-like, exuberantly firing its own cork with a loud report, it ejected its whole contents with a frothy jet of sparkling and viciously vinegary red vintage against the far kitchen wall, which until then had stood immaculately "linen white" a full 12 feet away.

Yet, while chairing the aforementioned technology committee meeting, true to the image of the stern IBM professional that I was, I kept my minor vine-cultural quibbles to myself and concentrated my concerns on the truly staggering implications of a pervasive technological transition from Talking Books produced on analog audiocassettes to entire Talking Book library systems based on digital media of various kinds. The CNIB was seriously considering the eventual adoption of Digital Talking Books based on the DAISY system, to be stored on some forms of CD-ROMs, for playback on machines derived from the Plextor device I was alpha testing, as well as on a lower-cost, but ergonomically more agile, player then being developed by the innovative Canadian company VisuAide, of Montreal, more recently merged with HumanWare International. An industry-wide debate centered on the adoption of the early clunky cartridges that housed the CD medium for digital books. Strange chimeras of CD jewel cases and sleeves of three-inch floppy drives, with their big, spring-loaded access flanges, these hybrid cartridges seem to have inherited all the clumsiness of both and the convenience of none. While the Plextor machine still used these monstrosities in the hopes of protecting the then relatively expensive silvery disks, the early Victor prototype from VisuAide had already dispensed with the unwieldy sealed sleeves and, thankfully, could be fed bare disks.

Yet, back at the committee meeting, Lloyd remained unimpressed. The CD-ROM, spun about by high-speed motors and read by Lilliputian laser beams in optical "worm drives," looked outwardly promising, yet he foresaw it to be a transitory technology, eventually to be replaced by solid-state recording systems. NLS was committed to a long-term strategic transition to a new digital recording medium, but was going to leapfrog optical spinning CD-ROM disks all together, with their inflexible storage limit of 720MB, spun and read by inherently failure-prone mechanical drives. Quite prophetically, Lloyd believed that CDs were likely to start becoming obsolete by the time NLS was ready to roll out a Digital Talking Book Service, toward the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

NLS was already performing research on a solid-state recording medium. Digitally recorded books would be stored on solid-state chips of some kind, perhaps flash memory modules. There would be no moving parts inside future NLS players, while patrons would drop highly reliable and easy-to-use memory cartridges, sporting storage capacities to rival CD-ROMs, into a player, which existed only in what I thought then to be the overactive imagination of Lloyd Rasmussen and his management. I admit it: I was skeptical. The cost of solid-state memory was then prohibitive, and even applying moderately aggressive data compression to reduce storage requirements would have yielded storage cartridges that contained only a few hours of recording at extravagant prices per unit. The same book could perhaps be downloaded from a server to a client's machine, via a modem, at a snail's pace of perhaps 32 KB (kilobits) per second on a lucky day. Obviously, the future was in the pretty iridescent spinning CD silvery disks, which only then were starting to become affordable. I was positive—nothing would ever replace the little polycarbonate marvels! Yet, Lloyd Rasmussen remained undaunted.

Time passed. The chairmanship of the CNIB National Library technology committee was eventually transferred to a more worthy and much better-organized dreamer of technologies for readers with visual impairments than me. By the time I moved to Austin with my family in 1998, I was starting to realize the probable error of my ways. The cost of permanent solid-state flash memory was steadily decreasing, small USB storage "keys" were starting to appear on the market, and the first wave of flash-based solid state MP3 music players were beginning to erode the oddly short-lived monopoly of the personal Discman.

The Reality of Digital Books

Final proof that I was the delusional one, while Lloyd Rasmussen was a farseeing visionary, came during the summer 2008 convention of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in Dallas, where for the first time I put my hands on the advanced prototype of the new NLS Digital Talking Book player, as well as on several examples of solid-state book cartridges. I was instantly sold. The machine felt solid, functional, ergonomically intuitive, and … gorgeous. The solid-state cartridge seemed to have incorporated the best concepts and design solutions of the HumanWare Victor and the most recent advanced Plextor models, with some ergonomics inherited from the classic audiocassette recorder of the American Printing House for the Blind and the functional dreams of Lloyd Rasmussen and his enlightened group at the NLS, together with a sound quality to die for. I had been obviously wrong and was delighted for it. Books would be recorded using AMR WB+, an innovative and highly compressed digital format, capable of yielding an astonishing sound quality for the audio frequency band used for the reproduction of the human voice. A full hour of recording would be stored in a mere 11 MB of memory, one-sixtieth of the amount of space available on a standard CD.

Almost any audio book can now fit from cover to cover on one of the 1 GB (gigabyte) palm-sized chunky cartridges or, to be precise, any book that lasts 91 hours of reading or less. And all this without any tape hiss; squeaky, jammed, or broken tapes; or otherwise inaudible recordings. Only monumental works, such as the upcoming edition of The Joy of Cooking—a mammoth tome that will titillate your culinary dreams for a full 145 hours of mouthwatering listening—may require—at least initially—a total of two little cartridges. Yet, as Judy Dixon, consumer affairs officer of the NLS, recently explained to me, even this slight inconvenience may abate before long, since 1 GB flash-memory modules may become hard to source and would be abandoned in favor of even larger modules.

Naturally, as the unrepentant gadgeteer that I am, when I received a note from the Texas Talking Book Library at the end of 2008, announcing that sometime in 2009 Texas would participate in the limited prelaunch of the Digital Book Player program, I immediately volunteered to be one of the fortunate 5,000 blind consumers across Texas, Florida, California, New York State, Iowa, Colorado, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Utah, who, for 10 exciting weeks during late spring and summer of 2009, would help NLS to perform the final quality shakedown of DTB machines, storage cartridges, recorded books, and distribution service. An initial 54 book titles would be available to us for evaluation and for our reading pleasure.

From Analog to Digital

If the reader is concerned that 54 titles may be an insignificant fraction of the NLS's original analog tape holdings, please rest assured. While duplication and the availability of cartridges for the initial test phase is limited, the creation of the NLS's underlying digital recording catalog is almost complete, including thousands of new original digital recordings and the conversion of thousands of its beloved legacy analog material in DTB format. By the time you read this article, there will be almost 15,000 titles in the catalog. By the end of 2009, NLS will have approximately 18,000 titles available as Digital Talking Books, out of which 10,000 will be converted analog recordings. Starting in 2010, NLS plans to add 2,000 new titles to its DTB catalog per year. The new players will become available to its patrons, through a gradual nationwide deployment, with approximately 125,000 machines by the end of 2009 and 20,000 additional machines each month for the next couple of years. With just a little arithmetic, we can surmise that by 2012, NLS may have deployed close to 650,000 digital book players across the nation.

Not every DTB will sport an equally detailed navigation structure. At one end, some transfers from old analog tapes may allow navigation only to the beginning of the title, the beginning of the main content, and back matter. A few new titles, among them the monumental The Joy of Cooking, will support page-by-page navigation, while the vast majority will support at least navigation to major parts of books and to chapter headings.

As I mentioned earlier, by the end of 2009, the DTB catalog will sport more than 10,000 titles converted from the wonderful NLS archives. NLS staff selects candidates for conversion on the basis of the popularity of the titles or series, the popularity of the narrators, and the quality of the archival copies. Unfortunately, old tapes age and deteriorate, and the conversion of some of the oldest holdings may not be immediately practical. The best recordings will have priority for conversion over recordings of lesser technical quality or a lower state of conservation.

Downloading Digital Delights

In the meantime, the BARD e-mail announcement is still in front of me. A quick check with Judy Dixon confirms that as of May 18, 2009, a full 14,000 titles are already available for download on the BARD web site. On the spur of the moment, I start my Internet browser and open the new BARD web site at https://nlsbard.loc.gov.

I log onto BARD using my e-mail address as a user ID and the password provided by my state Talking Book Library. The BARD home page loads and is read by JAWS. I am ready to use the system. My favorite link is close to the top of the page: "Recently added books," it proudly proclaims. I follow the link; I let the page load completely. There have been 250 titles added in the last 30 days, declares the first line on the page. I begin navigation with JAWS 10.1 starting from the top. I press 1, a JAWS key that will let me jump to the next "heading 1" tag on the page. How odd, this page does not have an overall title heading. No problem, I press 2 twice and learn from a Level 2 heading that the latest batch of books was posted just a couple of days ago, on May 15. OK, so far, so good. I press 3; no, it looks like titles are not listed with Level 3 headings. Hmmm, someone must be ready for my professional consulting services in usable accessibility. I try 4—bingo! The first title in the list is announced as "Just Take My Heart." I press the down arrow once. It is a 22-hour-long book by Mary Higgins Clark, read by Annie Wauters. I am not inspired yet to a downloading frenzy.

I touch 4 once again, and the next title is A German Requiem, an espionage thriller by Philip Kerr. I read the synopsis just two lines below the title. Interested in the book, I press the Tab key once and land on "Download A German Requiem, DB68097," a link that lets me download the 119 GB single file of the book to my computer. I press Enter and—using my Time Warner Road Runner high-speed Internet service—I receive the volume in less than five minutes, at an impressive average download speed of more than 400 KB per second). I store it on an external hard drive. Later, I will copy it to my LevelStar Icon for reading. I press 4 again, and again and again—there are many new titles this week. I press 2 and find the list of titles for the previous week, posted on May 8. Pressing 2 seems to reach back one week at a time.

Back on the BARD home page, I tab to a link that would take me to the list of the 40 most popular books in the collection. But I am more intrigued by a search field that promises to locate books by keywords. Perhaps still thinking about my hero Stephen J. Gould, I type "fossil" in the entry field and press Enter. BARD finds a whopping 28 titles. I press 2 a few times; there seem to be 5 books with "fossil" in the title and 23 with "fossil" in the annotation—unfortunately, none by Stephen J. Gould.

Returning to the home page, I find a simple combo box that lets me search books in alphabetical order by author. I tab to the combo box; I press the Alt-Down arrow to open the box for the selection; I press G to select all authors whose names start with G; I tab once to the Go button and press Enter. The results are displayed. I learn that today BARD has an impressive 906 books written by authors whose names start with G. I press Control-F and type "Gould, Ste" in the JAWS virtual search field and press enter. JAWS finds a Level 3 heading for "Gould, Stephen J." There are three titles in BARD by Stephen J. Gould, starting with Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History, read by John Beryl, with a reading time of 22 hours and 44 minutes. I feel infinitely better now. My reading yearnings are not being ignored by NLS after all.

Another combo box on the home page takes me to lists of books in alphabetical order by title, while one more combo box lets me pick titles from a list of 86 genres, including 214 Spanish-language titles. Everything from 210 adventure books to 35 entries on astronomy to 444 science fiction titles to 300 religion books and even to 2 tall tales. Further combo boxes yield the titles of 45 periodicals, ranging from Analog to National Review to True West.

This is impressive. I can download any book and any magazine issue any time. BARD is available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 52 weeks per year, to all registered patrons of the NLS. I can download books to my Windows computer for temporary storage on an external drive or directly on my LevelStar Icon for instant reading. There are no daily, monthly, or yearly upper download limits.

Judy Dixon gently reminds me, however, that NLS preaches download moderation. With a doctorate in clinical psychology, she is fully qualified to chide me, while—ever so patiently—she explains that my obsessive compulsive pack-ratting (OCP) is an anxiety disorder, and I should be treated by a mental health professional. "Self-treatment via hyperdownload of NLS DTBs is not an approved form of therapy for OCP," Judy adds. It may in fact stress the capabilities of the BARD servers and consequently reduce the level of service available to my fellow NLS patrons. I feel duly chastised.

To console me, Judy whispers to me that I do not need to wait for DTB cartridges to appear in the mail like audiocassettes of old. My soon-to-be received NLS DTB player will also happily play those DTBs that I still obsessively download, in spite of Judy's kindly therapeutic attempts on my overwrought psyche. It is not necessary to own an Icon, Braille+, HumanWare Stream, or Plextalk Pocket to read books from BARD. Blank 1 GB writable cartridges sporting a USB port will be available for sale starting in the second part of the year from at least three sources: The American Printing House for the Blind, Independent Living Aids, and National Audio Company in Springfield (Missouri). These cartridges will cost $15 or less each. They will act like little external USB drives. I will just need to unpack the zipped file of a single NLS DTB on each cartridge using Windows Explorer. Then I will drop the little beauty into the player, and voila! John Beryl will start reading Bully for Brontosaurus, so I can get my well-deserved Stephen J. Gould fix.

By sheer coincidence, as I was preparing to proofread my final draft of this article, a welcome present arrived by U.S. mail: a sturdy box containing, you guessed it, a brand-new DTB player. Of course, I extracted the unit from its carton and excellent protective foam brackets and started to push buttons madly, until somewhat miraculously, I discovered a magical large round recessed button on the left top of the unit, surrounded by a raised ridge, and promptly turned on the DTB player. Compulsively, I persisted in pressing keys at random. A pleasant recorded male voice announced that I have 22 hours of battery life available. I am duly impressed; it is just enough to read Bully for Brontosaurus from cover to cover. But, oops! I do not have a blank cartridge for copying the book yet. Oh well! But wait, a quick call to my AccessWorld editor-in-chief reminds me of the little tab hiding a secret USB port on the right side of my new DTB player—I have the advanced version, after all. I fetch a 2 GB USB storage key from my personal stash and plug it into my laptop. In just 7 minutes, I download the 191 MB zipped file of Bully for Brontosaurus. I unpack it to the USB key. I remove the key from my Windows laptop and insert it into the USB port of the DTB player. The cultured voice of John Beryl announces: "Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History," by Stephen J. Gould. At last, I am in Heaven.

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

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Access Issues

Good News on the Home Front: An Update on the Accessibility of Appliances

Reading the newspaper and listening to the radio in these difficult economic times have convinced me that there is an index to measure almost every imaginable business trend and consumer behavior. Whether it is housing starts, existing home sales, consumer confidence, or anything else to be measured, surveyed, or analyzed, there is a regular report to be found. Despite the vastly different things under consideration, one thing appears to be common for all: Most of the indices appear to be trending down.

At the risk of appearing unimaginative or stooping to a "me-too" approach, I would like to suggest a new index. This one is far less scientific than many. It is not associated with an internationally recognized school of economics or likely to reach the business section of the Wall Street Journal or the International Herald Tribune. However, for those of us who are affected by this index, the results of what it measures are of real significance.

Here, I introduce the Appliance Accessibility Index, or AAI, AFB TECH's own measure of one small, but important, trend in the lives of many of us who are blind or have low vision. This index takes into account the general state of the accessibility of major home appliances that most of us are likely to encounter when we rent apartments, purchase houses, remodel kitchens, or have any of countless reasons to shop the aisles of an appliance store or big-box emporium.

We have been covering the accessibility of appliances at AccessWorld for some years now. To measure trends on the AAI, we need to look back just a bit. The trend from our first article to our last was generally downward on the AAI. Stoves were a particularly worrisome component of the consideration, since almost all accessible oven controls vanished in 2008.

Since the last article, we have visited the big-box retailers and smaller appliance outlets again. And after looking at the controls, pressing the buttons, and turning the knobs, we can report some good news. We are pleased to let you know that more appliances are accessible now than they were in the past several months and last year. Yes, despite much bad news, we are pleased to report that the AAI is trending up.

Here are the specific areas in which we have encountered new and enhanced accessibility.

Whirlpool Stoves

Whirlpool has been one of those companies that keeps faith with customers who are blind or have low vision. From time to time, models are introduced that do not do such a good job of providing usable nonvisual accessibility. This was the case with stoves from Whirlpool in summer and fall 2008. We are pleased to report that, once again, both gas and electric stoves, in both the inexpensive and more deluxe categories, offer tactilely identifiable controls for the oven and timer operations of the ranges.

In the less expensive line, models whose model numbers begin with WF all appear to share a textured background with smooth quarter-size regions to press for control functions. Ovens turn on at 350 degrees, and the temperature is adjusted in 5-degree steps as you press the arrow-shaped Up and Down controls.

Models whose model numbers begin with GF are more deluxe ranges. A smooth control surface features smaller but discernable textured controls. Again, the oven-setting behavior is the same as with Whirlpool stoves.

In both cases, we recommend that you confirm the behavior of the model you are considering in the store before you purchase it. We suggest that you do so by connecting a gas model of a range with the kind of controls you are considering. This is easy to do, since the controls need only a conventional electric outlet to be connected. Electric ranges, in our experience, have the same controls as their gas counterparts.

With the renewed accessibility of these stove controls, Whirlpool returns to its unique position as the only manufacturer that provides good or excellent nonvisual accessibility across all categories of major appliances. When combined with broad availability, we believe that Whirlpool should be the first-choice brand in matters of nonvisual and low vision accessibility.

Maytag Bravas Washers and Dryers

More than a year ago, the accessibility of the laundry room increased when Whirlpool introduced Duet front-loading washers and dryers that include a system of different tones to indicate cycles and other selections. We are pleased to report that Maytag has also introduced the same, or a remarkably similar, system in its top-loading Bravas washing machines and dryers. The controls of the Maytag models are also satisfactory. A large main control knob clicks nicely into position for selecting cycles and features an easy-to-feel pointer. Obvious rectangular selection buttons complete the control panel. These buttons are not only easy to feel, but may offer a convenient surface on which to attach braille or large-print labels.

As with the Whirlpool Duet models, the controls for the Maytag Bravas dryers mirror those of their washing-machine mates. With the introduction of these Maytag models, both front loading and top loading, accessible, energy-efficient washing machines and clothes dryers are available.

Window Air Conditioners

If my experience is an example, purchasing a window air conditioner can be a hasty event. Prompted by a midsummer heat wave and the failure of an old unit, a quick shout to a friend resulted in a drive to the closest big-box store to pick up a replacement in time to get it back home and in the window before bedtime. With a bit of advanced planning, some accessible and usable window air conditioners can be found.

If you haven't looked at the current crop of window units, you will note that, as with most other appliance controls, electronic controls have replaced the sliders and knobs of yesterday's air conditioners. Happily, many of these electronic controls are easy to use and offer predictable behavior. First, it is important to understand that even some basic 5,000 BTU units offer a true thermostat control. As with oven controls, pressing the Up and Down buttons will move the temperature by one-degree increments.

With this knowledge in mind, you may want to investigate models from Sears Kenmore and GE, although other brands offer similar controls. Look for controls on the unit that you can feel or easily mark with braille or some other tactile marking. Check with the sales associate that the temperature selection is changing up and down in a way that is predictable. Some controls may click or provide another kind of indication that you are moving the temperature selection. Also, find out if the temperature can be reset. If no Reset control is included, experiment with a display unit by unplugging it, leaving it disconnected for several moments, and then reconnecting it to the wall outlet. In many models, the temperature will reset to a predictable temperature each time the unit is disconnected from power. This feature is important for those instances when you lose track setting the temperature and want to return to a known value to start over.

Remote controls are also common. In some models, an easy-to-feel Up and Down arrow clearly indicates the direction of temperature adjustments. Each press of the remote will be confirmed with a beep or other tone from the air conditioner. Again, this behavior is not universal, but our research and consultation with knowledgeable sales associates give us confidence that these kinds of controls can be found on a variety of brands at the major retail outlets.

Accessibility Remains Available

Over the past several articles, and in our AccessWorld Appliance Accessibility Guide, [ www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=4&TopicID=380 we have identified a number of washing machines and dryers, wall ovens, dishwashers, and over-the-stove microwaves that offer especially useful controls. We were pleased to observe that all these controls remain in production on currently available appliances. There is always a chance that a brand and model that you are especially interested in may be discontinued. If you are planning to purchase an appliance, it is advisable to confirm the availability of your choice at the time you intend to buy it.

Despite the generally slow economic situation, at least as measured by all the surveys and indexes that we have read and heard about, the accessibility of appliances has increased.

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

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Product Evaluation

Lowering the Price of Braille: A Review of the Seika Braille Display

For avid braille readers, the earliest accessible computers with their text-to-speech capabilities did not stir as much excitement as did their audio-inclined counterparts. In the early 1980s, however, with the arrival of the tape-based VersaBraille system, the prospect of using assistive technology loomed brighter for those who read braille. Reading braille with the fingers, studies have shown, stimulates the visual cortex, and so it is that readers of braille feel the same intimate word-to-brain connection as do their sighted peers. The VersaBraille, offering 20 cells of refreshable braille (pins that move up and down to replicate the print being sent to the screen) was, for its time, something of a miracle device. In the 25 years since then, a virtual onslaught of devices boasting refreshable braille displays have entered the assistive technology marketplace. Offering from 12 to 80 cells, these displays can connect to a variety of computers (running screen-reading software) as well as some phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs), to put in the hands of the braille reader all information that is visually displayed on the screen. Other products, notetakers/PDAs, have incorporated a refreshable braille display into stand-alone systems capable of doing anything from preparing documents and taking notes to searching the Internet and reading electronic books.

The most significant drawback to refreshable braille devices has always been their cost. From the mid-1980s to the present, the loose rule of estimation applied to these products has translated into something like $100 to $150 per braille cell. A 40-cell display, in other words, may cost $4,000 to $6,000, while an 80-cell model will cost $8,000 to $12,000. And so it has been that, while desirable, braille computer access has been out of reach for many users of assistive technology.

The Perkins School for the Blind is not typically associated with the sale or distribution of assistive technology products. In early January 2009, however, Perkins announced the introduction of its new 40-cell, lower-cost refreshable braille display. Called the Seika, the display has 40 8-dot braille cells, connects via USB, and sells for only $2,495 (bringing the $100 to $150 per-cell cost down to about $62 per cell.) Did lower cost mean lesser performance? A test drive was definitely in order.

Physical Description

The Seika is sleek and portable. Measuring 13.3 inches wide by 3.5 inches deep × 0.8 inches high and weighing .5 KG (1.3 pounds), the Seika can be packed easily into any bag or briefcase along with a laptop or netbook computer. Above the 40 cells are 40 matching cursor-routing buttons that, when pressed, bring focus to the desired word or character. Below the 40 cells, at 5-character intervals, are braille numbers corresponding to the cell. (There is, in other words, a 1 below the 1st cell, a 5 below the 5th cell, a 2 below the 20th cell, a 5 below the 25th, and so on.) At either end of the 40-cell strip are two round buttons. On the front edge of the unit are four rubberized controls, actually acting as six. On the extreme right and left are two longer bars, referred to simply as Left Control and Right Control. In the center are two smaller oval controls, called Shifts. The Right and Left Controls each act as two, depending on whether the right end or left end of the bar is pressed. Pressing Left Control Right, for example, meaning the left end of the right-most control, moves down one line on the screen, while pressing Right Control Right, the right end of that same control, moves the focus up one line. The only other points on the entire unit are the USB port on the right edge and four rubberized feet on the bottom for stability.

Installation

Installation of the Seika is, for the most part, quick and easy. With only your screen reader running, you put the provided CD in the drive and are prompted to close all other applications, be sure the Seika is not yet connected, and press the Begin Button. Although the installation process and the user's manual indicate that, when you are instructed to connect the Seika, you will hear two beeps and be prompted with the correct virtual com port for configuration, this did not occur. By consulting the manual (provided in print and on the same CD), I quickly solved this problem. But the virtual com port was not, as promised, forthcoming. It was located easily enough, by going into the computer's device manager, but this small glitch should definitely be addressed to avoid unnecessary aggravation. Another "glitch" that I experienced was that after attempting to install on three computers dozens of times and repeatedly being given a "malfunction" message, I finally concluded that the cable provided was faulty. (Again, it should be noted that this was a test unit and that newly purchased systems will have new cables. In other words, this was a rare difficulty.) Once a properly functioning cable was connected and the appropriate com port configured—Eureka!—two lovely beeps sounded, and the cartoon caption above my head might well have read: "Let there be braille!"

For braille, there was good solid braille, and after multiple power-downs and power-ups, the braille was always at the ready. (When the Seika first powers on, with its two-beep announcement that it is recognized by the computer, the first message on the display reads "thdz 40". It is unclear what this refers to. It is also irrelevant, since as soon as the screen reader is up and running, Seika clearly displays the screen's information.)

Command lists are provided for JAWS, Window-Eyes, Hal, and Virgo. For this review, I used only JAWS and Window-Eyes.

The functions that can be controlled from the Seika are basic navigation and cursor commands, as well as such braille features as toggling between 6- and 8-dot braille, from Grade 2 to untranslated braille, and the display of attributes. A casual review of the command list reveals that with each screen reader, some Seika commands are present that are not available with others. For users of multiple screen readers, it would be convenient if basic navigation commands were consistent. (The Left Control's left and right ends are used to move up or down one line, respectively, in Window-Eyes, while the Right Control key is used for the same purpose in JAWS. In fairness, it should be pointed out that this is the case with many braille displays and that the role of function keys is user definable.

I found the placement of the scrolling buttons on the top of the unit, placed at either end of the braille line, to be extremely convenient. At first, it seemed odd because so many displays have keys for scrolling on the front edge, to be pressed with the thumbs; after I read for a while, however, Seika's placement of these buttons in line with the braille line itself seemed exactly right.

What It Does Not Have

A word about the manual is in order here. Note the discrepancy in measurements listed earlier (measurements in inches and weight in kilograms). These measurements were taken directly from the manual. As I noted earlier, the manual indicates that installation will include a message containing the com port to be used, which it does not. Otherwise, the manual is clear and accurate enough, with the exception of one glaringly absent piece of information. In both the print and electronic versions, you are urged to "contact us" with questions. Yet, nowhere in either documentation format is there a company name, address, phone number, or even e-mail address to make "contacting us" possible. Again, the product is new; presumably, the details will be addressed before widespread marketing occurs.

While some braille displays offer additional keys for braille input or extensive control of the keyboard from the display itself, Seika has only the eight controls that I described. With occasional discrepancies, these controls function exactly as the manual indicates and, for this long-time user of refreshable braille displays, are adequate. What I want from a braille display is the ability to read what is on the screen and to navigate text with convenience. Seika performs excellently in both regards. If, on the other hand, you want the bells and whistles of a braille display that can input braille or act as a notetaker when detached from the computer, Seika is not for you.

The Bottom Line

Perkins has introduced a new kid on the block in the braille display arena that is definitely worthy of notice. Once the installation information is tweaked to provide the necessary virtual com port readily and the occasional key command functions are corrected, it will be a top-notch product. Even in its current configuration, it is a refreshing alternative with good-quality performance at an affordable price.

Manufacturer's Comments

Perkins Products

"The Seika display also supports the Apple Operating system. Furthermore, in the Apple environment, the display is virtually plug and play and does not require the installation of anything extra. In addition, the Seika display supports both the Braille+ and Icon."

Product Information

Product: Seika Braille Display.

Distributor: Adaptive Technology, a Division of Perkins Products, 102 Bridge Road, Salisbury, MA 01952; phone: 978-462-3817; e-mail: gayle.yarnall@perkins.org; web site: www.perkins.org.

Price: $2,495.

Product Features

Number of braille cells: 40.

Number of cursor-routing buttons: 40.

Number of additional controls: 2 buttons on the top surface and 6 on the front edge.

Ports: USB.

Product Ratings

Size and portability: 4.5.

Quality of braille: 4.5.

Ease of installation: 2.5.

Stability after installation: 4.5.

Response time on power-on: 5.

Response time to commands: 4.0.

Level of screen navigation afforded: 4.5.

Control of screen functions from display: 4.0.

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

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Untangling the Web

Even More Ways to Communicate: A Review of Twitter and Google Voice

The communications revolution keeps moving forward, offering new ways to keep in touch with contacts, such as friends, family, and coworkers. This article covers Twitter, a social networking site, and Google Voice, a service that allows users the option of having calls ring on several phones at the same time (such as your home and cell phones) and provides an online voice message mailbox and much more. For this article Windows XP, Internet Explorer 7 and Window-Eyes 7.01 were used.

Twitter (www.twitter.com)

If you want to keep up with friends, family, and celebrities and do not want to deal with the clutter and complexities of some social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, then Twitter might be for you. There is a limit of 140 characters per post. According to the Twitter home page, "Twitter is a service for friends, family, and coworkers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?" There are no options for posting photos, sending virtual gifts, or creating groups.

Registration

To begin the registration process, activate the link that says, "Get Started-Join." When the new page loads, there will be a form to complete. Before you give your screen reader the commands necessary to fill out a form, review the form. With Window-Eyes, review the form with Browse Mode still on. You will discover that your user name will be part of your Twitter URL. For example, my user name is, "jjingber," and my Twitter URL is www.twitter.com/jjingber. Once you have completed the form, review it in regular reading mode, with Window-Eyes in Browse Mode. You will find Twitter comments about whether your user name has been taken or if the password is not acceptable. Before you can submit your form, you must fill in a CAPTCHA—a series of distorted letters that your screen reader cannot read. There is a link for an audio CAPTCHA, and, before the words are played, a pleasant voice tells you to type in the words. Unfortunately, the CAPTCHA is a sentence, and typing it into the box did not work when I first tried to register. Activating the Help link at the bottom of the page did not help. I contacted Twitter several times, but never received a response. In June, the audio CAPTCHA was fixed. You are now instructed to type in part of the sentence that is spoken. This works, and you can proceed.

Getting Started

Once your account has been created, you can begin using the site. Links are clearly labeled. The links for Profile, Settings, and Help are at the bottom of the page, past the Privacy and Terms disclaimers. The Profile link does not bring you to a long form to complete. It just shows the user name and whichever people, news, programs, or anyone or anything else you are following. The Settings link brings up a short form where you can write a biography of no more than 160 characters. Other options on the form include your time zone and a checkbox to decide whether you want only people you approve to see your status. As with the registration form, make sure to read the settings form in the mode for filling out forms and the mode for reading text. Twitter's help links are clearly labeled.

Expressing Yourself

When Twitter's home page loads, there is a form consisting of an edit box and a button that says, "Update." If you read the controls, your screen reader may tell you that the Update button is disabled. Once text is entered into the edit box, the button's status will change. The edit box says, "What are you doing?" but this text does not affect what is written in the edit box. In other words, those words will not appear in your post. Each post is limited to 140 characters.

Once you have written your update and activated the Update button, you have written your first "Tweet." When the page reloads, your tweet will appear right below the search form. Anyone who is following you on Twitter can now read what you just posted.

Finding People and Topics of Interest

If you already visit a web site, you can check to see whether the site posts on Twitter. Simply type the word, "Twitter," into your screen reader's Word Search edit box and execute the command to find the word. For example, I have a subscription to Audible.com. I found the Twitter link on Audible and activated it. Doing so brought me directly to Audible.com's page on Twitter. On the page is a button that says, "Follow." Activating that button will now add Audible.com's tweets to my Twitter home page. Below the button was a list of Audible's most recent tweets. For many web sites that post on Twitter, there is a brief description and then a link to read the entire post. These links are clearly labeled.

Sometimes it is possible to guess the URL of a program you want to follow. I could have found "Good Morning America's" Twitter page by going to www.abcnews.com and then activating the "Good Morning America" link and then activating the show's Twitter link. I tried a different route by going to www.twitter.com/gma, and this worked.

There is a search form on Twitter, but if you use it to search for a program or web site, you will receive tweets written by Twitter members who are not necessarily part of the group or program you are looking for. As an example, when I put "Audible.com" in the search box, I got a list of tweets written by other Audible.com subscribers. This form is not on the home page, but instead is presented when the search link is activated. The search form is not used for finding friends. That operation will be discussed in a separate section. The form consists of an edit box and a Search button. Between these two controls is a link for an advanced search. Enter the name of the topic you want to find. The advanced search is extensive and includes options, such as phrases and places. All the edit boxes in the advanced search do speak.

Finding Friends

From your Twitter home page, activate the link that says, "Find Some Friends." Doing so will bring you to a page where you have a choice to find someone on Twitter or on other networks. These options are indicated by links, not a form. If the Twitter link is activated, the next page is a form where you can enter a person's name. Under the edit box is a Search button. If the person has a common name like John Smith, you will get many results. If you already have friends on Twitter, you can ask them for their URLs and find them using the form. Another option is to ask your friends to search for you and then let them follow you.

If your search query has results, the results will appear right under the search form, when the new page loads. Activate the link for the person you want to follow. Under the person's name is another link that has the last part of the person's Twitter URL. The first part will always have www.twitter.com. The first control on the page is a button to follow the person.

If you want to follow the person, activate that button. With Window-Eyes, after I activated the button, I needed to turn Browse Mode back on manually. When the page reloads, the page will say, "You are now following" and the last part of the person's Twitter URL. This is not presented as a link, but you can find it by using your screen reader's search function and typing, "you are now following." Therefore, if you wanted to follow me, it would say, "You are now following jjingber."

From your Twitter.com home page, you can quickly find the most recent tweets. There is also a list of who and what you are following. Use your screen reader's search command and look for the word "following." Under that word is a list of links for everyone and everything you have chosen to follow. You can also bookmark each page so you can go there directly. Should you decide that there's someone or something in your list you no longer want to follow, activate that link, and once the page loads, activate the "Remove" button.

Let's Talk

Twitter users can respond to other people's Tweets. To reply to a friend's tweet, go to the friend's home page. The most recent tweet will be listed first. Under each tweet is a link listing the time the tweet was posted or a link with the date and time of the post. Older tweets usually show the date and time. Activate the link under the tweet that you want to reply to. Activating this link brings you to a new page that has a link saying "Reply to and the user's twitter user name." Activating this link brings you to a reply form. If you check the title bar, you will discover that the reply form is actually on your home page, not your friend's page. Type in your response in the edit box and activate the Enter button. Your reply will show up on your friend's home page. If someone replies to you, the reply will show up on your page. Twitter does not offer the option to send you an e-mail message if someone replies to you. If you want to reply to a topic that you have searched for, find the search result that you want and activate its reply link.

Another option is to "Favorite This Update." Doing so allows you to save the tweet. The button for this procedure is directly above the reply link. If you use this option, you can find the tweet by activating the "Favorites" link on your home page. Find the words "your favorites," and under them, you will find the tweets you saved. Should you decide to remove a tweet, activate its date and time link. When the new page loads, there is a button that says "un-favorite this update." Just activate that button.

Who's Following You?

By default, Twitter will send an e-mail message to your regular e-mail address announcing the name of a person who is following you. Should you not want to receive future notification e-mail messages, use the link at the bottom of the e-mail message to turn off this feature. The e-mail message contains a link to the person's Twitter page. Should you decide not to allow this person to follow you, activate the "block" link on the page. If you initially have the person follow you, but then change your mind, you can get to the block link by activating the link that starts with the number of people following you and the word "followers." When that link is activated, a list of followers will appear, and there are links to remove whichever followers you wish.

Status Updates for Twitter and Facebook

If you also use Facebook, you can synchronize your tweets instead of writing separately for each social networking site. To do this, go to twitter.com/widgets/facebook. Once there, find the button at the bottom of the page that says, "Install Twitter in Facebook." Activating the button will bring you to your Facebook page, and the title bar will say, "Facebook-Log into twitter."

Instead of scrolling through numerous links, you can use your screen reader's search function and look for the word, "Twitter." As with many other Facebook applications, you will need to select the link that allows Twitter to access your profile information. When the new page loads, you will be asked for your Twitter user name and password. When this page loads, find the word, "Twitter" again and select the links to let Twitter update your Facebook status, and for Facebook to update your Twitter status. You can make changes to these settings through the Apps Settings on Facebook.

Twitter Updates By Phone

You can phone in your status updates through Tweet Call. Before using the service, you must register. Go to tweetcall.com. From there, activate the "Sign Up," link. When the new page loads, don't bother looking for a registration form, you will automatically be registered. The page says, "Made you look! Sign up forms are boring, so we don't have one! Tweet Call is designed to always use your Twitter account's username and password. After all, did you really need another login to remember?"

Before you can start using the service, Twitter must recognize the phone numbers of the phones you are using. Log in to tweetcall, using your Twitter username or e-mail address and your Twitter password. When the new page loads, look for the words, "add a phone number." Below those words is a form which is easy to complete. For the phone number, put the area code in parenthesis, skip a space then put in the next three digits, followed by a hyphen and the final four digits. You then need to put in a PIN. You can add more than one number for your account.

Once everything is set, dial 877-tweetcall (893-3822). You will be asked to enter your PIN and then press the pound key. Speak your status update and hang up. It took approximately one minute for my update to appear on my Twitter page. Since I also have Twitter update my Facebook status, the tweet also appeared on my Facebook page.

The Bottom Line

Once I received sighted assistance to get my account created, I found the rest of Twitter to be accessible. It is a quick and easy way to see what people are doing and to follow other topics of interest. It is disappointing that I did not receive a response to my many e-mail messages regarding the CAPTCHA. But the problem has been fixed, and the audio CAPTCHA now works.

Google Voice

Imagine having one phone number that people could call, and the call would automatically ring on several designated phones. This service has actually been available since 2005 through a company called Grand Central. At that time, when a user registered with Grand Central, he or she received a new phone number, which, when called, would ring wherever the user wanted.

In 2007, Google purchased Grand Central, but it did not do much with it until recently. Now, Google has improved the service by offering even more features at no charge. In a New York Times article of March 11, 2009 entitled "Unify the Phone Numbers and All Else Follows," David Pogue had this to say about the new service: "It unifies your phone numbers, transcribes your voice mail, blocks telemarketers and elevates text messages to first class communication citizens. And that's just the warm-up."

Google Voice will maintain all Grand Central's features, including call-screening options and an online mailbox. The Google Voice home page has mail boxes similar to any other e-mail program.

The Google Voice subscriber can play, copy, paste, forward, and save voice messages as if they were regular, written e-mail messages. Future calls from a specific number can be blocked through the e-mail program. Text messages are also sent to the Inbox, so they can be viewed and answered. In addition, Google Voice offers free conference calling, low-rate long-distance calling, and written transcription of voice mail messages.

If you do not already have a Google account, you will need to create one to use Google Voice. Go to www.google.com/accounts. There is a sign-in form for account holders and under it is a link that says "Create an account now." The first part of the registration form is straightforward. To find out if your password has enough characters, you will have to read the form in the screen reader mode not meant for filling out forms. After you have reentered your password, there are several check boxes that are all checked by default. Again, you will need to read the boxes out of forms mode to learn their contents.

As with many sign-up forms, there is a CAPTCHA. There is an audio version of the CAPTCHA, plus a link that says "For more help with screen readers, click here." Activating the link brings you to a page with instructions for playing the CAPTCHA. In addition, there is a link to contact Google if you are still having problems with it. I am happy to say that I did contact Google to see how quickly it would respond. The return e-mail response, which was helpful, came approximately 48 hours later.

Getting Started
Phone

To record your outgoing message, dial your Google Voice number from any of your phones that will ring when your Google Voice number is called. You will be given audio prompts to record your outgoing message.

To set up your Google Voice account and access your messages, go to www.google.com/voice. The first time you log in, you will need to check a box indicating that you accept Google Voice's terms. To send your acceptance, arrow down to where it says, "Continue to Inbox." For Window-Eyes, I needed to route the mouse pointer to those words, turn off browse mode, do a left mouse click, and turn browse mode back on.

Settings

There is a settings link on the Google Voice page. This link did not activate when I just hit Enter on it. I had to perform the same operation as above to get it to work. There are several Settings tabs, including General, Phones, and Groups. The same operation was also required to activate each of the tabs, since they are not standard links. In addition, throughout the settings forms, there will be areas that say, "Click for info." The information is specifically about whichever settings option you are completing. This is not a link. To read the information, I needed to route the mouse pointer to the words. When I routed the pointer, Window-Eyes said the correct words. Next, I needed to turn browse mode off and do a left click. Then I could read the information with the mouse navigation keys. However, the information was interspersed with other information on the screen. The descriptions for the form controls are good, so you may not even need to deal with this situation. The forms controls are radio buttons, check boxes, and edit boxes.

The General tab has options for setting time zone, adding another e-mail address where voicemail is sent, options for screening calls, and more. By default, Google Voice will screen your calls. When someone calls your Google Voice phone number, the person will be given a prompt to state his or her name. Google voice will then ring your designated phones. When you answer, you will hear four options, including "Press 1 to answer" and "Press 2 for voicemail. There is also an option to accept and record the call. You can have screening completely turned off as well. There is also the option to have voice mail messages transcribed. The transcriptions are not totally accurate, but Google Voice does a good job, and there is no fee for this service.

The advantage of having Google Voice send voice mail messages to your regular inbox is that you do not need to go directly into your Google Voice account. The e-mail message will have a transcription of the voice message and a link to play the audio. When an e-mail message arrives in your inbox, it will say, "Voice-Noreply@google.com"

The Phones tab allows for adding phones to ring when your Google Voice number is called. When you add a new phone, the number must be verified. There will be a link to do so, plus a two-digit code to enter when Google Voice calls the phone for verification. This code is totally accessible. There are options for retrieving voice mail, including whether you want to use a PIN for greater security. There are some radio buttons for choosing when you want your Google Voice phone to ring, or you can customize the schedule with specific times that you enter via combo boxes.

The Groups tab allows you to set up different outgoing messages for specific groups. Taking advantage of this feature requires a good deal of work. By default, Google Voice has three groups: friends, family, and coworkers. There is an option to add other groups that you create. To use the groups feature, you must first put people into your "Contacts" list and then into a specific group. Doing so requires more work than just opening the contacts list and adding names.

To add contacts, do the following

  1. Find the word "contacts" on the Google Voice page and use the same operation as described earlier for opening the General and Phones tabs.
  2. Use your mouse navigation keys and find where it says "SMS."
  3. Directly after that is a nonbreaking space graphic that says, "new." The word, "new" is not written; it is a graphic. Do a left click.
  4. A form will appear to enter contact information, but the form does not read correctly with the edit boxes. Even going in and out of Browse mode did not help. The first three fields are Name, Title, and Company. Within the form, there are also some combo boxes.

Another way to add contacts is through your e-mail program. Programs, such as Outlook, have a phone number field for every contact. It would be helpful to make sure that this field is filled in for anyone you may want to communicate with through Google Voice. If you already have a Gmail account with contacts, those contacts will automatically appear in your Google Voice contacts. To begin the import process, go to "contacts" on the Google Voice home page. Next, activate the "import" link and read the information about file formats. You will then need to go to your e-mail program to export the e-mail program's contact files to a separate file. For Outlook, this information can be found in the file menu. Once the separate contacts file is set up, go back to Google Voice and type in the path to the file on your hard drive. Then, route your mouse pointer to the word "import" and do a left click.

Once you have someone entered into your contacts, you can then assign the person to a group. To do so,

  1. Go to Contacts and then to My Contacts.
  2. Check the box of the person you want to assign to a specific group.
  3. Route the mouse pointer to Edit Groups and left click.
  4. Choose the group you want and route the mouse pointer to it and left click. The contact will be assigned to that group.

If you want to create a separate outgoing message for a particular group, while in the group's tab, choose "new" from the combo box associated with the group. Use your mouse navigation keys to find "record the greeting." Google Voice will call your phone and prompt you to record the greeting.

Options on Your Phone

Dialing your Google Voice number on any of your designated phones will give you four options. The first option is to listen to your messages. Google Voice presents the same options as does a regular cell phone for handling messages. There is one feature that may prove useful. If you receive a message from someone you do not want to hear from ever again, there is an option to have the caller hear the three-tone message, "The number you have dialed is no longer in service." If you choose to archive a message, you will not be able to retrieve it on your phone, but it will be available through your Google Voice e-mail.

The second option is to place a call. Google Voice will prompt you to enter the phone number and then press the pound key. If it is an overseas call, you will be prompted to dial 011, the country code, and then the number. Google Voice's web site says that there is no charge for national calls and low rates for overseas calls. You can also make calls through your Google Voice page by using a form. If you choose this option, once the form is completed, Google Voice will call your phone, and the number you are calling will ring.

The third option is to connect to Google's free directory assistance service, and the fourth is to change settings, such as outgoing message and PIN.

Conference Calls

Making a conference call using Google Voice is easy and free, but it requires a little planning, as follows:

  1. Call someone through Google Voice or have someone call you.
  2. Prearrange with the third person to call you, on your Google Voice number, at the designated time for the conference call.
  3. When the third person calls, you will here a beep, as with call waiting. Google Voice will prompt you whether you want to add this person to the call or perform other Google Voice actions.

To be notified when Google Voice becomes available to the general public, go to https://services.google.com/fb/forms/googlevoiceinvite.

The Bottom Line

Google Voice offers some conveniences and interesting features. It can be useful for someone who wants to have only one unifying phone number. What happens when two Google Voice members live together? When the home phone rings, who is the call for? This problem can be solved by setting specific parameters concerning which phones ring and when they ring, but it gets confusing. If you like experimenting with technology or would like to have one number for all your phones, give Google Voice a try. You have nothing to lose. Just be prepared to do some extra work when you use the Google Voice web site.

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

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Survey Results

Combating the Small Visual Display Invasion: AFB Works to Set a Display Quality Standard

As a reader of AccessWorld, you likely know that for the past five years, AFB's Technology and Employment Center in Huntington, West Virginia—AFB TECH—has been addressing two of the most crucial issues facing the millions of Americans who are blind or have low vision: access to technology and products (such as cell phones, computers, copy machines, and fax machines) and the pursuit and attainment of rewarding employment.

Related to both technology and employment, AFB TECH has recently been concentrating on an area of increasing concern to AccessWorld readers—the prevalence and inaccessibility of small visual displays. The fact is, products of all types now seem to have an embedded small visual display interface that creates a significant accessibility barrier to people who are blind or have low vision. When you stop to think about it, a person would be hard-pressed to go through an entire day without encountering products with small visual displays. These displays are everywhere—on cell phones; digital watches and clocks; calculators; household appliances; home medical devices, such as blood pressure monitors; point-of-sale devices at store checkouts; bank ATMs; digital cameras; and exercise equipment, to name a few.

Many of these products with small visual displays use liquid crystal display (LCD) technology, a thin, flat screen that is inexpensive to produce and able to add tremendous functionality to a product. However, there are drawbacks, including the fact these screens often have small fonts, poor contrast, glare, flashing or moving text, and colors that can be difficult to see, thus creating accessibility barriers to people who have low vision.

The fact these small visual displays pose a barrier to accessibility is not simply an inconvenience. It is a situation that has serious and far-reaching implications that will continue to broaden in scope as people live longer and thus increase their risk of developing age-related vision loss.

Displays in the Workplace

As you well know, it has been widely reported that visually impaired people in the United States face an unemployment rate that is 15 times higher than that of the general population. In fact, only 30% of working-age individuals who are blind or have low vision are employed nationwide. The inaccessibility of much of today's office equipment, such as fax machines, copy machines, and telephones, contributes to this problem. As workplace technology has advanced, manufacturers of office equipment have embedded touch-sensitive small visual display interfaces into many products. While these interfaces have enabled the addition of more features, they have made these products more difficult or impossible for people with low vision to use. Product features that are accessible only through the use of a small visual display are generally not usable by employees who are visually impaired, putting these people at a distinct disadvantage compared to their sighted coworkers.

The use of office equipment with small visual displays can also hamper the productivity and even the ability to work for people who are living and working longer and who may experience age-related vision loss. It can also prevent the hiring or cause the termination of employees who cannot fully use equipment with screens independently.

Displays in the Home

If you think you are immune to the invasion of small visual display screens in your home, think again. Microwave ovens, clothes washers and dryers, home thermostats, stoves and wall ovens, dehumidifiers, window air conditioners, air purifiers, refrigerators, coffee makers, and many other appliances that are used in and around the home, have embedded small display interfaces that can be difficult to see.

Often, the displays on many appliances are not sufficiently bright or high contrast to be read in the areas they are used. For example, clothes washers and dryers and dehumidifiers are often used in basements that do not have good lighting. Maybe your wall oven is across from a window, and the bright sunlight causes glare on the display, making it more difficult to read. Perhaps you have aging eyes and have left your reading glasses in another room. Who would have ever thought you would need to use a magnifier or to wear reading glasses to wash a load of clothes. Well, the day may now be here. The days of turning a big round dial and pressing a button to operate household appliances are going, and they are not coming back. Make way for the flat-touch panels and small visual displays.

Manufacturers of household appliances, just like those of office equipment, need to understand that the displays in their products need to be designed for people who have less-than-perfect vision. For more people to be able to be independent in their own homes, regardless of whether they are young or old, the products they use in it need to be accessible.

Displays in Daily Living

Cell phones, land-line phones, digital audio players, point-of-sale devices at cash registers, and PDAs (personal digital assistants) are all driven by small visual displays. In today's world, you are expected to have a cell phone. The fact is, many people with low vision find cell phone screens difficult, if not impossible, to read. Many times, the fonts are too small and there is too much glare on the screens, especially in bright light or sunlight. Each of the major cell phone providers seems to have one or two phones it publicizes as a "senior-styled" phone with various levels of accessibility; most include adjustable font sizes and levels of brightness on the screens, although few go far enough to provide the quality of displays that most people with visual impairments need. Thus, you may be shut out from many of the phones' features.

Digital audio players, including the iPod, have changed the way people listen to music and radio shows and receive syndicated shows. The convenience and portability of the digital media are excellent. However, most of these devices use small visual displays, and if you cannot see the display, you cannot fully use the products independently.

Point-of-sale devices at cash registers pose another problem. In addition to the fact that they are often difficult to see, they also pose a threat to your personal identity. Many of these devices are touch screens and have no tactile buttons or markings. There is no way for a visually impaired person to enter his or her PIN number confidentially to complete a purchase. One must often give one's PIN number to the total stranger behind the counter to enter the number for one. Not only does the sales clerk hear the PIN number, but so do the people in line near you. How safe is that? Then, where do you sign on the screen? There is generally no tactile marking to show where to sign, and the line on the display is often too thin and low contrast to see.

Displays on Home Medical Devices

Perhaps the most serious barrier to accessibility caused by small visual displays is the barrier to monitoring and caring for your own personal well-being independently. Home medical devices, including scales, thermometers, and blood pressure monitors, as well as life-sustaining diabetes monitoring equipment, such as blood glucose meters, insulin pumps, and some insulin pens, have imbedded small visual displays that make them difficult to use or inaccessible to people with low vision.

According to the National Health Information Survey of 2007, 21% of adults with diabetes have a visual impairment. Regardless of their vision loss, they must monitor their blood sugar levels and administer medication and insulin on the basis of the readings displayed on these home medical devices. If the displays cannot be read clearly, life-threatening mistakes can be made.

Another thing to keep in mind is that small visual displays degrade over time because, like everything else, they are susceptible to their environments. For example, cell phone screens become scratched from being dropped and are often placed at the bottoms of purses and backpacks, which causes more damage to the displays. Displays, such as those on outdoor ATMs, can become degraded from constant exposure to harsh sunlight, humidity, and heat and cold. Images on point-of-sale devices can "burn in" from long hours of daily use and the lack of screen savers. They are poked with styluses and dirty fingers and can be scratched by fingernails and rings. Often devices with embedded displays are expensive, and, especially for individual consumers on limited budgets, they are not easily replaceable when a display becomes damaged or when a model with an easier-to-see display comes to market. In short, whether you are at work, at home, talking on your cell phone, listening to music, purchasing items at a store, or caring for your personal health, small visual displays affect your life. The higher the quality of the display, including high contrast, large fonts, reduced glare, easier-to-see colors, and damage-resistant screens, the more readable they become to the 20 million people in the United States who report having trouble seeing even with contact lenses or eyeglasses.

The American Foundation for the Blind's CareerConnect program operates a web site that includes a database of currently employed individuals who are blind or have low vision who offer mentorship and support to people who are visually impaired who are entering the workplace or pursuing postsecondary training. CareerConnect staff recently worked closely with product evaluation staff at AFB TECH to design and administer a survey regarding small visual displays. This survey was pilot-tested online via the AccessWorld website. This survey on small visual displays was the most responded to survey by AccessWorld readers with low vision in the history of the publication, and we would like to thank all our readers who took time to respond to it. The volume of response further illustrates the importance of the issue and the impact that small visual displays have on people with low vision. Once tested in AccessWorld, the survey on small visual displays was e-mailed to registered CareerConnect mentors who have low vision. A summary of the results follows.

Summary of the Survey

According to the 51 responding CareerConnect mentors, most indicated that cell phones with small visual displays were the most problematic devices. Closely following cell phones were digital cameras, point-of-sale devices, self-service kiosks, and office equipment. The majority of respondents indicated that devices with small visual displays were "very difficult to use most of the time."

When asked how they generally accessed information on small screen displays, the majority indicated that they used their functional vision and held the device close. This choice was closely followed by those who said that they asked another person for assistance, which is not a suitable solution for employees in a work setting.

When asked what they thought would help them use products with small visual displays better, most indicated larger fonts, followed by increased contrast between the letters and their backgrounds, and reducing the amount of glare on the display.

The respondents had the ability to enter information to expand on their answers and to enter information about specific models of devices with which they had problems. This added information gave us valuable insights into how the respondents felt about specific models and manufacturers.

The results of the CareerConnect mentor survey were closely mirrored by the results of the same survey answered by 62 AccessWorld readers. We were able to identify patterns in the data that will provide valuable input into AFB TECH's product evaluation plans. We also appreciate the fact that several respondents provided contact information and expressed an interest in being contacted concerning their experiences using small visual displays and their willingness to assist with future research.

A primary goal of the AFB TECH staff is to educate and engage in a dialogue with manufacturers about the accessibility of products, why it is necessary, and how it can be profitable. To this end, AFB TECH is working to create standards to improve the readability of small visual displays that are used in so many of today's products, to make them more accessible to people with low vision. As the number of Americans who experience vision loss rises, more and more people will begin to have difficulty using products with embedded small visual displays.

With continued product evaluation, research on the optimal characteristics of small visual display, and candid discussions between AFB TECH staff and manufacturers of products, we hope soon to report success in establishing a standard for small visual displays, which will help make the technology we use in our daily lives more accessible to people with low vision.

For more information on AFB TECH's initiatives for developing standards for small visual displays, please go to www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=53&TopicID=386&DocumentID=4438.

Funding for this project was provided by the George B. Storer Foundation.

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

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Editor's Page

To quote from an announcement posted on AFB's web site, "in June, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) announced the approval of a new budget that reflects significantly lower expenses. To ensure AFB is positioned to remain effective, AFB also announced several staff reductions triggered in part by the economic crisis, and in part by a strategic effort to maintain and strengthen AFB's financial structure." In addition, staff positions were relocated from New York to AFB's office in West Virginia.

My position is one of those that has been relocated to West Virginia. I have chosen not to relocate, so my last day at AFB will be July 31. I published my first product evaluation in 1987 and have been editing AccessWorld since 2001. I relish the challenge of learning to use and testing new products. Most manufacturers appreciate or, at least accept, our objective evaluations.

I have enjoyed bringing you information about the latest new products in AccessWorld. It has been fun working with Darren Burton, Brad Hodges, and Lee Huffman of AFB TECH. Deborah Kendrick has been here since 2000 and can write excellent articles on any subject that is thrown at her. A variety of other authors have covered additional topics. The best part has been hearing your reactions, questions, and comments. You can reach me after July 31 at jaylev7@verizon.net. To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, one of my favorite authors, I am not sure what I will do next, but I will think of something.

In this issue, Darren Burton and Tara Annis, of AFB TECH, present the second in a two-part series evaluating Wayfinder Access and Mobile Geo, two accessible cell phone-based GPS navigation systems that can be used in conjunction with cell phone screen-reading software. This article focuses on Mobile Geo and offers a comparison of the two products' features and functions. Find out how well Mobile Geo performed.

Guido D. Corona, marketing and accessibility consultant from Austin, Texas, writes about the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped's (NLS's) transition to Digital Talking Books. A growing number of readers are already downloading books from the NLS site. Others are participating in a beta test of NLS's new machines. This article covers the plans for the transition and walks you through downloading books.

Bradley Hodges, of AFB TECH, has been again scouting the stores for accessible appliances. His latest report contains encouraging news about stoves, washers and dryers, and air conditioners. If you are in the market for new appliances, you will want to read this update.

Deborah Kendrick reviews the Seika Braille Display, distributed by Perkins Products. Developed in Japan, the Seika is a 40-cell display. Its most compelling feature is a $2,495 price tag, making it far less expensive than other 40-cell displays. Read our review of this new display.

Janet Ingber, writer and music therapist, writes about two new ways to communicate with friends, family members, and coworkers. Twitter is a social networking site that allows you to post short messages that answer the question "What are you doing." Google Voice is a service that allows users the option of having calls ring on several phones at the same time (such as a home and a cell phone) and provides an online voice message mailbox and much more. Find out how easy it is to set up accounts and use these services.

Lee Huffman, of AFB TECH, writes about small visual displays. He describes how these displays are found on product after product, both at work and at home, and outlines the problems that these displays present for people with low vision. He then discusses the results of a recent AccessWorld survey on the subject of small visual displays.

Jay Leventhal
Editor-in-Chief

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AccessWorld News

NFB Newsline on Demand or in Your Pocket

NFB Newsline, the popular telephone-based reading system, now offers two new ways of receiving nearly 300 newspapers and magazines. With NFB Newsline on Demand, users can navigate any of the available newspapers or magazines online and select an entire newspaper or section to be directly e-mailed to their e-mail accounts. With NFB Newsline in Your Pocket, users simply connect a portable player—such as Victor Reader Stream, Icon, or Icon Braille+ Mobile Manager—to the computer's USB port and transfer content directly from the site to the player for listening on the go. Once downloaded, Newsline content affords the user all the same navigation features that are available via telephone, so that the user can easily move from section to section, article to article, or paragraph to paragraph; have words spelled; or search for particular text.

The collection includes newspapers from every state, as well as such national publications as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, AARP Magazine, and many more. Individuals who already subscribed to Newsline on the phone need only to go to the site and register for the online versions. Becoming a member is easy, since NFB Newsline accepts any previous authorization from organizations, such as the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped or state vocational rehabilitation agencies. Subscription is free. To learn more or to subscribe, visit www.nfbnewslineonline.org.

New iPhone Includes VoiceOver

In June, Apple introduced the new iPhone 3G S. Among the iPhone 3G S's myriad new features is the addition of VoiceOver, the Apple screen reader. Apple says that VoiceOver will enable users who are blind or have low vision to make calls, read e-mail, browse web pages, play music, and run applications. Apple's new universal Zoom function magnifies the entire screen, and the White on Black feature reverses the colors on screen to provide higher contrast for people with low vision. We look forward to finding out whether the addition of a screen reader will be enough to make the touch screen of the iPhone usable. For more information, visit www.apple.com/accessibility/iphone/vision.html.

A Little Low-Tech Fun

If you were blind as a child, chances are you were not prone to doodling or drawing as your sighted peers did. Or maybe you did it in a different way. Fiddling around with the shapes that can be made on a braille page by using different portions of the cell to build a raised image on the braille page can be great fun, and the Perkins School for the Blind has produced a book to show you how.

Drawing with Your Perkins Brailler, by Kim Charlson, is a book that provides instructions for making 36 drawings with a Perkins Brailler. Images include shapes, animals, transportation, and holiday themes, and a sample of each is provided to show the budding artist what the image will look like when completed.

Available in either 18-point print or braille, the book sells for $24.95. For more information, visit http://support.perkins.org/site/PageServer?pagename=store_homepage or phone 617-972-7308.

Pay as You Go GPS

For owners of BrailleNote PK or mPower units who do not have GPS software, the Sendero Group is offering an economical pay-as-you-go plan. For an initial fee of $199, followed by payments of $199 per month for 13 months, the Sendero GPS software can be purchased for your BrailleNote PK or mPower unit. For information on this offer, as well as other products and training, visit www.senderogroup.com or phone 530-757-6800.

Free Web Page Converter

A free and accessible conversion program is available online for turning your favorite photograph, document, or audio file into a readily accessible web page. No CAPTCHAs, fast download speeds, and complete blind-friendly access are among the features that users of this software have extolled. To try it out, visit www.file2.ws.

RFB&D Books for Download

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) has announced that its AudioPlus books are now available for Internet download. The 60-year-old nonprofit organization has a collection of more than 51,000 titles, primarily textbooks for elementary through postgraduate-level studies. All books are available in AudioPlus format, the RFB&D name for DAISY-formatted books, enabling you to navigate by page, chapter, and other levels via audio and text. When downloaded, books can be played on a PC, transferred to a portable DAISY player, or burned to a CD for use on a DAISY-enabled CD player. RFB&D members also now have access to either online or telephone support, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To learn more about RFB&D or downloading books from the collection, visit www.rfbd.org or phone, 866-RFBD-585 (732-3585).

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Calendar

September 16–18, 2009

Techshare 2009

London, UK

Contact: Royal National Institute of Blind People, 58-72 John Bright Street, Birmingham B1 1BN, UK; Phone: +44 (0) 121 665 4240; e-mail: techshare@rnib.org.uk; web site: www.rnib.org.uk/techshare.

October 15–17, 2009

27th 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.

October 28–31, 2009

Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) 2009 Chicago Conference

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.

November 10–14, 2009

Accessing Higher Ground

Westminster, CO

Contact: Howard Kramer: CU-Boulder; Phone: 303-492-8672; e-mail: hkramer@colorado.edu; web site: www.colorado.edu/Atconference/.

January 28–30 2010

Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) 2010 Orlando 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 22–27, 2010

California State University at Northridge (CSUN) Center on Disabilities' 25th Annual International Conference: Technology and Persons with Disabilities

San Diego, 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.

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Copyright © 2009 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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