This past March, I had the privilege to attend the 29th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference, more commonly known as CSUN, in San Diego. The conference has in fact become an annual ritual for me, because it is always exciting to see the latest and greatest in access technology. My primary conference task is recording podcasts and interviews for Blind Bargains, an effort that the American Foundation for the Blind has generously sponsored for the past three years. In addition to talking to many of the leaders in the field, recording podcasts gives me a chance to learn about and play with many of the new and upcoming gadgets and programs that will be gracing our households, schools, and workplaces in the coming months.
Due to the enormity of the CSUN conference, it's virtually impossible to see it all. My AccessWorld colleague, Deborah Kendrick, attended many of the sessions including the keynote and offers her take in this issue which you should check out as well. Where appropriate, I've linked to related podcasts from the Blind Bargains coverage for further information.
HIMS Surprises Many with a Book Reader with OCR
There were many rumors leading up to this year's CSUN conference surrounding HIMS releasing an update to the BookSense line of digital book players. But instead of a slightly modified version with wireless support such as what HumanWare did with their new version of the Victor Stream, HIMS introduced the Blaze EZ to much fanfare. The EZ includes basically all of the features of the BookSense, including support for a multitude of audio and text formats and wireless capabilities, but as Dave Wilkinson from HIMS explained, they've added support for a new format called "print." After the demise of the KNFB Reader, a handheld device that was capable of performing OCR to translate printed text into speech was no longer available. And while some iPhone and Android apps have made a stab at this feature, limitations have prevented any apps from covering much ground when it comes to accurate print translation.
BookSense users will also notice a major design change as the numeric keypad was replaced with a much simpler array of buttons including dedicated keys for major functions. While this approach may be simpler to grasp for those who are new to these types of devices, it remains to be seen how this will affect the productivity of advanced users, many of whom are early adopters. That said, the Blaze EZ name implies that other models may be on the horizon.
The Blaze EZ shown at CSUN was an early version and many questions are still to be answered about the device. Adding features to help one orient the page or take clear pictures would go a long way to separating this device from apps on mobile devices. No price was given, but we expect it to be significantly cheaper than the KNFB Reader's $1,800 price tag. Expect the Blaze EZ to be on sale in time for the summer conventions.
Accessible Mathematical Equations
It's encouraging to see the amount of effort being made to make the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields accessible. This year's conference included a demonstration of an early version of the free MathPlayer software from Design Science. MathPlayer allows the user to read simple and complex equations using human-readable speech. It does this by interpreting a computer language called MathML which is a widely-used standard in the mathematics field. Just as HTML is used to create a website, MathML is used to represent an equation. Using a screen reader, one can traverse an equation by element or group and easily understand its content. Navigational commands similar to those used on a website are invoked to move about the equation, which is also displayed visually. Currently, Window-Eyes 8.4 supports MathPlayer in Microsoft Word documents, and other screen readers including NVDA are working on implementing the feature as well. Ultimately, support for MathML on websites, braille translation, and a simple way to input equations are on the roadmap. Listen to a demonstration with project consultant Sina Bahrum to hear MathPlayer in action.
True Accounting Accessibility with QuickBooks
The accounting software from Intuit is recognized as the industry leader, but for those using a screen reader, much of it has remained inaccessible. A transformation has begun, however, as Intuit is working to make its QuickBooks software for business accounting completely accessible. Intuit's expanding accessibility team partnered with My Blind Spot to make many of the necessary changes, and the latest version of QuickBooks 2014 includes much of these accessibility improvements. Ultimately, scripts for your screen reader of choice may be necessary to fill in a few gaps, but the expectation is to eventually have access to virtually any feature of the product. The scripts will likely be offered for free or at a nominal cost by My Blind Spot.
The implications for this development extend far beyond enabling blind business owners to manage their own books. QuickBooks is also used in professional applications by thousands of accountants, and this level of access has the potential to open up another job category where the blind and visually impaired can compete on an equal footing. Hopefully this accessibility will trickle down to Intuit's other flagship products, such as their home accounting suite, Quicken, and their tax preparation software, TurboTax. In addition, improvements are also being made to many of the company's online offerings including QuickBooks Online and Mint. Check out an extended Blind Bargains interview with many of the players involved in making this all happen.
Say Goodbye to Romeo and Juliet
Whenever a discussion of braille embossers is on tap, the venerable names of Romeo and Juliet from Enabling Technologies inevitably enter into the conversation. These names have been used for its single-sided and interpoint embosser lines respectively for two decades. But as with most Shakespearean characters, Romeo and Juliet have appeared to meet their demise, soon to be replaced by more modern and capable embossers.
The Cyclone is a sleek-looking single-sided braille embosser while the Trident includes interpoint capabilities, meaning one can print braille on both sides of the page. The design is a radical departure from the former models, using a glossy finish and a clear coat paint job similar to what you would find on an automobile. The differences go beyond aesthetics, with USB and network support and a minimalist three-button interface (since users these days generally use software to control their embosser, the extra buttons on the device were seen as unnecessary). The Cyclone prints on tractor-feed paper at 60 characters per second (CPS) while the Trident offers a speed of 100 CPS. These models are available now for $2,995 and $3,995 respectively. Enabling Technologies President Tony Schenk explains more and gives a demonstration in a Blind Bargains podcast.
Scratching the Surface
There were over 100 companies in this year's exhibit hall so naturally there is much more to talk about than what has been covered here. A wide array of new portable and desktop video magnifiers was on display as well as tools and software that interface through iOS or Android devices. Not everything seen at CSUN will make an impact or even become available at all, but it's one of the best ways to get a snapshot of what's new and on the horizon when it comes to access technology. While the CSUN conference itself has a roughly $500 registration cost, the exhibit hall is free to enter without a full registration. If you're in San Diego next March, I encourage you to check it out. And of course, check back with AccessWorld as we'll certainly feature reviews of some of this year's hottest products in the coming months.