The Liberty to Use a Computer: A Review of the FreedomBox
The initial problem with the FreedomBox for many in the assistive technology field was trying to figure out exactly what it was. Was it a browser, a screen-access tool, a computer in your pocket? Was it a chat room, blog, or web page-building tool? Was it an easy mechanism for using RSS-feed services, a source of information, a way to connect with blind people around the world, or some new approach in assistive technology altogether? By its fourth birthday, in February 2006, the answer to the question could easily be that FreedomBox is "all the above" and some other things, too. In those four years, however, Serotek Corporation's FreedomBox has encountered some serious growing pains and even an identity crisis or two. What began as a network and a solution for enabling a person who is blind or has low vision with no computer training to access e-mail and the Internet has grown into a collection of products. Although these products still offer unprecedented simplicity and affordability for those who only want to send e-mail and surf the web, for more sophisticated computer users, they provide a virtual smorgasbord of news, music, movies, chat rooms, blogs, e-mail, and research options in tandem with an assortment of tools that enable them to gain instant access to any computer.
The original intent of Serotek Corporation and its CEO, Mike Calvo, was to create an easy alternative to computing and surfing the web for people who are blind or have low vision who simply do not have the interest or inclination to tackle the myriad keystrokes and structural complexities of popular screen readers. A self-professed computer geek, Calvo, now 38, realized that his own perspective on technology was representative of only a minority of visually impaired people who are interested in using computers. The needs of many people who are new to visual impairment, on the other hand, particularly elderly people with age-related visual impairments, were not being addressed. His target audience, then, was individuals, often new to visual impairment, who wanted to sit down in front of a machine and learn within a few minutes how to do e-mail, shop online, surf the Web, or check the latest news headlines. Members of that target audience have embraced the FreedomBox concept.
Caption: Mike Calvo, CEO of Serotek and creator of FreedomBox.
As word spread of the project to more sophisticated users, however, Calvo knew that the product needed to grow. Growth is occurring at such a pace, in fact, that features will undoubtedly have been added by the time that you read this article. While the product is far from perfect, it has many unique nuances and powerful features. When you consider that this tiny company has only one full-time software developer (Matt Campbell), the progress to date has been nothing short of remarkable. This article provides an overview of FreedomBox to date, describes what it does and does not do, and gives some news of where it is headed.
The flagship product of FreedomBox is actually not a piece of hardware at all, but the FreedomBox Network. With unprecedented simplicity, users who log onto the network can immediately send and receive e-mail messages; shop online; consult scores of news, music, and entertainment links that are provided; listen to movies with description; visit chat rooms; read or write blogs; and enjoy a host of other web experiences--all gathered in one convenient place and accessed with ease. For accessing the network, the first FreedomBox unit, introduced in 2002, was a stand-alone piece of equipment about the size of a PC keyboard that allowed users to access, navigate, and manipulate material on the FreedomBox Network.
The next-generation FreedomBox was a stand-alone unit that, in addition to providing access to the FreedomBox Network, was a 2.0-GHz computer with a 40-GB hard drive. In 2004, the FreedomBox Passkey and Key to Freedom were introduced, affording FreedomBox users the ability to access their FreedomBox accounts from computers anywhere. With this device, a user can instantly turn any computer--in an office, library, or friend's family room--into a FreedomBox, with the added advantage that no trace of the FreedomBox remains when the Passkey or Key to Freedom is removed.
Finally, in December of 2005, the company introduced the FreedomBox System Access feature--a tool that enables a FreedomBox user to access such programs as Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook Express, PowerPoint, and Internet Explorer without the addition of any other screen reader.
Whereas the original product specifically targeted consumers who are blind or have low vision who have simple computing needs and interests, FreedomBox has evolved into a many-faceted product with considerable appeal for more sophisticated users and incorporates many features that are not found elsewhere in the assistive technology arena. Still, it is a young product--and one that has experienced astonishing growth and evolution in a short time. In other words, it naturally has weaknesses sprinkled among its many strengths and has more growing to do. To get a clearer picture of the product, I begin by looking at the individual components of the FreedomBox family.
FreedomBox can be installed and run on any PC with Windows 98 or higher. (A Linux version is also available, but was not reviewed for this article.) You can simply install FreedomBox on any computer that you already have. You can buy the current stand-alone version, which is an Internet-only product, running no other applications. You can purchase just the Passkey, the Key to Freedom (a USB-drive version), access to the FreedomBox Network only, System Access, or any combination of these components.
Blasting into FreedomBox
One bit of quirky charm in FreedomBox is its sound effects. When FreedomBox is launched, you arrive with a bang. The first stop is the FreedomBox desktop. Here, you have a number of choices, the first of which is the FreedomBox Network. Other choices from the desktop are to go directly to your e-mail, instant messaging, bookmarks, your media library, notes (a convenient feature for making a quick note that is on your FreedomBox when you access it again), detailed Help, and a few other things. Since January 2006, the digitized speech is presented with NeoSpeech, which offers two extremely clear voices. On the desktop and elsewhere, however, there is also a pleasant human voice, clear and female, announcing all numbered links and headings.
What Is the Network?
The FreedomBox Network is a virtual smorgasbord of news, music, movies, information, blogs, chat rooms, shopping, and a host of other items--all conveniently gathered in one location. The simplicity and logic of the many layers of options is such that the novice user can immediately--with just the arrow keys, number row, and Enter key--begin to explore and enjoy content that may otherwise have taken a new computer user weeks, months, or even years to track down. The collection of content is so extensive, so eclectic, that even the most experienced user of technology and Internet wanderer is certain to find plenty to delight.
When the FreedomBox Network is selected (number 1 from the FreedomBox desktop), you are greeted with another signature FreedomBox sound and a female voice identifying herself as the Assistant. From the Assistant, you have 19 choices.
Headings and numbered choices are announced in either the Assistant's clear female voice or in the NeoSpeech voice selected at installation. Again, these voices are so clear that a novice will easily understand them and an experienced user will welcome them.
Choices in all lists are numbered. You can simply listen until a desired choice is spoken and then press Enter; alternatively, you can use the arrow keys to move freely up and down the list for review, or if you know the desired number from a previous visit, simply press that number immediately on the keyboard. All transitions from one area of FreedomBox to another are signaled by the "tweedling" sound, indicating progress until the new heading is spoken.
Such an extraordinary amount of material is gathered into the FreedomBox Network that it would be impossible to provide a complete discussion--or, indeed, even a complete list--of it in one article. Here are just a few examples to give you some idea of the kinds of things you may find.
Upon launching the FreedomBox Network, you are presented with 19 choices. Number 8 is called the Information Center. Press Enter, and you are offered another 31 choices. If you choose number 6, "Bookshelf," a list of about 2,000 books appears, at any one of which you could press Enter and begin listening. Or you could choose to hear Microwave Recipes; Town Hall Meetings (archived online discussions among FreedomBox users with Mike Calvo); or a link called the Holy Bible, where you'll find audio recording of two translations of both the Old and New Testaments, either of which can be searched by book and chapter. If you are a history buff, you may like the link called "We Interrupt This Broadcast." This link leads to a collection of audio summaries of significant moments in history over the past five or six decades, including snippets of broadcasts from the day the event occurred. Choices include the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Neal Armstrong on the moon; the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon; the bombing of Pearl Harbor; the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, or President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and so on.
If you are a news and information aficionado, your first choice from the 19 options on the FreedomBox Network will be number 2, News. Here, you will find 29 links, which lead to news in particular categories (including finance, fashion, computers, racial issues, women, and employment); to particular news services (such as PR Newswire and Reuters); or to a category, such as "News Headlines Text" or "News Headlines Audio." Selecting the latter will net yet another few dozen selections, all of which lead to streaming audio of news updates from National Public Radio, Voice of America, BBC World Service, and many others. If your selection from the News menu of 29 choices was World News (number 29), you will be presented with a list of 137 countries from which to choose. Any one of these links will then lead to dozens of news items from that country, with information on the age of the story (such as 41 minutes ago or 1 hour and 3 minutes ago). Many of the links in this category lead to streaming audio, at which point you are always politely informed, "Please wait while I download the audio."
Number 3, Entertainment, is the favorite of many users. Two of its links are particularly popular: Descriptive Video Service and Radio. The Radio link leads to some 40 categories--rock, classical, country, ham radio, radio information services, and so on--each of which leads to an array of radio stations from which to choose, all providing streaming audio. (Again, the Assistant pleasantly alerts you that the download is in process, as in "Please wait while I download the audio.") The Descriptive Video Service link leads to an astounding number of programs with audio description, including hundreds of movies, television programs, documentaries, and more. (These programs, it should be noted, are audio only, no video; each is introduced accordingly with the disclaimer that it is audio only, provided as a public service, and directing the user to purchase the actual movie for sharing with family members or friends.) Movies range from last year's box office hits to 1940s classics, including drama, comedy, action films, and movies for children. You can mark your spot at any point for returning later. When you invoke the mark command (Ctrl-m), a bookmark is immediately sent to your FreedomBox e-mail account. The e-mail message tells you that this is a link to your spot in The Wizard of Oz, Chicago, Bridget Jones's Diary, or whatever movie you left unfinished. Click on the link, and you will be right where you left off in the movie with description.
Navigating all this content is simple. Arrow through a list of choices; press Enter (or enter the number) of a desired link; make choices in the next layer; and press Backspace or Alt-Left Arrow at any time to return, layer by layer, to the previous point. The bottom link on every page is "Return to the Assistant," followed by a search field for searching the FreedomBox Network (or the entire World Wide Web) for a given topic.
You can create your own web page, RSS feed (called My Newspaper), or blog from within the FreedomBox Network. You can build your own web page within FreedomBox and are given fairly simple guidelines if you are a novice to the effort. And if you want to share any of the foregoing with other FreedomBox subscribers, it is easy to do so as well. In fact, some users have reported that their favorite spot on the FreedomBox Network is number 16, "Member Bookmarks, Web Sites, and Blogs." Here, more than 100 members (and growing) have posted their favorite bookmarked sites, leading others to share their interests in music, food, news, shopping, technology, and other special interests. Many add personal notes to various bookmarks, lending a strong sense of community to the project. One learns, for example, that Brian Hartgen is a huge fan of described movies; Jonathan Mosen is a collector of all conceivable music, trivia, and mania connected with the Beatles; and Matt Campbell (lead programmer of the FreedomBox itself) is eager to share favorite programmers' spots. There is no requirement, incidentally, to share one's bookmarks. When you mark a site in the FreedomBox Network, you always have the option to keep it "private" or to make it "public."
Bear in mind that I have only scratched the surface when it comes to FreedomBox content. Also available are television listings, national weather reports, local news, and lots more things.
Three Unique FreedomBox Features
There are several special features of FreedomBox that are appealing and somewhat unusual in the assistive technology arena. Here are descriptions of three of the most useful.
With a FreedomBox account of any type comes a FreedomBox e-mail account. E-mail can be accessed directly from the FreedomBox desktop or as the first choice once the browser is launched. Using the tab and arrow keys, you can move around folders, messages, and options within the FreedomBox e-mail area, in much the same way as you do with other e-mail programs. But perhaps you have another e-mail account--for your job or a particular organization--that you want to keep separate from your FreedomBox mail. The third-party e-mail feature allows you to provide the information for other accounts and not only to check for e-mail on these other accounts while in FreedomBox, but to send replies that appear to have come from these other accounts. Navigating FreedomBox e-mail is mostly efficient, but there are some points when it will seem a bit slow and cumbersome to experienced e-mail users.
Much of FreedomBox focuses on the concept of community. Bookmarks, blogs, and individual users' web sites can all be shared. The FreedomBox Forum and chat rooms give users more opportunity to communicate with one another. CSAW (Community Supported Access to the Web), is the most commendable effort in this category. With CSAW, any user who encounters a web site with unlabeled graphics that render the site difficult for users who are blind or have low vision to navigate can label these graphics and turn the site into a blind-friendly place on the web. Once CSAW has been applied to a site by one person, that site appears in its newly labeled, friendly form to anyone who visits the site with FreedomBox. To indicate that a site has been "CSAW-ed," a distinct musical sound is heard when the site is launched. I tested this feature with a number of sites--visiting first with one of the popular screen readers (JAWS or Window-Eyes) and then with FreedomBox--and found the differences sometimes amazing. Attempting to sign up for wireless Internet in a hotel, I found that my screen reader was unable to read the necessary form for signing up. When I attempted the same site with FreedomBox, I was delighted to hear the familiar CSAW tones and more delighted that the necessary form was completed in a few minutes.
Speaking of forms, there are no special commands (such as "forms mode" or MSAA) required in FreedomBox to complete forms. You simply tab through fields and type your entries when you hear the words "editable text."
The third FreedomBox feature that is worthy of note is the ability to control your home server from any other computer. If, for example, you are using a FreedomBox Key to Freedom or Passkey at a friend's home or client's office and suddenly realize that you need a file that is in your own computer, you can choose to "remote control my home server" from within FreedomBox and have access to your entire PC. In this mode, you can work within any of your home computer's applications as if you were actually sitting in front of that computer. You can retrieve files from it or send files to it that you want to save from the current location.
System Access: Not a Screen Reader
In the beginning, FreedomBox provided access to e-mail, the World Wide Web, and all the FreedomBox content. As more sophisticated users discovered the product and reveled in what it offered, Serotek heard more and more grumbling about what it did not offer. Thus, in December 2005, the company introduced the aspect of FreedomBox called System Access.
System Access enables a user who is blind or has low vision to gain immediate access through speech to most popular Microsoft Word applications. Microsoft Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, and Outlook Express are all accessible through System Access. The text portions of PowerPoint can be read aloud through FreedomBox. While this program is far from perfect, it holds definite promise and is improved almost daily. Although much of this article was written using System Access, the program did get hung up from time to time, causing an entire reboot. I was able to navigate in all the aforementioned applications, at times with more ease and at other times with more clunkiness than with one of the popular screen readers. Serotek does not call the product a screen reader, but it is difficult to find another name for a product that enables a user who is blind or has low vision to navigate a computer screen and popular applications.
The FreedomBox Passkey is a credit card-sized disc that runs in a CD-ROM drive and can be used to access FreedomBox from anywhere. The Key to Freedom is a USB thumb drive, to put in your pocket or hang on a key chain, that can access any computer anywhere and has storage space for downloading material from the Internet or another computer source. With either of these devices, you can instantly render any Windows-based PC an accessible computer, ready with System Access and the FreedomBox Network. At a library, a friend's house, or another office, a person who is blind or has low vision can immediately begin work on any computer. And when you launch FreedomBox from anywhere, you have instant access to your own settings, notes, bookmarks, and the like that you have placed on your personal FreedomBox. The Key to Freedom (512MB or 1GB) has ample storage space for loading other materials onto it. If you set up your home server for remote control, you can send materials directly to it as well.
Perhaps because Serotek is so small and so new, communication between the company's staff and its customers is excellent. Many customers tell stories of the CEO calling on a Sunday evening or Saturday afternoon, just to make sure that a problem is solved. Similarly, the staff are especially quick to respond to suggestions for improvement. Jeff Dunn, who manages assistive technology at Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York and is a FreedomBox customer, mentioned to Mike Calvo that he wished there was a way to come back to a particular spot in a movie if you did not have time to finish it. Soon afterward, the feature was added. Mark your spot in a movie, shut your computer down, and when you want to resume, just click on the link provided to you in an e-mail message.
Similarly, I mentioned in a conversation with Mike Calvo and Matt Campbell that the Word Count feature in MS Word was not accessible in System Access. No one had thought of that, they said. Three days later, when I happened to try the feature again, it had been added.
Any novice can launch the FreedomBox Network, send and receive e-mail messages, and surf the Web with nothing more than a bit of intuition. To go a bit further with the product, extensive Help files are available from the Desktop, the Assistant, and elsewhere. These files are mostly thorough, although some areas could use additional detail. With System Access, nine audio tutorials are readily available (from within the System Access menu as well as online). These tutorials were recorded by Matt Campbell, who, as the company's programming talent, also shows a flair for communication and training. The tutorials are professional, clear, and friendly but sometimes lack specific detail.
What Needs Work
One critical area that could use improvement is the technical support. Calvo often provides it himself and is both charming and a good communicator. The company's full-time tech support person, however, frequently comes across as abrasive. Although he knows the product completely, his attitude sometimes offends customers.
There are quirks in System Access that are difficult to explain. If, for example, the browser is shut down and then relaunched after you have worked in Word for a while, the system locks. Some links in the network lead to error messages, but then, just as often, the same links may have been fixed a week later. Occasionally, FreedomBox crashes, and the computer needs to be rebooted. Having said that, the stability has been so dramatically improved in four or five months' time that it is reasonable to expect it to continue in the same direction.
FreedomBox does not currently offer braille support and is not available in other languages, but there are plans to include a Spanish version and limited braille support. Calvo says that the product is going to work extremely well with Microsoft's Vista. If you have complex computer tasks to accomplish--large and technical documents to compile, spreadsheets to manipulate, or PowerPoint presentations to create--FreedomBox probably cannot do everything you need. If, on the other hand, you want to send and receive e-mail messages; shop online; visit chat rooms and blog; create your own RSS feeds; and have basic access to Word, Excel, Outlook Express, Internet Explorer, Skype (Internet telephony) and some other popular applications, it could well meet your needs. For computer users anywhere on the knowledge spectrum, the ease of navigating such a wealth of content, together with the many unique and useful features in FreedomBox, make it an attractive product. In fact, just the ability to access the thousands of web sites made friendly by CSAW will be worth the price to many. The company's motto is Accessibility Anywhere. It may just as well be FreedomBox Is Fun!
Manufacturer: Serotek, 1128 Harmon Place, Minneapolis, MN 55403; phone: 612-341-3030 or 866-202-0520; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>; web site: <www.freedombox.info>.
Price: Key to Freedom, $599; Passkey, $299; Network Access, $12.95 per month or $129 per year.
The Sound of Computing: A Review of Three Screen Readers by Amy Salmon
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