November 2005 Issue  Volume 6  Number 6

In Memoriam

Driven to Succeed: A Tribute to Russell Smith

Photo of Russell Smith.

Caption: Russell Smith, 1944-2005

Get a bunch of blind people together who were using technology 10, 20, or even 30 years ago, and the rekindling of the awe that was inspired by tools that could render us equal with sighted colleagues is almost palpable. The first machines to make it possible to proofread one's own work, calculate and record finances, read a document available only in print, or do research without sighted assistance--while taken for granted by many in college today--were viewed as miracles by blind people who were students in the 1970s or earlier.

Even more remarkable than the technology itself, perhaps, is this single fact: From the Sonic Guide of 1976 to the BrailleNote mPower released in July 2005, an astonishing number of innovative devices that have been aimed at assisting people who are blind or have low vision throughout the world resulted from the work of just one man. In defining Russell Smith, the word icon and references to Bill Gates have been heard repeatedly, and after researching information about him, it seemed to me that, indeed, no praise seems too lavish. To add to the wonder, Smith was not just a genius, he was a fine human being--loved and revered by CEOs and customers around the world.

On August 7, 2005, Smith and his wife, Marian D'Eve, were killed in an airplane crash while returning home from a weekend conference. Smith was a passionate pilot. The couple's intended destination was the private airstrip at their home at Aylesford, New Zealand. The Cessna 182 crashed into the sea north of Christchurch, New Zealand. Smith was 61.

In January 2005, just seven months before his tragic death, the merger of New Zealand-based Pulse Data International (the company that Smith founded in 1988) and Canada-based VisuAide was the hottest news in the assistive technology industry. Smith was now CEO of the newly formed company called HumanWare, and his enthusiasm for leading it into new and exciting venues was electric. His untimely death has been a shock to many around the world, yet, given the enormous number of lives that his work has affected in measurably positive ways, a relatively small number of customers were aware of exactly who this man was or the role that he played in developing the products that so many visually impaired people depend on.

Starting with Sonar

Smith's initial forays into blindness were academic. He earned his Ph.D. in underwater sonar technology at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. "His professor got the idea that this technology could help blind people find their way in the streets," recalled Jim Halliday, president emeritus of HumanWare's U.S. division. Before long, the company for which Smith was working, Wormald International, formed a new division called Sensory Aids to pursue that idea with Smith at the helm. The first product was the Sonic Guide in 1976, which resembled a pair of heavy eyeglasses and transmitted information about the physical environment in an auditory format. In 1978, the company introduced the second electronic travel aid, the Mowat Sensor, which transmitted information on surroundings via vibrations in a handheld device. In his role with Telesensory, Halliday was the U.S. distributor of both devices and subsequently developed a relationship with Smith that led not only to the formation of a giant presence in the assistive technology industry and numerous "firsts" in products for people who are blind or have low vision, but a personal relationship that Halliday tearfully described as being "like family."

The next few products for which Smith was responsible, also world firsts, were embraced by the low vision community. The Viewscan, introduced in 1980, was a portable large-print hand-scanning device for people with low vision, and the Viewscan Text System, introduced in 1983, was the first large-print word processor. (Some of these devices, including the Viewscan Text System, have no real equivalents in today's market.)

Jeff Moyer, vice president of Marketing for Talking Signs, described himself as "a fan, a friend, a decades-long champion of Russell and his work." Although the two did not meet until 1983 or 1984, Moyer recalled testing the Sonic Guide with the teenagers he taught at a center in Palo Alto, California, in the mid-1970s. Now totally blind himself, he said of the device, "I wish I had one today."

But Moyer's personal breakthrough with a device that was inspired by Smith was the Viewscan Text System in 1984. "I could no longer read my giant magic marker notes for presentations," Moyer said, "[and with the] gorgeous orange-on-black scrolling words, I could read again. What I really loved was the Viewscan Text System, the early computer. Data were saved in 3K blocks on microcassettes [and later] to a CP/M format on 5.5 inch floppies." Later, when Moyer lost all his vision and considerable use of his hands, he needed to switch to a device with a smaller keyboard--then the Braille 'n Speak, distributed by Blazie Engineering. Smith spent hours converting all Moyer's songs, memos, essays, and other files to 3.5-inch floppies for use with the new system. As Moyer said, "Now, that's service!"

From Keynote to Braille Note

In 1986, Smith spearheaded the development of the first portable talking word processor that was useful to people who were blind or had low vision. The Keynote portable computer was based on an Epson HX20 computer, weighed about six pounds, and had state-of-the-art word-processing capabilities, along with a variety of other functions. The highly intuitive, user-friendly Keyword application, familiar to so many BrailleNote and VoiceNote users today, was born in the Keynote. Indeed, many of the positive features of the device have a familiar ring to those who wrote or read reviews of the BrailleNote 15 years later. Consider some comments from a review I wrote in the Spring 1987 issue of Tactic: "Speed, portability, good internal speech, multiple capabilities, and ease of operation head the list of the Keynote portable computer's positive attributes"; "I became enchanted with the Keynote's capabilities after just 30 minutes of experimentation"; and "Switch Keynote on, and in about 7 seconds you are in the file of your choice." Nearly 20 years ago, in other words, similar power and innovation, along with the same intuitive help messages, were resident in that device that would later blossom into the now-familiar Keysoft environment.

In 1988, Smith led a management buyout of Wormald's Sensory Aids Division and founded Pulse Data International. At roughly the same time, HumanWare, led by Halliday (with a large portion of its funding from Pulse Data), opened its doors in the United States. Although Pulse Data maintained high visibility for the next few years with its video magnifiers Viewpoint and Smartview, it would be the introduction of the BrailleNote in 2000 that would send company profits soaring and render the name Pulse Data International, the company founded and driven by Russell Smith, a household name throughout the blind community.

In a spirited informal sales meeting in a California hot tub, Halliday, Dominic Gagliano, Jerry Kuns, and several others recalled, a round of brainstorming took place that would later become legendary. The Keysoft environment already existed--intuitive, multifaceted, and solid. What was needed, the team realized, was the right package to put it in. It would not be long before Smith accepted the proposition, and the BrailleNote--a sort of braille-based portable digital assistant and another world first--was launched.

Russell Smith holds a BrailleNote as an interested Bill Gates points to it and speaks. Jim Halliday smiles.

Caption: Russell Smith (right) showing the BrailleNote to Bill Gates (left) at the product's official launch, as Jim Halliday watches.

The success of the BrailleNote was such that in 2002, the company's profits were boosted by 76%, and Smith was featured as one of the top five exporters of his country in a television documentary entitled "Exporters--Selling New Zealand to the World." Pulse Data has, in fact, been named a top New Zealand exporter for the past three years (exporting $70 million worth of products to 30 countries, including France, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States in 2004). In June 2004, New Zealand journalist Herman Michael wrote in the Canterbury Press: "Years spent helping to improve the lives of the visually impaired have finally been recognised for Christchurch businessman Dr Russell Smith." The particular honor of the moment was Smith's inclusion as a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, which may be described as the New Zealand version of England's knighthood. The writer went on to say that Smith was "self-effacing" and "reluctant to accept the glory as all his own" but flattered and pleased that his company's success was noticed.

An Ordinary Man

The theme of Smith as an "ordinary man," an executive who was often present on what Jonathan Mosen, HumanWare's manager of blindness products, called "the shop floor," is a recurring one. Smith did not introduce himself as the company's CEO and did not hesitate to demonstrate a product in the exhibit hall, just as his key employees would do. Marlaina Lieberg, a Seattle-based entrepreneur who runs the consulting firm she founded with her husband, Gary, and hosts a popular Internet broadcast on ACB Radio, worked for Pulse Data/HumanWare for two years as the director of training services. She recalled with amusement how she met Smith her first day on the job.

Her boss, Jim Halliday, mentioned that "Russell" was working on the BrailleNote's case and asked if she would like to give him her ideas. Indeed, she would. A few minutes later, the stranger placed an updated case in her hands, and she blasted him with her criticism and suggestions for improvements. When Halliday broke in with an introduction, "Marlaina, I'd like you to meet Russell Smith, founder and chief executive," Lieberg's quick and humorous recovery was, "Why, you've made a fine case, a wonderful case!" Then, she said, "He just punched me on the arm and said, 'Ah, go on with ya,' and that just sealed us." She had given him the honest feedback that he truly wanted. When the next generation of the carrying case was released, it included Lieberg's suggestions.

Every colleague and employee who was interviewed for this article consistently stressed certain characteristics in remembering Smith: his warmth, generosity, attention to detail, and methodical way of analyzing and solving a problem. Tales of his graciousness--his and Marian's actually--abound, from preparing a last-minute meal, rather than putting hungry colleagues on an evening flight, to insisting that airplane seats be reassigned so an employee could sit beside him.

But you do not become a millionaire and top exporter in your country by simply caring about people. Smith's legendary focus, drive, and energy set an exhausting and exhilarating example for employees that ultimately netted profits for everyone. Colleagues talked about hearing Smith work well into the night while others slept and marveled at his stamina for uninterrupted weeks of travel. Blended with that self-motivation and meticulous analysis of problems was an innate wisdom about people. Rather than being the invisible CEO, the money behind the outfit, Smith was in the exhibit hall, chatting with colleagues, demonstrating products to customers. He believed in his work, in the company that he led (evidenced early on by putting up his own home as collateral), and in the people to whom his work was dedicated. He was a millionaire who did not need for anyone to know it, and an innovator who loved his wife, his family, his airplane, and his technology.

In July 2005, Smith spoke to the National Federation of the Blind during its national convention in Louisville, Kentucky. His address to that body, presented with Gilles Pepin, president of HumanWare Canada, was one of the most eloquent of the week. I asked Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, to reflect on his experience of Smith. "He was a fellow who was a good man, an energetic and a committed man," Maurer said, "and . . . I think he thought we might do work together that would be of interest to the blind of the world." Reflecting the facet of Smith that was all about fun, he added, "He said to me that when I got to New Zealand, he would show me his airplane, . . . [which] is something I would have done with considerable joy."

Doing the Right Thing

HumanWare also acted as the lead sponsor for that convention, and I asked Smith about it one day. "It's a huge commitment for us," he told me, "but it's the right thing for us to do." That confidence--knowing the "right thing" --whether as an engineer, a businessman, a pilot, or a human being--is what those who were closest to him will carry and benefit from over the long haul. Certainly, there will also always be the wondering, the "what else might he have done had he lived longer?" But as HumanWare's senior management team continues without the leader who brought their company to world renown and success, as they pursue the paths that he might have pursued, perhaps his sense, both pragmatic and humanitarian, of the "right thing" will be the flight plan that they follow.

On August 16, 2005, the double funeral service for Russell Smith and Marian D'Eve was packed to capacity with family members and friends from around the world. Jim Halliday, "clearly grief stricken" as a local account reported, was the last of 11 speakers to eulogize the couple. In recognition that there were many, however, throughout the United States and elsewhere who could not attend, HumanWare is orchestrating a small memorial service, to be held at the home of the New Zealand ambassador to the United States in Washington, DC, on October 11, 2005, and a much larger, public memorial during the annual CSUN conference hosted by the Center on Disabilities at the California State University at Northridge in March 2006.

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