An Evaluation of C-Desk for Media
For those of us who cut our technological teeth on DOS-based computers and early screen readers, the concepts involved in downloading books from such sites as NLS BARD or Bookshare don't seem terribly complicated. You download a zipped or compressed file to your hard drive, unzip the files, cut and paste them to the appropriate place for the desired result of listening to an audio book. However, for people who have not grown up with the aforementioned circumstances and/or for whom vision loss has occurred later in life, the steps involved in downloading and transferring an audio book to a player can be daunting.
Adaptive Voice, a small California company dedicated to making computers friendlier tools for people with visual or cognitive disabilities, has introduced C-Desk for Media, a small piece of software that reduces the business of downloading a book to a few simple steps. Although this company has been under the radar for many of us, they've actually been distributing their all-purpose speech and magnification software, C-Desk, since late 2009. This newest application, C-Desk for Media, is intended as an add-on for existing C-Desk customers, but it is catching attention quickly from long-time users of assistive technology who are intrigued by its speed and simplicity.
What is C-Desk for Media?
Perhaps the most solid common denominator product used by people with vision loss in the United States is our national library for the blind, known as the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. With the introduction of various mainstream and specialized book players and, most recently, distribution free of charge of NLS's own digital talking book player to all patrons, interest in downloading books is spreading like wildfire.
Bookshare is another widely tapped source of materials, through which text (DAISY and braille formatted) books are shared among people with disabilities. While each of these organizations has created accessible and navigable web presences, the steps can be tedious for people who are new to vision loss and/or web navigation. The process of downloading books from these sites and transferring them to any one of a half dozen or so players can be tedious. If you own more than one type of player, each has its own quirks for loading content. C-Desk for Media streamlines the process. No matter what player you use for listening to the downloaded content, the steps for downloading the book or magazine will be the same, and the program itself does the work of identifying the player and placing the content in its proper form and location.
How C-Desk for Media Works
To get started, log on to the C-Desk for Media website. An online video tells you how to download the application. Following its steps, you click on the download link, and in a few keystrokes the application is installed on your Windows-based computer.
C-Desk for Media is a self-voicing program with a text magnification feature. If you use another screen reader, you will probably want to silence it while using C-Desk for Media. Each time the program is launched, it looks at your system and takes advantage of whatever SAPI voices are already in residence (Microsoft Sam for Windows XP systems, or the much more appealing Microsoft Anna is drawn from Windows 7.) When the program is launched, screens can be navigated and functions performed with the program's self-voicing capabilities, as well as via magnified font, which can be increased or decreased with a keystroke.
When C-Desk for Media is launched from your desktop, you can learn to use it by launching the Help screen (Alt-H.) While a list of shortcut keys and text explanations are available from the Help screen, the quickest way to learn is through the series of short video tutorials, each of which can be launched instantly from this screen.
When you install the program, a registration form asks for your contact information and login information for Bookshare and NLS BARD. Once this registration has been completed, you never need to supply the login information again. C-Desk for Media does it for you.
Once the installation and registration has been completed, (which will take about ten minutes), you launch the application, and you will be placed in the form to search for media. Tabbing through the fields, you can select the field for title or author, or using the advanced search options, category, book number, or narrator. If, for example, you know you are looking for books by Charles Dickens, you tab to the author field, type "Dickens, Charles" and press Enter. A list of titles appears. When you hear one of interest, press Enter again to hear the book annotation. To download the book, tab to Get (or press Alt-G) and the book is downloaded to your system. If a USB drive or SD card has been inserted, you will then be asked if you would like to have the book transferred to that device. It's that simple.
If you'd like to have 10 books downloaded but at a later time, you can "Get" your desired treasure trove of titles, and schedule the download for up to 12 hours later. If the USB drive is attached to your computer, the whole process can occur while you're away at a meeting or sleeping.
I tested the program's recognition capabilities by inserting a USB drive used with an NLS digital talking book player, an SD card used for a BookSense, and a cable connected to a Victor Reader Stream. In each instance, C-Desk for Media immediately identified the device to which content was being transferred and placed it in the appropriate location for that device to play it later.
The Story Behind the Story
Michael Wechter has been in the business of developing computer products for 35 years. His primary business was in the realm of telephony, speech recognition, and text-to-speech applications for the mainstream. Randyce Wechter, his wife and partner, ran a small and successful wholesale bakery near their home in Palm Springs, California. In 1999, at age 45, Randyce suddenly lost her sight. The diagnosis was optic neuritis, caused by a mysterious autoimmune condition, and she was suddenly completely blind.
Randyce closed her business, and the couple moved to Orange County California, where she could begin receiving chemotherapy and extensive medical treatment that was required while adjusting to her life with vision loss. At the Braille Institute in Anaheim, California, she learned to use braille, a long white cane, and a variety of blindness techniques. She founded the Orange County chapter of the Foundation Fighting Blindness (for which she continues as president emeritus) and became actively involved in other support groups. Today, she says that most importantly, she learned to listen and to use her intelligence creatively to solve problems. The greatest benefit, she says, of losing her sight, was the many friends with vision loss she has come to cherish.
Miracles happen sometimes, and Randyce Wechter loves to share her personal experience in the miracle arena. In 2004, after being hospitalized for a small stroke, she regained the sight in her right eye -- not full sight, but sufficient for driving again and no longer needing many of the tools of blindness. Along the way, however, she had built lasting relationships with many blind people and blindness agencies.
Initially, what would grow up to be C-Desk were simply the tools developed by a computer-developer husband to enable his newly blind wife to maintain independence. Although she had run a business, Randyce says she was never particularly computer savvy while she was sighted, and thus had little interest in expensive and complex screen reading software once she became blind. Michael developed simple, inexpensive solutions to enable her to maintain her contacts list and communicate with others. In the summer of 2009, the couple demonstrated a program that had become C-Desk to a group of friends who were blind, and as Randyce put it, the immediate reaction was, "Wow! Can I have that?"
The result was almost inevitable -- that the computer guru husband and formerly blind wife would pool their creative talents and passion to build tools to enhance the quality of life for their own friends and others with vision loss.
The "parent" C-Desk program is an all-purpose speech and magnification program, designed to enable people unable to see the screen or see it well, to do the primary functions of computing. In a relatively short time, the program has developed a solid customer base -- comprised largely, though not entirely, of people who want to use e-mail, surf the web, compile contacts, and write letters, but who are not willing to invest large sums of money or intensive training time into acquiring the freedom to do so. [The C-Desk program sells for $299 and may be evaluated in a future issue of AccessWorld.]
"About 20 percent of our customers," Mike Wechter commented, "use a popular and more complex screen reader at work during the day, and then come home at night and use C-Desk on their personal computers to do the things we all consider fun."
C-Desk for Media grew directly out of the company's interaction with customers and friends. One instructor told the Wechters that there were 23 steps involved in teaching a person how to download a book. With C-Desk for Media, there are only three. For customers already using C-Desk, this new application is an add-on. The overwhelming response, however, has been from people who are blind or have low vision who are technically savvy and already use sophisticated access software, but are attracted by the C-Desk for Media's efficient simplicity.
The program isn't perfect. When the list of resulting titles appears, for instance, you press Enter to hear the resulting annotation. When this article was first prepared for publication, that annotation did not include the narrator's name or book's reading time. For many, whether a book is 2 hours long or 25 makes a difference, as does whether it is narrated by your favorite or least favorite professional reader. When I mentioned this shortcoming to Michael Wechter, he pointed out that pressing F10 from within the program opens a suggestion box for just such input. I instantly submitted the above suggestion, and two days later I received an e-mail message that the feature had been incorporated into the program!
That level of personal interaction, incidentally, is a trademark of Adaptive Voice. The company is small -- just Randyce and Michael Wechter and a few others, but the understanding is solid and the personal touch visible at every turn. Rather than a written manual, for instance, you have 24/7 immediate access to training videos, each about five minutes in length, in which Michael Wechter takes you through a given process step by step. When you launch the program, it bids you "Good morning" or "Good afternoon" and addresses you by name. When you call for technical support, someone at Adaptive Voice is ready and willing to guide you through any troubled waters, and the company's use of remote support (accessing your computer to troubleshoot) is the most efficient I've seen to date. (Pressing Escape eight times to access remote support is, without doubt, the simplest route I've ever seen to this type of support and one that the least savvy among computer users can execute!)
At this writing, only the NLS web site is fully accessible. Bookshare, however, is ready to go and will become available shortly.
The price for C-Desk for Media is only $39. It's a simple tool that is fun to use and can save time and frustration. To purchase or download a 15-day free trial, visit the C-Desk for Media website.
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