Conference Wrap Up
CSUN 2010 Highlights
Just as the annual ritual of setting our clocks ahead by an hour signals the departure of winter and the arrival of spring, for those of us who report on accessibility and technology, the annual California State University-Northridge Center on Disabilities Conference is one of the first signs of warmer weather and at least a few new product announcements. In the past, the annual trip to the Golden State took us to two hotels within shouting distance of the Los Angeles International Airport. While this was convenient if you wanted to get from baggage claim to the hotel quickly, it wasn't necessarily convenient for much more.
The 2010 CSUN conference took place in San Diego at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. By all accounts, this was a welcome move. Within easy walking distance of both the waterfront and some of San Diego's trendy neighborhoods, the Hyatt was well positioned to host conference presentations and the exhibit hall.
The CSUN is generally a good gauge of the assistive technology industry in general. In 2010, the economic downturn took an obvious toll, and several longtime exhibitors were absent. However, most attendees I spoke with agreed that bringing all CSUN activities under one roof was a welcome change.
Despite these uncertain times, several interesting and important product introductions were made. Some are refinements to existing technology, whereas others signal general trends that may be significant.
Notetakers have been a mainstay of assistive technology for more than a quarter century. For the past several years, most product announcements have centered around software updates and modest hardware refinements. This year promises to be a banner year for new notetaker introductions. HumanWare attracted attention with its line of Apex notetakers. Both braille and QWERTY versions of the device include integrated, refreshable braille displays. The design is noticeably thinner than earlier offerings. A unique navigation wheel is included on Apex devices with a braille keyboard. At the GW Micro and HIMS Co. Ltd. booths, the VoiceSense QWERTY received much attention. Following the design cues of other HIMS products, the smooth, white plastic housing is sleek and lightweight. Dan Weirich of GW Micro demonstrated just how rugged the VoiceSense is by dropping it on the floor, picking it back up, and continuing to use it.
Reading technology, whether on a personal computer or a mobile device is another important product category. This year, Freedom Scientific introduced the Pearl, a portable camera to be used with the company's Open Book optical character recognition (OCR) software package. Resembling a high-tech desk lamp, the Pearl unfolds and is placed on a flat surface. The material to be recognized by Open Book is placed under the camera. A setting is available to allow the pages of the book to be turned without interruption, with Pearl capturing images automatically. The model presented was still in the prototype stage. Shadows reduced the OCR accuracy during the exhibit hall demonstrations, although final refinements of the design have yet to be made. While smaller competitor's products have used camera-based document acquisition for several years, this is the first camera to be associated with one of the two dominant players in the specialized OCR market.
Reading technology that is intended to make recorded and other specialized material accessible was also very much in evidence. The most anticipated introduction in this category was the Book Port Plus, the latest product from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). The APH has created its own software and set of features that operate on an existing hardware platform manufactured by Plextor. The buzz was favorable. The few moments I spent with the product in my hand confirmed the reasons for the excitement. The rather sluggish behavior of the Plextor platform, reported on in AccessWorld, was replaced by a very responsive and high-quality interface. Back at GW Micro, a prototype of a second BookSense product was on display. This version includes a small, high-quality visual display. All functions are controlled on the front of the unit. Individual buttons replace the contiguous button design of the existing BookSense.
Olympus America is a familiar name in the electronics industry. Its listing in the exhibiter guide promised "[a]udio recording devices that offer DAISY firmware allowing for text to speech as well as voice guidance when using the device." Unfortunately, the prototype we saw fell substantially short of that goal. We do understand the latest model is still under development and we hope the features that have been announced make it to market in the final version. I was surprised by the uninformed Olympus representatives staffing the booth, and Olympus denied a request to allow the device to be heard in one of the podcasts that covered the event.
The larger universe of digital readers or "eBooks" receives a good deal of attention both in this publication and elsewhere. In mid-winter, Ray Kurzweil announced the pending availability of Blio, a software eBook reader. If the product were able to deliver on the features promised in press coverage, an unprecedented era of equal access to the printed word was only months away. Now that winter has turned into spring, Blio is still a prototype product. James Gashel, vice president for business development at K-NFB Reading Technology demonstrated a version of Blio on a computer. A link to an audio presentation entitled "#csun10 Audio: Extended Hands-On with Blio" is available on the Blind Bargains website. Please note that some examples of eBooks used in the demonstration contain adult language that may not be suitable for all readers. K-NFB Reading Technology still intends to release the product later this spring, according to statements made in the presentation by Gashel.
Braille production requires specialized equipment, much of which was on display at CSUN 2010. Enabling Technologies has introduced a computer-driven braille label embosser. The company has also updated a product called Transcend, which supports the production of materials in print and braille. Schools and other education consumers find this particularly important. American Thermoform continues to import and sell embossers from Index. Several Index models were on display, as was the Brailleo 200, a $45,000 high-speed production embosser.
Tactile graphics are often associated with braille production. ViewPlus Technologies has, for many years, been the leader in designing and manufacturing embossers that can create both tactile and visual images. An exciting and very ambitious prototype device was demonstrated at this year's CSUN. The system combines an OKI Color Solutions color laser production printer with a free-standing specialized ViewPlus embosser. The results were very impressive, producing an 11 by 17 inch print and braille tactile graphic in a matter of seconds. As a braille reader, I was astonished by the quality of the braille characters, which can be slightly non-standard in size because of the graphics technology.
Serotek Corporation featured a hardware device that makes visual presentations, such as PowerPoint slideshows, accessible during a meeting, in real time. The device connects to the system, which provides speaker support and creates an HTML version of screen images. Any browser running on a WiFi-equipped device can be used to access the presentation, including notebooks, notetakers with WiFi, as well as cell phones and even the iPhone/iPod.
Other organizations that received attention included the Sendero Group, which announced a free application (app) for the iPhone. The app, to be released later this spring, will provide current location information, direction of travel, as well as the nearest five points of interest. A product to allow virtual exploration of an area and trip and route planning was announced as well. The product will be released for both the PC and Mac later this summer. The demise of Way Finder Access was also a topic of conversation; however, no definitive plans were announced by any organization regarding this cell phone-based global positioning system (GPS) product.
En-Vision America introduced the i.d. mate Summit, the latest version of this popular barcode reader and labeling system. ScripTalk was also demonstrated at the company's booth.
Nippon Telesoft unveiled several new braille displays. These relatively low-cost displays will be marketed in the United States by Perkins Products. Other Perkins offerings include both 1- and 2-gigabyte National Library Service cartridges and the special connector cable to connect them to a USB computer port.
Independent Living Aids is selling talking watches with a new and easier-to-understand choice of male or female voices. Priced at around $40, these watches didn't generate the same interest as a new notetaker, but the technology is still very important to those who rely on them.
Beyond these specific venders, a notable absence in the exhibit hall was the iPhone/iPod and Mac OS computer operating platforms for new assistive products. With the exception of the Sendero release mentioned above, and a communications product for people with limited speech ability, no Apple-based products made their way into my notebook. That isn't to say interest in Apple was lacking. To the contrary, the Apple presentations were fully attended and excitement continues to run high for VoiceOver in all its variations.
These CSUN exhibit hall impressions are purely my own. For full CSUN coverage, I invite you to explore the wealth of material that is available online. Several organizations have devoted substantial time and their very limited financial resources to bring you hours of interviews with company representatives and developers. These archived presentations can bring CSUN from the San Diego Manchester Grand Hyatt directly into your home or office. For example, visit www.serotalk.com or www.blindbargains.com, and search for "CSUN 2010." I encourage you to take advantage of these resources.
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