In 1987, Deane Blazie introduced his now ubiquitous notetaker, the Braille'n Speak. This remarkable device, which is the size of a videocassette and looks like little more than a box with seven keys, made it possible for visually impaired users to store up to 30 files of notes, keep a calendar and phone directory, check the time and date, and have quick access to a calculator and stopwatch.
That early version, now referred to as the "classic Braille'n Speak," weighed in at 2 pounds and sold for $895. The Braille'n Speak now has also been joined by spin-off siblings, the Braille Lite, Braille Lite 40, Type 'n Speak, and Type Lite. The available memory and processor capability in these notetakers also have greatly expanded since 1987.
From a personal start-up investment of $10,000 (to build the first 10 units), Blazie has watched his company grow to include $15 million in gross receipts annually, 70 employees, and an estimated 70,000 notetakers currently in the hands of blind consumers. It is rare to attend a meeting where blind people are present and not see a Blazie notetaker in use.
AccessWorld staff caught up with Deane Blazie at the October 6–9 ATIA (Assistive Technology Industry Association) conference in Orlando, Florida. Paul Schroeder, Deborah Kendrick, and Jay Leventhal met with Blazie and spent an engaging few hours learning more about the man and his company, past and future. The following are some highlights from that interview:
Schroeder: How did you get started?
Blazie: After doing some consulting work, I came back to my roots of developing products for the blind. My good lifelong friend, Tim Cranmer, along with Fred Gissoni and Judy Dixon, all had a part in seeing the Braille'n Speak come about. I remember Judy Dixon saying, "He who makes the best notetaker will rule the blindness industry."
Fred Gissoni was then with the Kentucky Department for the Blind, and he was working on a device called the Portabraille, which was probably the first notetaker, although it was never commercially available. Fred interfaced a braille display with a small computer and some memory chips and made a notetaker. The problem with it was that when you turned it off, all the memory went away.
I remember talking to Fred about that device one day, and he was pulling it apart and took out one board to show me. On that board was the keyboard and the microprocessor and all the circuitry, and Fred said, "If you just took this board out, you could use it to take notes all by itself." That clicked in my head. I built a device that could be turned off and save memory. I added a file system and a lot of other features, and the rest is history.
There were several times when I almost gave up. With the first prototype, I brainstormed with Tim Cranmer and Fred Gissoni for a couple of hours and then went back and fixed some things. The first unit was wedge shaped, because I was thinking of the way sighted people's devices are built. That was one of the features Fred and Tim corrected right away, saying that when you write braille, your hands are flat!
So I invested $10,000, made 10 units, and took them to the NFB [National Federation of the Blind] convention in July 1987. I walked away from the convention with only my prototype left. I had checks in my pocket, cash in my pocket, credit card numbers in my pocket, from people who wanted me to ship them a unit as soon as more were made.
Kendrick: In your interview for Tactic in 1987, when you were first showing the Braille'n Speak around, you mentioned that you had been around braille for 25 years but that you had never realized how personal it was until you began putting the unit into the hands of blind people. Do you remember thinking about that?
Blazie: Yes. And to me it was definitely an awakening. Until that time, my work with computers had been mostly speech products. But I realized then how difficult it is for a sighted person to recognize the difference between braille and speech. Braille 'n Speak, of course, only went halfway—it only had braille input at that time with speech output—but I began to see how mystical that connection to braille is for people.
Kendrick: Can you talk a bit about the other products—the Braille Lite, the Type 'n Speak—and how they came to be?
The next product was the Type 'n Speak. We began to realize that there were a lot of people who liked the unit but didn't really know braille. We began hearing enough of that that we decided to do a typewriter keyboard version.
Then, somehow something clicked, and we decided to put a braille display on it and came out with the Braille Lite. That was probably a big turning point in the company because it really increased our sales a lot. It just really made me a believer that the future of our company is braille, and that braille is going to be here forever.
After the first few generations of the Braille Lite, we realized that a braille device is different from a speech device. An example is the advance bar. In the beginning, the speech told you that the advance bar was going forward. Then we realized that you do not need that in the speech.
Schroeder: You have added a great deal to the line of products over 12 years. Each generation seems to add more functionality. What are you planning for the future?
Blazie: The present Braille'n Speak has a purpose, and I don't think that purpose is going to go away. If you add too much, it will become so complex that people won't use it. I think it should stay as it is: It should be very low powered, the battery should last a long, long, long time; it should be very simple—turn it on, nothing complex, no modes that you could get into that you can't get out of.
And then there should be something else. There should be something that is more like a PC [personal computer] but without the drawbacks of a PC. I'm not sure what the solution is, but whatever it is, I think it should come on very quickly. It should retain the things about a Braille'n Speak that made it in such demand. And it should have some things that we don't have—like easy access to the Web, easy E-mail access through mainstream Internet providers, and it should be something that people could add onto without needing special programs. One of the drawbacks of the existing Braille'n Speak is that you are running programs that are not available to someone else.
Leventhal: You are known for being responsive to the user. You have probably heard every possible suggestion—from not changing the Braille'n Speak to putting in a network card.
Blazie: Oh, yes. People want us to put in a hard drive or build a floppy disk drive in. These are valid suggestions, but sometimes you have to say, "This is the core product and this is what it should be."
Schroeder: Could Unix or Linux be a good platform for the next devices?
Blazie: In fact, we are looking at Linux, but whether we will actually use it is still hard to say. It is a nice operating system and nice base for building a whole new product. You could have it boot up quickly and could change those things about it that you don't like.
Schroeder: You purchased the line of braille products from Telesensory last summer. What has that purchase meant to Blazie Engineering?
Blazie: It was a great match for us. Telesensory's blindness products [division] was experiencing a lack of focus, so Larry Israel called to see if we were interested in purchasing that division. We purchased the Powerbraille line of products and the Versapoint printers. It brought us into a segment of the market that we were never in before—that is, computer access through braille displays. It has been very good for us financially and strategically, because it gets us into a bigger piece of that market that we were starting to get into anyway with the Braille Lite 40, but now we are in it in a big way. It was really a match made in heaven.
Kendrick: Aren't you doing some work to develop a product that will replace the Optacon?
Blazie: Yes, we have a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a product to replace the Optacon. The toughest part is the tactile array. It's hard to beat the current design.
Leventhal: Do you think there is still a niche for that design?
Blazie: I do. There always needs to be a device that takes an image and displays it tactually the way an Optacon does. That's not going to go away. Reading machines take away some of the need, but you never get a concept of what print looks like with a reading machine. Looking at this bottle of olives [picks up bottle from the table] or looking at circuit boards is not something you can do with a reading machine.
Kendrick: As popular as your products are, there is some comment that technical support is less than consistent. How do you measure the quality of your customer support?
Blazie: All computers crash, but boy, when you get a Braille'n Speak crash—well, I have almost cried myself. People run their lives on these products.
It's difficult to measure how one staff member handles a problem. We monitor calls and are always working to be better.
Something new that we've done is providing exchange units. When a unit breaks down, if you have paid for the maintenance agreement, we get another unit right out to you.
Schroeder: Any parting shots?
Blazie: I can't think of a better way to have spent my life so far. It's been just wonderful. I didn't really design these products: Blind people did. I just happened to take what they said, put it into a box, and make it work.