CSUN 2017: Observations of a Conference Newbie
Over the past five years, I have had the pleasure of attending several assistive technology conferences, but this year was the first time I attended a CSUN conference. As a general rule, anything that is highly spoken of by others never quite meets up to the hype, but CSUN is definitely the exception. Even before I left home, I was struck by the well-formatted, accessible conference information available for download in a variety of file formats. I chose DAISY, and placed hotel menus, exhibit hall information, and session schedules on my Victor Reader Stream for easy access. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the conference with my wife, who is sighted, and she commented on the well-designed layout of the exhibit hall map that was provided in both print and braille. From the vendors at the exhibit area to the presenters of the many sessions available at the conference, the energy and excitement was palpable.
Last year, like many AccessWorld readers, I experienced the conference vicariously through podcasts and blog posts such as those provided by Blind Bargains, and I was excited about all of the new technology that was promised at CSUN 2016. This year, my mission was to find out who had managed to deliver on past promises made, and who had new products to show off for the first time. There is no way for me to talk about everything I experienced at CSUN 2017, but here are a few of my thoughts.
Braille Momentum Still Going at CSUN 2017
At last year's CSUN conference, HumanWare announced the BrailleNote Touch, a new notetaker based on the Android operating system while retaining many of the familiar features of the company's earlier notetakers. I had the opportunity to evaluate the BrailleNote Touch for the August 2016 issue of AccessWorld. This year, HumanWare announced the upcoming release of version 3 of the BrailleNote Touch software. Among many other features, the company will be able to update various apps in the Touch's Keysoft suite rather than requiring the user to wait for a major update of the product.
Not to be outdone by HumanWare, HIMS, Inc. announced a new notetaker of its own at this year's CSUN conference. The BrailleSense Polaris, whose name is derived from the Polaris suite of Google products that it runs, also retains many of the best-loved features of the company's earlier notetaking products, while taking advantage of Google's Lollipop operating system to bring cutting-edge technology to assistive technology devices that, in years past, were not known for keeping up with mainstream advancements. HIMS plans to ship the BrailleSense Polaris sometime this spring, and AccessWorld hopes to evaluate the product shortly.
VFO, formerly Freedom Scientific, was showing off its newest notetaker as well, although the ElBraille is not yet shipping in the US, and a price for the unit has not yet been announced. I was able to take a look at both the 14- and 40-cell models of ElBraille. While the 14-cell unit is able to be physically disconnected from the Focus 14 Braille display to which it is attached, the 40-cell model is hard-wired to the Focus 40 braille display to which it is connected. I was told by product developer Adi Kushnir that this is due to differences in the way both braille displays are designed. Unlike both the HIMS and HumanWare notetakers, the ElBraille is based on Windows 10 rather than the Android operating system.
Another notetaker promised last year, but still not shipping, is NeoBraille. When I visited the booth, there was a lot going on and I wasn't able to really get a good feel for the unit. Fortunately, Blind Bargains has a blog post and podcast that will give you much more information than I can. One of NeoBraille's selling points is its ability to work with Amazon's Alexa product.
The biggest surprise for me was my reaction to what was possibly the most anticipated product at the conference--the Orbit Reader 20 from the American Printing House for the Blind. I am someone who generally likes as many braille cells under my fingers as I can get, but this 20-cell braille display felt like something I could actually use. One of the things I had heard was that the refresh rate on this unit would be slower than that of more expensive models, and I expected that this would bother me. In practical terms, I found that the display refreshed quite quickly. The exhibit hall where I tested the unit was very loud, and I was unable to hear the cells refreshing--something that I am told is rather a pleasant sound. I was a bit thrown off by the lack of cursor routing buttons above the display, and the representatives at the booth did not actually know how to use the unit, so I didn't get a feel for how to use the product. I was told that the commands are very similar to those of the company's Refreshabraille unit. The Orbit Reader 20 is not yet shipping, and I don't know an exact price, but I understand that the unit will sell for around $500. For that price, I could definitely see myself owning this braille display.
Read a review of the Orbit Reader 20 from the October, 2016 issue of AccessWorld.
A Graphic Illustration of Universal Design at CSUN 2017
Imagine with me for a moment that you are ten years old. You have taken a school field trip to an aquarium, and you are hearing all the sighted children around you talking about the whales they are seeing. You might ask yourself, "Just how big is a whale, anyway?" Even if you are told that whales can be 100 feet long, how can you really wrap your mind around that distance? Now suppose that all of the children in your group cluster around a whale model. As they touch the model's body, a human voice announces the various body parts out loud. There are even sounds associated with various parts of the whale's body such as the clicking noise that emanates from its throat, or the water that comes from its blow hole. Imagine that, as a blind child, you can interact with this model in the same way as your sighted counterparts. Your disability vanishes in an instant. You can feel the length of the whale's body, and even touch a model of a swimmer that is depicted nearby. You then begin to understand just how small a human is compared to a whale. Using 3-D printing technology, sensors, and recorded prompts, the people at Touch Graphics are making the scenario I just described a reality. They have also produced maps of indoor locations as well as a map of the United States. The session that I attended had me sitting on the edge of my seat, and I will confess that my ability to interact with the whale model described above unleashed my inner child for just a moment. I can't wait to see what this innovative company comes up with next.
En-Vision America Makes a Great Product Even Better
In August, 2016, I evaluated the id mate Galaxy from En-Vision America for AccessWorld. This bar code scanner impressed me so much that I eventually purchased the product. I was pleased to learn a recent update to the id mate Galaxy now allows users to price match products from five stores including Amazon and Walmart. It would be easy enough for En-Vision America to simply stick to updating the database of product information available when a user scans an item, but they have decided to continue innovating. I will be eager to update my unit and check out this newest feature.
Sessions Are Key at CSUN
I was only able to attend a fraction of the sessions available at this year's CSUN conference, but I was able to attend a couple sessions presented by Amazon. I was impressed with the work they have been doing with regard to making eBooks more accessible than ever. Regardless of your device, you should be able to load a book into the Kindle app and begin reading. I was pleased to learn that hyperlinks in a book are now accessible--something that was not true in iOS previously. It had been a while since I took a look at the Kindle app for iOS, but when I opened it up on my iPhone after the session, I immediately saw major improvements. I can't wait to find a good book and begin reading!
I approached this year's CSUN conference with wide-eyed wonder and I was not disappointed. I plan to return in the future, and I am excited to see what new surprises await.
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