May 2005 Issue  Volume 6  Number 3

Access Issues

Dial M for Merger

Name a company that has global positioning devices for people who are blind or visually impaired. Then name one that has machines that play DAISY and other digital talking books. Think of a braille notetaker/personal organizer that revolutionized the way braille users can manage files, access e-mail, and read books. And then think of the company that was the first to make available a popular handheld personal digital assistant (PDA) made accessible for use without sight.

One of the biggest pieces of news in the field of assistive technology for people who are blind or visually impaired to be released thus far in 2005 has been the merger of two companies, both known for products that reflect innovation and a respect for independence. The New Zealand-based Pulse Data International and Canadian-based VisuAide announced January 20 that they are forming one larger entity, to be known as the HumanWare Group. While the prospect of corporate merger sometimes conveys a sense of caution and foreboding, this is one commercial union that may well offer consumers worldwide reasons to rejoice.

Two Innovators

Pulse Data International (known in the United States previously as HumanWare and later Pulse Data HumanWare) has been a recognized groundbreaker in the areas of notetakers and video magnifiers. The company shook up the nascent notetaker market by introducing the BrailleNote and VoiceNote in 2000, the first PDAs based on the Windows CE operating system. These products enabled users who are blind or visually impaired to import and export Microsoft Word documents, read and write e-mail, and access the range of personal data organization (such as a calendar, contacts database, and calculator) that sighted peers have come to expect. More recently, Pulse Data introduced an even smaller, wireless version of the unit called the BrailleNote PK. This device performs all the functions of its predecessor, but with an 18-cell braille display that can literally fit into a pocket. For users with low vision, Pulse Data has been long respected for its range of video magnification devices, most recently its introduction of the myReader, a compact autoreading system for people with low vision.

While enjoying a more quiet presence internationally, VisuAide has made a splash in the assistive technology industry with its line of digital talking book players. The Victor Reader Classic, Victor Reader Vibe, and Victor Reader Soft are hardware and software products that provide access to DAISY-formatted books, and thus revolutionize the ways in which audio content can be accessed and manipulated. While VisuAide attracted serious notice with these players, its global positioning system (GPS) orientation solution (a stand-alone device called Trekker) and recent release of the Maestro--the first handheld personal data device made accessible to users who are visually impaired--positioned the company as one of the leading innovators in this field worldwide.

Merger Highlights

With the merger of these two companies together, most significant areas of product innovation in the field of blindness and low vision have been addressed: PDAs (braille and audio output), digital talking book players, GPS devices, video magnifiers, and handheld organizers (again offering either braille or audio output). Pulse Data, headquartered in Christchurch, New Zealand, has a worldwide reputation, with high visibility in the United States where it is based in Concord, California. VisuAide (now called HumanWare Canada) strengthens that presence while also benefiting from more international attention for its products, especially in French-speaking countries.

Most notable perhaps is the new research and development team. "We now have a total research and development team of 50 people," commented Dr. Russell Smith, CEO of the former Pulse Data and of the newly formed HumanWare. "[The team] includes engineers, software developers, and mechanical designers. We believe this would be the largest R&D team in our industry by a significant margin." Russell Smith will head the new HumanWare Group. Gilles Pepin, who has been president of VisuAide, is now President and CEO of HumanWare's Canadian subsidiary and is joining HumanWare's board of directors. Pepin and other key management personnel from both groups have become significant shareholders of the merged entity.

What Will Emerge?

Where the enlarged research and development effort is headed is, of course, the big question that no one is yet willing to disclose. Since the two former companies were primary competitors in the area of GPS devices for people who are blind or visually impaired, that is among the first topics to ponder. In fact, at the National Federation of the Blind convention held in Atlanta in July 2004, the two collaborated on a competitive "treasure hunt" (see "Geocaching: A 'Treasured' Experience with GPS" in the November 2004 issue of AccessWorld). Half the two-person teams followed riddles and clues using the VisuAide Trekker, and the other half used BrailleNotes loaded with the GPS software from Sendero Group LLC, which is BrailleNote- and VoiceNote-compatible. How will the company resolve the issue of these two products being under one umbrella? No problem, according to Ivan Lagace, vice president of sales and marketing for HumanWare Canada. "If you are already a BrailleNote user and you want GPS, the best solution for you would be Sendero's software," Lagace said. "But if you want a stand-alone GPS solution, you would rather buy the Trekker."

Indeed, it is this kind of example that played a key role in prompting the merger. As Russell Smith put it, "We have both invested heavily in R&D in order to be able to lead the field in the introduction of new technologies. Over time, we would inevitably have developed competitive products, which would not have been good for us or the consumers."

Certainly, Pulse Data has far exceeded VisuAide in understanding and responding to the needs of braille users, while the former VisuAide has excelled in the production of digital talking book players. So, might the BrailleNote soon sport a DAISY player? Might the Trekker have improved, less clunky braille input and/or interfaced with the BrailleNote family of products? Will Maestro and PK morph into something newer and even smaller?

While corporate management respond to such musings with the message that "anything is possible," the only product news being disclosed at this writing is the new Victor Reader Classic+, which adds recording capability to the earlier machine; the release of a Keysoft 6.1 upgrade, which, among other things, transforms the BrailleNote and VoiceNote into wireless devices; and the addition of a DAISY player to the BrailleNote family of products.

Organizational Chart

Whether you were familiar with VisuAide staff or Pulse Data staff or both, all 200 employees will be where you left them. No one is moving and no facilities are relocating. In California, Jim Halliday will continue to be president emeritus, and Greg Brown the chief financial officer; Dominic Gagliano has recently been named national blindness products manager for HumanWare in the United States, and Roberto Gonzalez, a familiar presence, has recently been rehired to act as blindness products specialist. There will be no layoffs, according to Dr. Smith, and, although there are no immediate plans for hiring, both companies have an excellent track record for employing people with visual and other disabilities.

No one can predict the future, but the new company called HumanWare warrants attention. Two companies known for innovation and quality products blending their strengths, weaknesses, and research and development resources look very promising. None of the key management staff could think of a single negative outcome of the merger. Russell Smith summed it up: "Putting together the two companies has created a substantially larger entity with greater international coverage and name recognition," he said. We believe these factors will enable us to serve our customers around the world better and manufacture our products in a more cost-effective way." Add that to the fact that inquiries about products on the drawing board netted many enigmatic smiles, and you have a company worth watching.

For more information on the merger or products, in the United States contact HumanWare, 175 Mason Circle, Concord, CA 94520; phone: 800-722-3393 or 925-680-7100; e-mail: <>; web site: <> or <>.

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