During the last week of February, an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people attended the 28th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference held at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego. CSUN is the largest gathering of industry professionals, teachers, technology vendors, researchers, and others interested in access technology in the field, and companies often use the conference as a launching point for their latest products and services.
This year, we spent three full days in the exhibit hall attempting to soak in all that CSUN had to offer. While it's virtually impossible to see and try everything that was being shown, we'll do our best to highlight some of the most promising and latest innovations shown at this year's conference. AFB also sponsored audio podcasts provided by Blind Bargains, and we've linked to relevant audio interviews and demonstrations throughout this article, which you can listen to for further information.
The Accessible TI-84 Plus Graphing Calculator
One of the biggest innovations to be displayed on the hardware side was the Accessible TI-84 Plus Graphing Calculator. The American Printing House for the Blind has collaborated with Orbit Research, makers of the iBill Money Identifier and the Orion Scientific Calculator, to create a fully-accessible version of this popular mainstream device, which is nearly ubiquitous in high schools. This is accomplished by attaching a small hardware keypad on the end of the calculator which provides a DECTalk speech chip and software to control the audio output. Graphs can be represented in several ways, the most notable being an audio mode where the X and Y axes are represented by panning from left to right and pitch, respectively. Graphs can also be sent to a braille embosser or be represented numerically. Basically, all of the regular buttons on the calculator work as expected and give accessible output. In addition, haptic feedback is included as an option and may be utilized for a variety of functions. This model was chosen, in part, because it is allowed to be used when taking standardized tests. The calculator is being tested now and should be available later this year. Pricing information is not currently available.
A New Victor Stream
HumanWare was demonstrating its second generation Victor Reader Stream, an update to the hugely popular digital book player. The device is roughly 30 percent smaller than the original unit but retains a virtually identical button layout, making it simple for users to transition to the newer model. Among the included improvements is an 802.11N Wi-Fi chip, which is largely included for future enhancements. Currently, one can download firmware updates and National Library Service keys using a wireless connection, but free firmware updates will likely include ways to download digital book content as well. HumanWare has also addressed a couple of the main criticisms of the original Stream by including a clock and allowing for USB charging, the latter meaning that a dedicated proprietary power supply is no longer required to charge the unit. Acapela now provides the text-to-speech voice for the unit providing higher-quality speech though the recorded prompts are still used as well. Of note, due to a decision by Audible, support for the popular audiobook service is currently not included, but since Audible appears to be changing course, this could change in the near future. The new Stream retails at $369 and is available now.
Accessible GPS Returns to Mobile Devices
As Nokia and Windows Mobile phones were phased out, many users lamented the loss of fully-accessible GPS solutions, including Wayfinder Access and Mobile Geo. While turn-by-turn navigation from Navigon and Google and a patchwork of location apps filled some of this void, the search for a full-featured accessible GPS solution for modern cell phones continued. This is quickly changing, however, as the American Printing House for the Blind and the Sendero Group are in the process of releasing apps for Android and iOS devices.
APH recently released Nearby Explorer, a completely accessible GPS app originally created for the BraillePlus 18 PDA and, now, released for Android phones and tablets. Users can learn contextual information about what is around them, such as the current street name, nearest intersection, and nearby points of interest, provided by a local database and Google Places. While traveling, items can be selected to be spoken automatically, so the phone or tablet can be stored in a pocket. In addition to pedestrian and vehicular navigation, it includes support for many public transit agencies, allowing for browsing through the nearest bus and train stops and gaining route and stop information. Points of interest, whether on a street or in the middle of a field or parking lot, can be saved as favorites and returned to later. A Geo Beam feature allows you to point your device in a specific direction to hear nearby streets or points of interest. The map data is stored directly on the device, allowing for use in areas where there is no phone or data coverage. It's available now for $99 from Google Play.
iOS users also have a navigation app to look forward to with Sendero's Seeing Eye GPS, a collaboration between the Sendero Group and the Seeing Eye. Sendero is no stranger to the GPS landscape and is bringing some of its most loved and requested features to the mobile platform. Your current location, points of interest, and route are always present on the lower part of every screen. In addition to traditional map and points of interest data, the app features integration with the popular Foursquare location service to provide the latest information about nearby businesses. The Look Around Wand is similar to the Geo Beam feature described above and will speak nearby intersections and points of interest. It does not currently include virtual navigation features, but the version shown at CSUN and sent to testers as a preview is still being worked on. User feedback and suggestions will help guide the development of the app, according to Sendero.
Both GPS apps are currently focusing on maps from North America, but support for additional regions will likely be added in the future.
More Mobile Apps
As in recent years, there was no shortage of mobile apps at this year's conference. Sight Compass lined the hotel with their Bluetooth-enabled information boxes, which could be accessed using a free iPhone app. Users could use the app to gain information about the hotel, including routes to various locations, the menu for Starbucks, even a description of the bathroom. The app requires no phone or Internet connection, a conscious decision by the developers so it could be used in places where phone reception is often difficult, such as basements and airports. Additional platforms for the app, including Android, Windows, and potentially Blackberry, are planned. Cost starts at $499 for a hardware box for businesses or organizations who wish to equip their locations with the technology.
LookTel showed an updated version of their Breadcrumbs GPS app, used primarily for locating or returning to a point such as your front door or a parked car. A new VoiceOver tutorial app was also shown. In addition, The Braille Institute demonstrated several free apps including Big Browser, a web browser designed especially for low-vision iOS users.
New Low-vision Products
Optelec has joined the trend of companies adding voice output and reading capabilities to their desktop electronic magnifiers. The ClearView Speech, a new add-on for the ClearView magnifier, features full-page OCR capabilities. Simply place your printed material under the screen, and it will be recognized within a few seconds. The entire page is recognized and can be read as opposed to just the content that is visible on the screen. The ClearView Speech will be available for $2,495.
AI Squared took a different approach and has entered the computer-based reading market with the ImageReader, a document camera solution that interfaces directly with ZoomText or another screen reader. When used with ZoomText, text is highlighted as it is read and magnified and can be manipulated in a variety of ways. A mat is included to aid in lining up the page to be read. The ZoomText ImageReader retails starting at $749, but a significant discount is available for current ZoomText users. It will be available later this March.
New Updates for the BrailleSense Family
Hims made a big splash with its updates to the BrailleSense line of notetakers. The new free update, version 8.0, includes integration with the popular Dropbox, a cloud-based storage service. In addition, direct support for playing YouTube videos has been included as well as a viewer for Microsoft Excel 2003 and 2007 files. Support for sending files directly to Epson printers and an RSS reader for keeping track of online news sites and downloading audio podcasts is also included in the forthcoming release. Hims tells us that an initial version of the 8.0 update should be released near the end of March.
In addition to myself, several members from the AFB staff attended the conference as well as some of the sessions. We've included their observations below, starting with a report on a session on emerging web technologies:
Account from William Reuschel, AFB Tech National Technology Associate
Account from Crista Earl, AFB Director of Web Operations
There was a great interest and a great deal of work being done to increase access to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). This ranged from clearinghouse style websites on the subject to lab-ready accessible testing equipment, XML markup of math, and tactile diagrams of many kinds. I was excited to see so much attention and so much innovation. The access for people with visual impairments is still fairly rudimentary. My impression is that a student who is blind majoring in chemistry or engineering will still have to do a huge deal of extra work to gain access to materials and to do the hands-on aspects of the research or job, but the possibilities seem much more open now than at any time in the past.
The forecast of the demise of braille is clearly premature. Braille was available in plentiful array for every platform, nearly every device, and in a more achievable price range than ever before. Devices were even available in designer colors! I saw a number of new enhanced displays, braille input, and teaching systems, all cheaper than last year (still mostly over $1,000 and many way above) and in cell lengths of 12, 14, 20, 24, 32, 40, 60, 65, and 80 (though I probably missed a few). These two trends don't seem unrelated to me as much of the access to STEM topics was based at least partly on tactile access, including braille. It was just a couple of years ago that the devices took CSUN by storm, and now the mobile devices in general, mainly Apple and Android, were everywhere and generally treated as part of the backdrop for all else being done. Braille displays everywhere were being demonstrated with iPads and other mobile devices.
With so many exhibitors, including over 70 with products or services geared toward the blindness and low vision market, it's impossible to cover the full CSUN conference. In addition to the coverage from Blind Bargains, the SeroTalk Podcast Network also recorded a variety of interviews at the conference which are available through the iBlink Radio app (and will be available soon on their website). Finally, we recommend checking out The Great Big List from the 2013 CSUN International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference presented by Christopher Phillips. It's the most comprehensive collection of resources, presentation slides, media coverage, and links for this year's conference. And perhaps all of this talk of new and exciting technology will whet your appetite to attend CSUN in San Diego next year, which is scheduled for March 17–22, 2014. However, if you're not able to make it, you can read all about it in AccessWorld.