March 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 1


Apex and Intel

Sometimes, a particular company just fits your personality. I have serious loyalties, for instance, to products by Liz Claiborne, Coach, or Gevalia! Transferring the concept to the world of technology, maybe you happen to follow every product put out by Panasonic or will only buy flash drives from SanDisk, and so it has been for me with HumanWare. Long before it was even called HumanWare, products from this company never failed to push all my happy buttons.

As long ago as 1987, I was waxing ecstatic in a product review of the first KeySoft product, the KeyNote portable computer. For its time, it was a revolutionary product -- six pounds, amazingly clear speech, and could hold in memory up to 14 typewritten pages! Well, that latter is pretty funny now, but otherwise, re-reading that review today still makes the product sound pretty good.

Fast forward to the year 2000 and the introduction of the BrailleNote. Like its 13-year predecessor, this marvelous new device came up instantly when switched on, would return to the place where you left off in a file, could perform a multitude of tasks, and was just plain "blind-friendly." When the BrailleNote PK arrived four years later -- weighing only a pound and so small that its actual size was replicated on the back of a company t-shirt -- I was once again in love with a HumanWare product.

On and on it went. The mPower? I was in awe of how many wonderful features HumanWare could pack into a single portable device. Incorporating the "blind-friendly" way-finding features of the Sendero GPS software rendered the BrailleNote family of products more remarkable than ever, and the introduction of HumanWare Canada's Victor Reader Stream in 2007 elicited the "WOW" response once again from me. In fact, news of this versatile handheld device swept through the assistive technology marketplace with previously unmatched enthusiasm.

Then, the announcement came in October of two new products, Apex and Intel. I was so accustomed to welcoming each new HumanWare product with joy, my own reaction to news of these products came as not only a disappointment but a genuine surprise.

A new BrailleNote (Apex) that was somewhat smaller, had a few more ports, and cost over $6,000? An oddly formed clunker that could recognize text (Intel Reader) and store a few documents, and cost $1,500? My reaction was somewhere between underwhelmed and dismayed. I hadn't laid hands on these new devices -- seeing is believing after all -- so when I was invited to a workshop hosted by HumanWare, I called in my positive RSVP with gleeful anticipation. Certainly, I thought, once I saw these new products, I would recognize HumanWare had performed its magic again and introduce something truly revolutionary I could talk and write about with passion.

Jim Sullivan, the HumanWare representative, was the consummate host. Guests were welcomed, introductions made, and food and drink distributed with panache. His introduction of the products was informal and comfortable, and ample time allowed for all participants to acquaint themselves with the general appearance of the products.

When the Apex came my way, I willed myself to fall in love again -- as I had so long ago when Russell Smith placed that Keynote portable computer in my hands or when Dominic Gagliano showed me the unbelievably cool BrailleNote mPower.

It didn't happen. Yes, the Apex is a rung or so higher on the assistive technology evolutionary ladder than the PK or mPower, but not so high as to warrant such excitement. It offers the unbeatable Keysoft (now at Version 9), 8GB storage capacity, 4 USB ports, and can interface with the ever-present SDHC Cards. There are, however, already portable devices intended for blind users that have considerably more storage, and, frankly, a device that couldn't take information from USB or SDHC storage would be laughed out of the marketplace at this point. Unlike earlier BrailleNote products, Apex has only one braille display size available, 32 cells. For reading, 32 cells is preferable, but many consumers were happy to purchase the 18-cell BrailleNotes in earlier iterations -- affording the user braille access at a significantly lower price. Programs from the Apex main menu appear to be the same ones many have come to know and love throughout the decade -- Keysoft's intuitive handlings of word processing, calendar, contacts, email, web browsing, etc. Apex can also run the popular Oxford dictionary and Sendero GPS applications customers love. Even if you already purchased these applications in the past for your mPower or PK, you'll have to pay again to use them on the Apex.

A man wearing a suit and tie uses the Apex while commuting on a train.

Caption: A man using the Apex while commuting on a train.

Don't get me wrong. It's a lovely unit, and if they were being given away, I'd certainly get in line. However, so much fuss for so little progress seems to me, well, far less than what we've come to expect from this innovative company.

The Intel Reader elicited an even flatter line on my heart rate monitor. If you had never seen a reading device before -- a piece of equipment capable of snapping a picture of a printed page and reading it aloud -- the Intel would be novel. Given the current marketplace, however, this product doesn't offer much to shout about. Basically, its "capture station" consists of a box platform for placing pages or books and about a 12-inch post supporting the camera and visual display. You can lift out the Reader itself, about the size of a substantial paperback book and weighing a pound and a half.

A man uses both hands to hold the Intel Reader up to capture an image.

Caption: A man using the Intel Reader to capture an image.

Text recognition of pages tested was fair at best. Storage capacity is about 600 pages and navigation of text appeared limited. Unlike other products designed for the same purpose, Intel does not inform you of the quality of the picture snapped or the orientation of the page, features that are of considerable importance to visually impaired people handling such a product independently. Its recognition struck me as being good enough for on the fly reading -- mail, receipts, menus -- while not accurate enough for textbooks. Unfortunately, its size does not render it an on-the-fly product.

The Intel Reader Portable Capture Station with a book open below its camera.

Caption: The Intel Reader Portable Capture Station.

Adding to the disappointment is the inaccurate message regarding the tools of blindness this product is sending to knowledgeable mainstream reviewers. Stephen Wildstrom, in a column in BusinessWeek, called the Intel Reader "remarkable" and made reference to its being more affordable than any similar product in the Assistive Technology market. At $1,500, it is, on the contrary, more expensive than any product for the same purpose on the market. More troubling is this mainstream nondisabled reviewer's misconception that marrying a digital camera, optical character recognition, and text-to-speech capabilities is in any way revolutionary.

Walter Mossberg, who reports on technology for The Wall Street Journal, took a slightly more candid and refreshing view of the product. He noted lining up the camera with the page took lots of practice, and the recognition results were "decidedly mixed." Still, as one only marginally familiar with the myriad products used daily by blind and low vision people, he missed the point in considering the product something of a breakthrough.

It isn't. For the same price, a KNFB mobile reader will slip in your pocket, include a state-of-the-art cell phone, and offer unlimited storage capacity. Similarly, the Kurzweil 1000 software, now at Version 12, offers almost flawless recognition. Both offer higher quality speech and information regarding the confidence level or resolution of the picture snapped as well as the page orientation. Granted, Kurzweil 1000 is a PC-based system requiring a computer or netbook and compatible scanner, but files recognized can be saved in any format -- including MP3 and DAISY -- for transfer to a number of handheld devices, including HumanWare's own fabulous Victor Reader Stream.

We are all too familiar with the role misconceptions play in impeding the path to education and employment for people with visual impairments. Companies with long histories in assistive technology have the opportunity to dispel those misconceptions when communicating product information to the mainstream media. It would seem in the examples above that that opportunity was not taken.

Of course, visually impaired testers have been, not surprisingly, tougher in their assessments of the Intel Reader than any mainstream reviewer. Gary Wunder, an Intel Reader tester who is blind, wrote in a memo to HumanWare:

"This unit simply is not comparable to other commercially available OCR products both in and outside the blindness field. …blind people who have not yet enjoyed the blessing of turning print into the spoken word deserve much better recognition than you can offer here."

Bottom line: If you are new to the land of vision loss and assistive technology, these two new products from HumanWare will perform well and are worthy of purchase. If, however, you are even a moderately seasoned user, hang on to what you're using currently and go into wait-and-see mode. HumanWare has astonished us before and will probably do so again, but these two latest rollouts simply don't measure up to the company's own high standards.

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