This month's news items reflect the excitement and increased product activity associated with the two major blindness consumer organization conventions. Both the American Council of the Blind (ACB) and National Federation of the Blind (NFB) conducted their weeklong annual membership meetings in early July. The assistive technology companies, as well as other groups that want to bring products and services to our attention, set up shop in the exhibit halls of the NFB and ACB convention host hotels. Here are some of the highlights as noted by AFB TECH staffer Bradley Hodges.
Barcode-scanning products that allow for independent identification of food packages, household goods, and any item that has been labeled with a standard commercial barcode have been available for some time. A new $30 software product and a $299 hardware/internet option were on display, along with the long-established ID Mate.
Digital Miracles, LLC, demonstrated a new $30 iPhone app called Digit-Eyes. Once installed on an iPhone, the software can be used to identify barcodes already printed on food or other packages. In addition, software is provided that facilitates printing custom barcodes on the sort of inexpensive adhesive labels available at any office supply store. The company is careful to state that Digit-Eyes is intended as a helper application. It describes techniques for identifying and capturing barcodes using the iPhone camera. We have had an opportunity to try the product briefly at AFB TECH. Although it is not a substitute for a hardware-based device using a laser scanner, for $30 it may be useful, especially for those individuals who have experience using a camera. We are also encouraged by the thoughtful and refined interface and support information provided on Digital Miracles' website.
The A T Guys company demonstrated a somewhat different take on barcode scanning with a $299 customized scanner compatible with the company's BCScan online service. The device is a commercial-grade laser scanner, similar to those used in retail establishments. The scanner is held in the hand or attached to a stand. The product to be identified is moved in front of the scanner where an omni-directional laser system mounted in the scanner head picks up the barcode. A personal computer (PC) or other device connected to the Internet captures the digital information stored on the barcode and checks it against an online database of millions of products. If the product is found, the information is read via the screenreader installed on the computer. The $299 price tag is just for the scanner; there is no recurring charge for the look-up service. In addition to a PC, the service can be used with most braille notetakers and Apple computers. More information is available on the A T Guys' website.
Like barcode-scanning technology, specialized notetakers have been available for some time. This year, several new products and new opportunities to broaden the use of notetakers were very much in evidence.
For many attending the 2010 conventions, the HumanWare Apex range of products was new. The voice-only version of the Apex with either a braille or QWERTY input was introduced the Friday before the NFB Convention. The products are physically identical to Apex offerings that include a braille display. According to HumanWare, voice-only versions can be updated to include a braille display at any time.
GW Micro displayed its prototype of a new notetaker in the company's Braille Sense line. Known as the "Braille Sense OnHand," the prototype has a unique hardware design that reflects the general design sensibilities of other Braille Sense products. It offers 18 cells of braille in a compact unit that appeared to be only slightly larger than the similar Voice Sense voice-only notetaker. Exact pricing and availability were not available. GW Micro is now accepting orders for two products that were announced at last March's CSUN Conference, the Voice Sense QWERTY at $1,995 and the Book Sense DS at $499. Delivery information for the United States is expected shortly; however, no date has been announced yet. More information is available on GW Micro's website.
Refreshable braille displays are often among the most expensive specialized devices on exhibit. Two products drew attention for their relatively low cost and high value. Perkins Products offers an 80-cell refreshable braille display for the remarkably low price of $3,900. Manufactured by Seika, it offers a USB connection and is supported by all major Windows screenreaders and Apple VoiceOver.
Freedom Scientific highlighted a 40-cell refreshable braille display, which includes both Bluetooth connectivity and a full Braille keyboard for data input. The Focus 40 Blue braille display is available for $2,795.
On July 6, Bay Area Digital announced the introduction of the Pronto! range of notetakers in the United States. If you are familiar with the BrailleNote PK, then you have an idea of what the Pronto! looks and feels like. In addition to the updated 18-cell version (the Pronto! 18), a voice-only version (Pronto! QS) and the larger 40-cell (Pronto! 40) version are available. Pronto! features are said to be comparable with other specialized notetaker products. In addition, some unique functions, including a PDF reader and the ability to send and receive text messages via a connected cell phone, are supported. Prices range from $2,995 for the speech-only version, to $7,495 for the Braille 40 cell. Information is available on Bay Area Digital's website.
Beyond the new offerings and some welcome price reductions, most of the buzz surrounding notetakers and braille displays concerned Apple's recent support of full navigation and control of iPod, iPhone, and iPad devices using iOS4 software. There is no doubt that many braille-centric devices that are equipped with Bluetooth can now be used to interface with Apple's mobile products. What is not quite as clear is whether they will all behave equally well. Some technical matters involving the manner in which special commands, such as the home button, are supported are not yet totally clear. A few conflicts exist between the key commands that Apple has assigned for these functions and hardware keyboard commands that are used by some devices. Interest in this area is high, and we are optimistic that these growing pains will soon be behind us. On balance, response to this advancement in interconnected hardware appears overwhelmingly positive. Many conventioneers I spoke with expressed a desire to investigate an Apple device for the first time.
Lastly on the Apple front, three affordable screen protectors for Apple mobile devices have been introduced by Solona. The stand-out feature of the Solona protectors is their tactile markings. For iPod Touch and iPhone screens, rows of dots indicating the rows of letters when the keyboard is available occupy the lower portion of the clear plastic cover. Several additional dots orient the fingers to important screen locations, including the 5 key on the iPhone version. For iPad users, a braille keyboard is embossed for orientation to the virtual keyboard when the landscape mode is used. In my limited experience, the tactile markings were easy to find when desired, yet were never intrusive while flicking or using other VoiceOver gestures. Priced at $6 for the iPhone/iPod versions, slightly more for iPad, the screen protectors are available on Solona's website.
Optical character recognition is an important and evolving technology. Several new devices demonstrate the ongoing refinement and imaginative activity currently in progress. Freedom Scientific previewed the PEARL Portable Reading Solution at the CSUN conference. The product is now in production. The camera uses a folding design, which one colleague compared to a folding umbrella. When extended, it resembles a high-tech desk lamp. Documents are placed, face up, on a table or desk and oriented against the edge of the base. The image size is stated as 8.5 by 11 inches. A demonstration of the product revealed excellent speed and accuracy. The lighting issue, which was mentioned in this publication earlier this year, has been elegantly addressed with a switch-triggered internal light designed to provide consistent illumination of the document area. PEARL is a companion product to Freedom Scientific's OpenBook reading system. The camera alone is priced at $1,195.
A new and innovative self-contained reading machine, the ClearReader+ was previewed in the Optelec/VisionCue booth. The device looks remarkably like a compact boombox. To begin reading, a slender arm, which contains a small, downward-facing camera and light source, swings up from the front of the unit and extends several inches toward the user. The ClearReader+ recognizes print placed face up, beneath the camera arm on the table or desk immediately in front of the unit. A prominent round control with a center button on the ClearReader+ top begins document acquisition and control. Smaller controls are used for reviewing by word, sentence, or paragraph. Basic voice output options and selectable voices are offered. The system is intended for use in libraries and other public settings and by those who do not desire to interact with a conventional computer. ClearReader+ is expected to become available in the fall and will be priced at $2,495.
Many readers of this publication are aware of the difficulty in interpreting inaccessible images encountered online. Solona offers two services intended to address this situation. The newest of these is RAIVE, which stands for "remotely analyzing and interpreting visual elements." With a free software application available from Solona's website, an inaccessible image can be captured and submitted, along with a question, to a Solona volunteer. A service now under development will provide identification of images captured on mobile phones and other devices equipped with a camera and network connection.
Sendero Group has released a PC product called Sendero Maps. This highly anticipated product is a 21st-century version of the popular Atlas Speaks, one of the first specialized mapping and way-finding programs designed for the blind. The Sendero Maps application is loaded onto a PC along with state or regional (multistate) maps for the areas in which you wish to travel. The interface provides a unique virtualized method of exploring an area near a specific address or along a route. Points of interest are announced as you move ahead, in either direction or behind the current location. A 30-day trial is available by arrangement from the Sendero Group website. The product is priced at $395 for those who do not already own a Sendero product, with substantial discounts available for those customers who already have other Sendero products.
Wireless Telecommunications Bureau and Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau Seek Comment on Accessible Mobile Phone Options
On May 13, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau and the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau held a workshop on "expanding disability access with wireless technologies" to learn more about mobile communications issues facing people with disabilities and the ways in which new technologies can offer opportunities to meet the communications access needs of this community. Participants included stakeholders from the disability community, industry, academia, and nonprofit organizations. On June 15, the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau met with 12 members of the deaf-blind community, along with representatives of the Helen Keller National Center and the American Association of the Deaf-Blind to discuss telecommunications and Internet barriers experienced by this population.
Based on the input that commission staff received during these events, along with the record developed in conjunction with the National Broadband Plan, commission staff concluded that people who are blind or have other vision disabilities have few accessible and affordable wireless phone options. More specifically, according to statements made at the workshop, the vast majority of mobile telephones are not accessible to this population without the addition of expensive software. Commission staff were also concerned that many wireless technologies may not be compatible with the braille displays needed by individuals who are deaf-blind. In addition, according to the participants of the June 15 meeting, many specialized technologies needed to enable wireless telecommunications access for the deaf-blind community are cost prohibitive and difficult to find.
In order to be fully informed on the issues raised by consumers and to determine appropriate next steps to achieve telecommunications access for these populations, the commission is seeking input from all stakeholders on the following:
- The wireless phone features and functions in the current marketplace that are not accessible for people who are blind, have vision loss, or are deaf-blind and the extent to which gaps in accessibility are preventing wireless communication access by these populations;
- The cost and feasibility of technical solutions to achieve wireless accessibility for these populations;
- Reasons why there are not a greater number of wireless phones--particularly among less expensive or moderately priced handset models--that are accessible to people who are blind or have vision loss;
- Technical obstacles, if any, to making wireless technologies compatible with braille displays, as well as the cost and feasibility of technical solutions to achieve other forms of compatibility with wireless products and services for people who are deaf-blind;
- Recommendations on the most effective and efficient technical and policy solutions for addressing the needs of consumers with vision disabilities, including those who are deaf-blind; and
- Recommendations on actions that the bureaus should take to address the current lack of access. For example, is additional guidance needed on specific access features that should be included in wireless products? Should the bureaus facilitate a dialogue among stakeholders in order to reach a specific agreement to address the accessibility concerns outlined above?
Interested parties may file comments on or before September 13, 2010, and reply comments on or before September 30, 2010. Comments may be made 1) through the commission's electronic comment filing system (ECFS), 2) via the federal government's eRulemaking Portal, or 3) by filing paper copies.
Comments may be filed electronically using the Internet by accessing the ECFS website. Filers should follow the instructions provided on the website for submitting comments. Parties who choose to file by paper must file an original and four copies of each filing. If more than one docket or rulemaking number appears in the caption of this proceeding, filers must submit two additional copies for each additional docket or rulemaking number. Filings can be sent by hand or messenger delivery, by commercial overnight courier, or by first-class or overnight U.S. Postal Service mail (although the commission has continued to experience delays in receiving U.S. Postal Service mail). All filings must be addressed to the Commission's Secretary, Office of the Secretary, Federal Communications Commission. The Commission's contractor will receive hand-delivered or messenger-delivered paper filings for the Commission's Secretary at 236 Massachusetts Avenue, NE, Suite 110, Washington, D.C. 20002. The filing hours at this location are 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. All hand deliveries must be held together with rubber bands or fasteners. Any envelopes must be disposed of before entering the building. Commercial overnight mail (other than U.S. Postal Service Express Mail and Priority Mail) must be sent to 9300 East Hampton Drive, Capitol Heights, MD 20743. U.S. Postal Service first-class, Express, and Priority mail must be addressed to 445 12th Street, SW, Washington D.C. 20554.
A copy of this document and any subsequently filed documents in this matter will be available during regular business hours at the FCC Reference Center, Portals II, 445 12th Street, SW, Room CY-A257, Washington, D.C. 20554 (phone: 202-418-0270). This document and any subsequently filed documents in this matter may also be purchased online from the commission's duplicating contractor or by calling 1-800-378-3160. A copy of the submission may also be found by searching on the commission's ECFS website.
To request materials in accessible formats for people with vision loss (braille, large print, electronic files, audio format), send an e-mail to email@example.com or call the Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau at 202-418-0530 (voice) or 202-418-0432 (TTY).
For further information, contact Elizabeth Lyle, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, 202-418-1776 (voice); 202-418-1169 (TTY); or email at Elizabeth.Lyle@fcc.gov.
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