November 2001 Issue  Volume 2  Number 6


Fruchterman's Fantasy Becomes Reality

Jim Fruchterman is reminiscing about his days at Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology in the early 1980s. "It was 1981," he says, "and everyone around me was cooking up some Nobel prize-winning project or idea. The professors at Cal Tech were the brightest and best, and you could feel like pond scum with all that genius everywhere. Then I had my eureka idea!" And as the storytellers might put it, he knew his idea was a good one, and he never let it go.

In engineering and applied physics, much of the talk around Jim Fruchterman at that time centered on optical pattern recognition by computers. The brilliant flash of recognition ignited by those conversations in Fruchterman's brain, of course, was the notion to harness that pattern-recognition capability to design a reading system for blind people. Fruchterman didn't know any blind people or that work was already being done in this area by Raymond Kurzweil. He admits to being somewhat deflated when a professor told him it had been tried, but kept the idea alive. The concept appealed to him as a perfect blend of his search to find "something that was cool to do and would have some social benefit."

The primary uses of optical pattern recognition had to do with identifying and matching airfields. One of Fruchterman's early ventures was to be part of a team that was using that technology to build and launch a rocket. The rocket blew up ("it wasn't my fault," Fruchterman assured me), and he and a friend decided to start their own company.

The first company formed by Fruchterman and others was called Good Technology, which later became Benetech. Fruchterman's fancy for word play and obscure meanings has run alongside his work since that first eureka idea. (Arkenstone, the successful company that would launch his popular OPENBook software in 1989, was named for the sought-after stone in Tolkein's The Hobbit, and Strider, a global-positioning product, harkened back to The Lord of the Rings.)

Arkenstone introduced its OPENBook reading software in 1989, and over the next 10 years sold approximately 35,000 systems. Fruchterman caught the crest of the technological wave with his brainchild—offering a PC-based system for reading print aloud, right at a time when many blind and visually impaired people were buying talking computers. When Fruchterman first had his eureka idea, a reading system had been built that would cost an end-user $50,000. The Arkenstone system, with computer, scanner, and OPENBook software, was introduced for under $5,000. Arkenstone was the first reading system for people who are blind to bring a Windows-based application to market, to which its leading competitor, Xerox Imaging Systems, quickly responded.

Merging Forces

"When Freedom Scientific first approached us," Fruchterman recalls, "we said 'No, we don't want to do that. We're nonprofit.'" Freedom Scientific came back, offering a structured deal that proved how Arkenstone, which had always been a nonprofit break-even organization, could become a money maker by joining forces with two other leaders in the assistive technology field (Blazie Engineering and Henter-Joyce), under the Freedom Scientific banner. Thus, Arkenstone became part of the new assistive technology merger, Benetech kept its entire engineering team, and Fruchterman was on the quest for a new eureka idea.

From Reading Books to Sharing Them

In the event that he didn't already comprehend the remarkable power that OPENBook and products like it bring to people who are unable to read print, Fruchterman was repeatedly treated to the ecstatic testimonials of satisfied customers throughout the decade in which he operated Arkenstone. For the first time, people could read their own memos, personal mail, magazines, and books. As a lover of science fiction and fantasy, Fruchterman understood completely the addictive constant scanning of books by other sci-fi and fantasy aficionados. Add to this the fact that Mapster's CEO lives two doors down and the connection of friendship between their teenage children, and it is no surprise that Fruchterman began mulling over possibilities of sharing books via the Internet.

For a decade, blind people have been scanning books. Many of them have saved those books on disk. With U.S. copyright law now permitting the sharing of copyrighted materials in special formats with those who are unable to read conventional print, the possibility of legally distributing electronic texts of copyrighted books is clear. Doing it in a manner that is in keeping with the law presented some challenges, but Fruchterman has the sort of mind that thrives on solving puzzles.

Bookshare, expected to be launched by the end of 2001, proposes to add a significant third player to the two primary U.S. sources of accessible books for consumers who are blind or have learning disabilities. Fruchterman has worked closely with Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) since he conceived Bookshare in the hope that customers will eventually move naturally among the three providers. In other words, if you can't find a book through RFB&D or NLS, you just may find it through Bookshare. Fruchterman's goal is that every time a customer visits the site in search of a title, he or she will have a 50 percent chance of success.

How It Works

The books will come, in large part, from blind consumers themselves. In the past year, blind people who have scanned and stored books over the years have been sharing their files with Bookshare. "One man," Fruchterman reports, "has scanned over 4,000 books in the past decade and is eager to share all of them." In the hands of Bookshare, books will be converted to both braille (BRF) files and digital talking book (DAISY) formats to offer virtually every reading choice that consumers may prefer for downloading.

Books will be encrypted before download, and all customers will be given their own customized decryption programs for placing the files, in the reading format of their choice, in their own computers. A "fingerprint" system will make it possible to identify the source of individually decrypted files in the event of illegal distribution. Because the copyright law specifically entitles only people with print-related disabilities to the specialized formats, each customer will be required to provide certification of his or her blindness, visual impairment, or other relevant disability. In keeping with the models provided by RFB&D and NLS, certification can come from an expert in any field, such as medicine, education, or psychology—anyone, in short, with credentials to state that a person is eligible for reading specialized formats. Customers will pay a small (probably $50) annual membership fee to remain in the program and can download an unlimited number of books.

Quality control will be a concern because the books are scanned by volunteers. Though Bookshare will not pose as having the identically high standards as, say, the NLS program, Fruchterman says that quality issues will be addressed. Standard correction and formatting programs will be run on each title provided, copyright information will be checked or added, and some proofreading will be done. When a second version of a book that is already archived is provided, the two versions will be compared, and the "cleaner" one will be kept on the site. Eventually, Fruchterman plans to have particularly popular books scanned by full- or part-time employees or volunteers. "We'd like to have the top 100 Amazon sellers and leading New York Times sellers," Fruchterman says of the future. At this writing, the web site is 80 percent finished, and a full launch (including about 15,000 books) is scheduled to occur by December 1, 2001.

Still Dreaming

While Bookshare is generating considerable attention and feedback from schools, colleges, consumer groups, and individuals, it is by no means the only project that is engaging Fruchterman's penchant for fantasizing. Legislation is making mainstream technology more available to people with disabilities, and Fruchterman wants to be on the cutting edge of possibilities with his blend of fantasy and technology. "I'd like to make cell phones and palm pilots that everybody could use," he says. "I'd like to make a cell phone with Strider in it that could tell you where you are at any time with the press of a button. You could pay $10 extra per month for your mobile phone service and have Strider built into it."

The new trend in purchasing among blind consumers, Fruchterman says, is that they are now buying gadgets instead of PCs. Even though only some of the functions are usable, blind people are buying personal digital assistants (PDAs). "Wouldn't it be cool," he muses, "to pair that PDA with a scanner, so you could hold it up to a street sign or restaurant menu to hear what it says?"

In the past decade, Fruchterman has come to count many blind and visually impaired people as friends and has noted one persistent thread of frustration. "I'd like to see us design a cheap gadget that could do people recognition," he says, pointing out that the technology essentially already exists. With a talking camera, an image (like a person) could be identified and the person's spoken name. Imagine walking into a cocktail reception with your handheld people finder. At the press of a button, the gadget would whisper in your ear the names of all others in the room. It sounds like fantasy today, but so did an affordable machine that would read print to blind people 20 years ago.

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