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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 January 2014 Issue  Volume 15  Number 1

Access Issues

A Technology Year in Review: 2013

Now that the holidays have come and gone, it's time to look back at the technology highlights of 2013. This year-end summary wasn't nearly as easy to put together as others have been in the past. There wasn't a breakout story (such as the introduction of talking iPhones) that would immediately jump out as the defining story of the year. While there were a few exciting new developments in accessible technology, no single product dominated the market like the Victor Stream did a few years ago. Perhaps the best way to summarize the past 12 months is to use the well-known saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Let's take a few moments to reflect on what we saw and learned in 2013.

Breaking Barriers with Mobile

Often, when new technologies are released, those who are blind or visually impaired are not able to enjoy them at the same time as their sighted peers. As techology progreesed, those with sight could select their favorite shows from an electronic program guide on their televisions. They could use their landline telephones to save contacts or check for missed calls. They could control their ovens and other household appliances through digital interfaces. Much of this technology was, and sadly still is, inaccessible to people with vision loss.

AccessWorld has provided extensive coverage of how mobile phones, and especially the iPhone, have changed this paradigm, but it's worth repeating. Thanks to the speech and magnification features on modern cell phones, people who are blind or visually impaired are able to understand and harness the world around them in ways that were only dreamed of several years ago. To take this thought a step further, look at the specialized devices that a tech-savvy blind person once carried around that have now been largely replaced by the mobile phone. From simple devices such as a talking pedometer, watch, or money identifier, to more advanced tools like a talking GPS unit or digital book player, we're at a point where specialized devices are becoming obsolete.

In 2013, two major developments furthered this trend toward a one-device-fits-all mentality. Amidst much fanfare, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) released their BARD Mobile iOS app in September. The Braille and Audio Reading Download service offers both recorded and braille versions of popular books and magazines. Before the BARD Mobile app, a digital book player such as a Victor Stream, BookSense, or NLS's own digital player was required to listen to or read these books. Of all of the popular services that provide accessible books, the NLS collection was the only one without a mobile app. Since the release of the BARD Mobile app, patrons can now download books wirelessly and listen to them on their cell phone.

Meanwhile, full-fledged GPS apps appeared in 2013 for both the iPhone and Android devices. Sendero, a name synonymous with GPS for over a decade, released the Seeing Eye GPS app in collaboration with the guide dog school of the same name. This brought many of the features of Sendero GPS apps for notetakers to mobile devices along with more modern functionality such as support for online data sources such as Foursquare. Meanwhile, the American Printing House for the Blind released Nearby Explorer, a GPS app for Android phones and tablets that includes millions of points of interest from Google as well as public transit data. Both apps cost slightly more than a mainstream solution ($69 a year or $9.95 a month for Seeing Eye, $99 for Nearby Explorer), but GPS is one type of app where some additional accessibility features can be quite useful. Most sighted users don't have a need to mark the doorway of a building or to be told the type of intersection they are approaching while walking, information that is easily available through specialized apps. At any rate, it's a huge improvement from the days when Sendero charged $1,600 for their GPS program for the BrailleNote or the nearly $900 original cost of a Trekker Breeze. And once again, it's one less device that needs to be carried around, and one less additional expense for a blind traveler.

Mobile devices are also opening new doors in areas where accessibility was largely impossible in the past. Fitness trackers, scales, and heart-rate monitors are now often bundled with mobile apps. As a side effect of this trend, much of the data collected can be accessed using speech, magnification, or braille. Home heating and cooling systems such as the Nest Learning Thermostat can be controlled wirelessly, often with an accessible interface. Cable companies are releasing mobile apps to control set-top boxes including changing channels and scheduling programs to record on a digital video recorder. Wireless thermometers can relay the temperature of meat while it is being grilled or cooked. Exercise equipment can be monitored and controlled from your cell phone or tablet.

The beauty of these and many other innovations is the possibility of increased accessibility. Previously, if one wanted to develop a talking heart-rate monitor, thermometer, or set-top box, hundreds of thousands of dollars in engineering and design work would often be required. For many companies, that's a huge risk that may or may not pay off in the long run. Compare that with modern electronics, which are often controlled by mobile apps. If proper guidelines are followed, many mobile apps will be quite usable and accessible with access technology with little or no effort from the manufacturer. This means new possibilities and new opportunities for the blind community. This also leads to a new set of challenges for the community as well, as manufacturers need to be educated on what it takes to make their apps accessible.

As a technology trainer and consultant, I've noticed another trend has developed when it comes to mobile, the adoption of iPhones by seniors and those new to assistive technology. In the past, talking smartphones were used by those with a fair amount of technical skill, while others would use simple feature phones such as the several accessible models from LG. Recently, I've seen a wider variety of people delve into the world of smartphones, especially the iPhone. People who may have never used a computer with a screen reader are suddenly checking their e-mail and listening to books on their phones. Advancements like the iOS voice assistant, Siri, have helped to break down accessibility barriers. Android phones with 5- and 6-inch screens have been highly regarded as viable solutions for low-vision users. Naturally, there is a definite learning curve when it comes to modern cell phones, but more and more people are making that leap and moving to an accessible mobile device.

That being said, the mobile world isn't perfect, and productivity apps remain a challenge. While some half-baked solutions exist for taking simple notes or reading some types of documents, a full-fledged word processor or database program remains a pipe dream. Microsoft is inching toward releasing mobile versions of Word and Excel and Google's recent purchase of QuickOffice has come with some initial accessibility support. However, we've yet to see a complete mobile solution for managing documents and spreadsheets. Notetakers such as the BrailleNote or BrailleSense also do a better job at handling contracted braille input and output and Nemeth Code than many mobile devices. As more and more children and college students move to using iPads instead of specialized notetakers, it's becoming vitally important to advocate for the same level of braille support that was previously available. If kids are taught using speech exclusively, their employment potential may become diminished. Many experts will tell you that listening to spoken text is not the same as reading, and we need to exercise our due diligence to ensure that proper braille training and education are not lost because of advancements in technology.

A Calculated Advance for STEM

Many organizations have been pouring their time and research into improving the outlook for people who are blind in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Math in particular received a huge boost in 2013 thanks to a new product from APH and Orbit Research. As students enter advanced math classes in middle and high schools, one of the standard tools for computing complex equations for the past two decades has been the line of calculators from Texas Instruments. While some alternatives have been released in the past, the introduction of the accessible TI-84 Plus Talking Graphing Calculator was the first time that a mainstream graphing calculator had been made accessible. Now, students who are blind can perform many of the same advanced mathematical functions as their peers on a device already familiar to teachers. Students can download class data through a USB port or listen to graphs represented by stereo audio patterns. In high school, I remember feeling left out when the other students could use their fancy calculators and I was relegated to a simple scientific calculator that often produced inaccurate results. Now, students with visual impairments get to feel like they're a part of the group and can explore the world of mathematics along with everyone else. We look forward to following further developments with this calculator.

The Passing of A Math Pioneer

Meanwhile, we lost one of the most influential pioneers of mathematics for the blind, Dr. Abraham Nemeth. Out of personal necessity, Nemeth created the well-known braille math code that bears his name while teaching college-level math classes. Rather than give up and find a different career path, he tackled this issue head-on and created a code that is still widely used by braille readers across the country. Next to literary braille itself, the Nemeth Code is likely the most widely used today. Dr. Nemeth died in October at the age of 95.

Two Steps Forward and a Step Back for the Kindle

Amazon made headlines several times in 2013 with news relating to the Kindle, their hugely popular book reader and mobile tablet device. In October, the Kindle Fire HDX gained much-requested accessibility features, largely based on the Android 4.2 platform. It's now possible to read Kindle books, browse the Web, adjust preferences, and adjust magnification settings independently. While not perfect, it's a huge improvement from prior models, which offered little or no access.

Meanwhile, Amazon joined Sony and others in fighting a requirement for accessibility to lower-end Kindle devices which primarily act as e-readers. They argue it would be cost-prohibitive and an undue burden to design accessibility into these tablets. If Amazon and others get their way, this would mean blind consumers would be forced to pay more for an accessible device, as the HDX models retail for upwards of $250 while the Kindle Paperwhite and other devices that Amazon wishes to have exempted cost roughly $100. The Federal Communications Commission has yet to make a final ruling.

Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Google have all released accessible versions of their mobile apps for both Apple and Android devices. This means that practically all of the major e-book services are now accessible in some form. While some of these mobile apps work better than others, it's worth commending those who worked to improve access to electronic materials. Hopefully, the same access that is now available using speech will be extended to refreshable braille displays in the near future.

Speaking of books, two additional developments may lead to millions of additional accessible books in the future. In June, The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) passed the Marrakesh Treaty, which creates rules that allow for accessible materials to be shared across borders. This means that, potentially, books from NLS may be available in other countries while US consumers may have access to the books available through libraries in other countries. The treaty will need to be ratified by at least 20 countries to become valid. Meanwhile, Google won a landmark court case versus the Authors Guild, an organization that advocates for the rights of published authors, that was trying to stop Google's digital conversion of millions of books, many of which are no longer available. Google's victory opens up potential for new ways to disseminate this material, especially orphaned works that are no longer being published. Access technology users could also realize any benefits that may result. Put simply, we may be seeing even more accessible books in the near future. The state of access to books is moving from "if" to "how." Challenges remain, including finding succinct ways to convey images, diagrams, and mathematics using technology.

Conclusion

This was a year of trends, especially the usage of mobile devices by groups who may have never imagined it a few years ago. In the past, a year-end update may have been dominated by the latest release of JAWS or a new talking organizer. While dedicated access technology vendors still play a role in many of the devices and programs we use today, the attention has shifted away from legacy solutions and toward the next generation of technology. The access technology companies that evolve and diversify will be with us for this next wave of new technology. The ones that don't may soon become relics of the past. Regardless of what happens in our corner of the technology world, you can be assured AccessWorld will be there to tell you all about it. Here's to a prosperous 2014.

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