CSUN 2017: Technology Highlights
Among the pleasures of the annual CSUN Assistive Technology Conference is that it is diverse enough to be whatever you, the attendee, want it to be. For some, it's a place to get business deals done, or to do a bit of professional and personal networking. For a large group of attendees, it's a week of learning, chock full of sessions on topics ranging from Web accessibility and document-building, to the latest in navigation innovation for people who are blind. CSUN also provides one of the highest-profile opportunities for accessibility advocates to interact with major mainstream tech companies including Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. Finally, if you're in the market to purchase assistive technology for yourself or an organization, there's an exhibit hall, chock full of innovative new devices, and the latest versions of old favorites. This year, my fourth at CSUN, I worked the exhibit hall, seeking an answer to the question, "What's new and cool for people with blindness and low vision?"
Because even the exhibit hall is too big to contain a single conference narrative, I decided to organize my show picks into categories. This year's conference, perhaps more than any of the three others I've attended, lacked a unifying theme. At the same time, there was a lot going on in the hall, and much of it was innovative. That innovation, and the brisk level of traffic in the hall, bodes well for the assistive technology industry, even in a time when some observers worry about company mergers and even potential industry contraction.
A Couple of Big Ones
As usual, there were a few products at CSUN that attracted mass attention, mostly because they were attached to well-known names. KNFB Reader for Windows brought the popular mobile scanning app to the desktop, and to mobile devices running Windows, too. Users can scan and hear documents read aloud, just as they can on iOS and Android. The $20 CSUN special had a lot to do with the KNFB buzz. The price for the Windows version settled at $99 after the conference. Amazon, a company with a mixed, but improving, track record in accessibility, debuted its partnership with NV Access, which gives NVDA screen reader users access to the Kindle for PC app. Amazon has also extended its Voice View screen reader technology to the Fire TV line of streaming devices.
The Trend Exemplifiers
In big booths and small, voice assistants were all over the CSUN exhibit hall. Vendors have incorporated Amazon's Alexa assistant into a variety of AT devices. TrySight's Aries Smart Reader scanning device is aimed at older users, who may have lower levels of computer literacy. The simple device, which is completely controlled by six large, low-vision-friendly buttons, reads documents placed under its camera, and also has Alexa built in. You'll also find Alexa support in braille devices, including NeoBraille. For more on standout braille products at CSUN, read Jamie Pauls' CSUN picks, elsewhere in this issue. I also encountered Google Home on the CSUN floor. The competition between voice assistants from Amazon and Google seems to be benefiting users of assistive technology.
Timepieces, too, were a CSUN thing. Dot announced the Dot Watch at last year's conference. It was billed as the world's first refreshable braille timepiece. But Dot wasn't able to ship the product last year. This year's CSUN demo was a lot closer to release, and pre-orders are open. The company says products will be shipping in the second week of April. The four-cell watch face uses individual braille pins to represent watch functions graphically. The device supports Bluetooth, and can be integrated with iOS or Android smartphones. It doesn't operate as an input device, but you can receive notifications from a connected phone. There's an open source API, which will allow app developers to build in support for the Dot watch. The Dot supports custom watch bands that you can buy from the company. Acustica, which also hails from Europe, aims to bring the mystique of the Swiss watch to people with vision loss. It's an analog talking watch that also vibrates to indicate the time. It's shock- and water-resistant, and supports a selection of bands. The company's website and aesthetic are decidedly fashionable. Acustica says the watch will be available in the US during the fall of 2017. Sunu's Band Ultrasonic watch focuses on indoor and outdoor navigation. Built-in sensors, along with apps from Sunu and from third parties provide location information and will, according to the company, soon also support fitness tracking.
Some Boutique-y Offerings
Many trade shows include at least a few booths that defy explanation, but nonetheless get people talking. The list of "did you see…?" products on the CSUN floor this year included a wearable keyboard, and a way for some people to potentially regain their vision. Instead of a tray with set of keys arranged in a QWERTY pattern, the Tap Keyboard is a Bluetooth device you wear on your hand. Tap on any flat surface, using 31 keyboard combinations, to type text on a computer or mobile device. The company says learning to use the keyboard requires a couple of days to master. The device is intended as an alternative to onscreen keyboards on mobile devices. The product is set to ship in August. Tap says the device will sell for between $100 and $200.
A very different conversation starter at CSUN was Second Sight Medical Product's approach to restoring vision via high-tech devices and surgery. The company's current product is the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis system. The implanted device aims to provide artificial vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa or other degenerative retinal diseases. The system consists of a device that is surgically implanted in and around the eye, along with a video camera that transmits visual information to the implant. Once implanted, the device allows a user to see and differentiate objects like doors and windows, links on a crosswalk, and people or objects. The device does not provide enough vision for facial recognition or reading. The company says improvements to the device are made via a software upgrade to the battery-powered video processing unit. The retail cost of the device is $144,000, excluding required surgery. The procedure and device are FDA-approved. Second Sight says that some users can get the device through private insurance, or via Medicare. Later this year, Second Sight intends to debut Orion, a cortical stimulator, which may offer vision restoration for people with vision loss due to a variety of causes, so long as the patient has an intact visual cortex. The company is currently enrolling users in a clinical trial.
Digital Magnification Roundup
Magnifiers, both portable and desktop varieties, always play a large role on the CSUN exhibit floor. Lots of companies sell them, and most offer multiple configurations and price points. This year's crop of updated products featured touch screens, devices based on Windows or Android tablets, and upgraded cameras that provide full HD. Portability, too, continues to be important. Even desktop devices were billed as transportable. Many fold down to fit into a backpack or case. Rehan Electronics, an Irish company whose desktop magnifiers are newly available in the US, showed off the Acuity, a 22-inch desktop with a touch screen and OCR. Reinecker showed off its updated Mezzo transportable magnifier line, with updated camera options, and displays ranging from 16 to 24 inches. Baum's new Visio 500 magnifier is designed for the tight spaces of a cubicle or other office work space. It's designed to allow the user to place a computer keyboard in front of the magnifier's x-y table, and to share a screen between the magnifier and computer. TrySight, which debuted Android-based magnifiers at last year's CSUN, arrived this year with a Windows-based magnifier/tablet. The Mercury 12 is billed as a laptop replacement, and folds down to resemble one when not in use. NorthState AT also showed a Windows-based tablet, theirs is a 10-inch model, along with a 10-inch Android model.
Enhanced Vision, whose MoJo device I wrote about for the February issue of AccessWorld, plans to bring back the popular Jordy head-mounted magnification device. The company says the new Jordy will feature upgraded technology and a significantly lower price. Ship dates and pricing have not yet been announced.
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