Recent Conference Highlights
Highlights from the CSUN 2011 Conference
For those of us who participate annually in the CSUN conference on technology and persons with disabilities, visiting the exhibit hall is something like a family reunion. Most of those we meet represent familiar branches of the family tree, but there are always some newcomers to the clan and naturally there are interesting stories to hear and trends to observe.
After a number of years in which no new braille embossers were announced, both of the primary manufacturers of embosser hardware demonstrated new offerings. The most ambitious of these was Index, who demonstrated the Braille Box ($13,000). This production embosser is rated at 800 pages per hour and embosses on single sheets of large format paper which can be folded and stapled in booklet form. Paper is loaded in a 400-sheet drawer in a manner similar to copiers. In addition to this high-volume unit, the Index Basic-D and 4 by 4 Embosser have been updated with new control panels, embosser heads, and a white-and-black color scheme.
Enabling Technologies demonstrated the Phoenix Graphics and Braille Embosser. Unlike other graphics embossers, which use a single embossing head to create both tactile images and braille text, the Phoenix has duel heads, one producing 25 dpi graphics and the second traditional head creating standard braille.
Serotek unveiled DocuScan Plus in a version for the Mac operating system. This full-featured OCR product supports document recognition via a "cloud" application from an Internet-connected computer. For both Mac and Windows operating systems, Serotek supports the HoverCam T5 document camera ($499). The camera is an off-the-shelf product that includes a plastic mat featuring several tactile marks. The marks cue the user in orienting the camera and positioning the document. The camera felt sturdy and is easy to fold into its telescoping base.
Braille technology in the form of notetakers was also very much in evidence this year. HIMS highlighted the OnHand, an 18-cell notetaker that was demonstrated in prototype last summer at the consumer conventions of the blind. At that time, reaction to the prototypes was decidedly mixed. The production units appear to have resolved some of the perceived shortcomings of the prototypes. To my hands, the OnHand felt solid and well crafted. The braille cells were perfectly aligned, and the device was generally very responsive. The space bar is much closer to the other keys than on other notetakers, and I must admit some disappointment with the rather crowded finger position that results. I also found the case and the attachment points for the neck/shoulder strap to be poorly conceived, in contrast to the generally solid feel of the device.
Bay Area Digital and Baum demonstrated the full complement of Baum's braille notetakers and Bluetooth displays. The Pronto is the current version of the notetaker sold previously by HumanWare as the PK. I had an opportunity to spend some time with the Pronto. As a devotee of the PK, picking up the Pronto and activating its controls was like getting reacquainted with a favorite cousin with whom I had lost touch. The approach Baum takes with the software puts a few new twists on the notetaker interface. Quick presses of each of the four function buttons results in immediate display (e.g., date, time, and next appointment). Menus are generally well-organized and easy to follow. My only disappointment was a slower response time at certain moments.
If the buzz around the exhibit hall is any indicator, the biggest notetaker story is about a product that isn't available yet. The Orion SmartBooks are two new notetakers announced by Colorado-based LevelStar and the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). Unlike most of the currently available notetakers, which use a version of the Windows mobile operating system, the Orion devices will use the Android mobile operating system. Nonworking design mockups tantalized many who visited the LevelStar and APH booths. APH will market a speech-only version that features a braille keyboard as well as a number pad and navigation controls for non-braille input. The LevelStar version of the Orion SmartBook includes 18 cells of refreshable braille, braille keys, and navigation controls. Specific information on availability was not announced.
Android made several appearances elsewhere in the exhibit hall, most notably in the latest software product from Code Factory. Mobile Accessibility ($99) is an application that provides access to Android mobile device features such as phone, contacts, SMS, e-mail, and more. A screen reader provides access to additional functionality.
LookTell ($1.99) is a currency identification application recently released for iPod, iPad, and iPhones. Again, if exhibit hall buzz is any indication, this app is a big hit. LookTell will operate on any iOS device equipped with a camera. The performance is truly impressive. Once the app is activated, money held in front of the camera is identified in real time. The use of video, as opposed to snapshots, allows for very fast identification of a single note or rapid identification of many notes. LookTell is now turning its attention to the much more complex universe of complete object identification. It anticipates a future app that can identify common kitchen and food products, CD and DVD titles, book covers, and more.
The dozens of exhibiters at CSUN 2011 demonstrated an amazing variety of products and services. Many audio presentations and manufacturer interviews are available from online sources; Serotalk and Blind Bargains publish archives and may be of interest for specific product demonstrations.
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