Access Technology on the Move: CSUN 2019 Presents an Array of New Options for People Who Are Blind

J.J. Meddaugh and Shelly Brisbin

After nine consecutive years in San Diego, the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference traveled a few hours north for its 2019 edition. This year’s event, presented at the Anaheim Marriott, featured two exhibit halls, a variety of platinum sponsor suites, and thousands of participants seeking out the latest technology trends.

This year’s show was void of many of the big show-stopper product announcements that have filled these pages in the past. Some companies, including HumanWare and APH, had already blown their cover at the Assistive Technology Industry Association conference in Orlando, and you can learn more about what’s hot in 2019 by checking out our coverage of that event. That said, there was still plenty to talk about, including some new and updated apps and a variety of devices.

As in the past, we’ll include links to podcast audio coverage from Blind Bargains throughout this article. Each podcast also includes a transcript.

Feel Your Surroundings with a TMAP

GPS and other electronic navigation aids can be indispensable tools while traveling, but sometimes it’s just helpful to get an overview of your neighborhood without going anywhere. The TMAP project, a collaboration between the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco and the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, enables users to receive embossed maps of a few city blocks or an entire neighborhood.

As Lighthouse’s Scott Blanks explains in this podcast, recent improvements have made these maps even more useful. For one, they now include pedestrian pathways, bike paths, and trails, which are represented by dotted lines. More detailed maps can also include building shapes, which are embossed as filled-in raised splashes on the page. These features, as well as the map’s scale, can be customized to produce a map that is most beneficial to the user’s needs. Maps include both braille and large print markings, as well as a key that explains the abbreviations for streets included on the map. The data comes from the free OpenStreetMap service, which can be updated by anyone but has spotty coverage in some locations, especially for the pedestrian paths and building shapes features. Check out the TMAP website linked above for information on how to obtain a low-cost map for a location of your choosing.

Google and Microsoft Help You Look Out at What’s Nearby

The power and variety of apps that can describe your surroundings continues to grow. Google released the long-awaited identification app, Lookout for Pixel devices on Android. The initial version can help users locate objects, identify bar codes, and read text. You can also take a snapshot to have a scene described to you. When we tested this feature the response ranged from effective ("computer laptop") to wildly inaccurate (“origami paper"). One unique feature to the Lookout app is the identification of nearby objects using a clock face, with notifications like “tableware at 12 o’clock.” If you have a supported device, it’s worth including Lookout in your list of identification apps, though the functionality is not as fleshed out as others in this space.

Perhaps the app that has broken the most ground in this space is Microsoft’s Seeing AI, the wildly popular Swiss army knife of scene description and recognition tools for the iPhone and, now, the iPad. Seeing AI now lets you explore objects by touch. Imagine a photo of a person standing next to a tree with a bench in the background. With this photo on the screen, a VoiceOver user can move a finger around the phone or tablet and each object will be spoken as it is touched. This allows for a greater level of spatial awareness and a better understanding of photos and images. With further advances in object recognition technology, careers like photography become much more viable for a person who is blind. Seeing AI is available for free from the iTunes App Store.

We heard a lot of people talking about Bose Frames, despite the fact that the audio company did not have a noticeable presence at the conference. Bose Frames are stylish glasses that beam sound through your temple, allowing for an immersive audio experience that only you can hear while not masking the sounds from your surroundings. What makes the frames a more compelling option is the promise of augmented reality audio experiences, made possible through mobile apps and censors on the glasses.

AIRA is one company jumping on this bandwagon with their remote assistance app. As Greg Stilson explains in this podcast, the glasses include an Inertial Measurement Unit, essentially a censor that can relay the position of your head to your phone or in this case, a remote AIRA agent. This will allow the agent to more efficiently convey directional information, such as the location of a building or street light, and have this info updated in real-time.

An Updated Portable Computer with Braille: The ElBraille

Computer hardware specs are always improving, often leaving assistive technologies in the dust. The Elita Group has updated the ElBraille, a Windows 10 dock for the latest version of the Focus 40 Blue braille display, to use a recent version of Intel’s Compute Card, an ultraportable computer with a modern processor and specs. Users can either use the Focus braille display as a stand-alone unit, or snap it into the dock for full Windows functionality with the JAWS screen reader. This approach allows for the hardware to be updated at regular intervals according to the Elita Group’s Adi Kushnir. When compared to using a separate laptop and braille display, another advantage to the ElBraille approach is the 17 to 20 hours of expected battery life with Wi-Fi enabled. It will be sold by Freedom Scientific, a part of the Vispero Group, for $5,695 including the Focus 40 Blue braille display, a price that puts it in line with the BrailleNote Touch Plus from HumanWare and the BrailleSense Polaris from HIMS.

Braille at 360 Cells

Speaking of braille devices, we have finally seen the light at the end of the tunnel for the Canute, the 360-cell, multiline braille display from Bristol Braille Technology. The first production units are currently being shipped to distributors and the display should be available soon for around $2,000. Put another way, that’s under $6 per cell, compared with the $75 to $100 per cell cost of traditional braille displays. While the Canute prints braille at a speed that is closer to a braille embosser than a traditional interface, it might be ideal for a variety of uses including tabular data, musical scores, and even images. You can listen as Ed Rogers and Dave Williams explain more about the long road to production in this Blind Bargains podcast about the Canute.

A Throwback Simple Smartphone

When I was handed the BlindShell Classic, a candy-bar style phone with distinctive physical buttons, I thought I had jumped in a time machine and landed in 2008. The company’s aim is to offer a feature-packed mobile device for users who want to use some of the modern features of a smartphone but are not comfortable using a touchscreen.

The phone features a standard numeric keypad along with several additional buttons for navigation and answering and ending calls. Features include a phone dialer, contacts, email support, an FM radio, voice recorder, book player, and a color identifier. While it runs a version of Android, this is not apparent to the user and it's not possible to access other Android features beyond those included in the custom software. This is by design, according to BlindShell Consultant Sam Seavey, and is intended to give users a simple and consistent interface for the most-used phone features. Dictation is available for text messages and email, and the device supports 802.11N Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. I found the speech to be clear and quite responsive when pressing keys, and menu navigation was reminiscent of classic Nokia or Windows Mobile phones. And, yes, a headphone jack is still included. The phone is currently compatible with GSM carriers including AT&T and T-Mobile, with support for CDMA carriers including Verizon and Sprint expected before launch. Look for the BlindShell Classic in the United States later this summer for around $400 to $450.

Dozens of Entertainment Choices from a Single Box

The same users who appreciate the BlindShell phone may also enjoy VoxiWeb’s VoxiTV, a set-top box and software package offering a simplified interface for accessing dozens of entertainment and information resources. Services like Spotify, Bookshare, and YouTube can be accessed using a consistent menu interface from a remote control. Over 70 services are included, ranging from music and podcasts to weather and newspapers. The remote includes standard navigation controls as well as media buttons for adjusting playback and volume. It’s available for 600 euros, or about $675 US. Listen to a demo with VoxiWeb CEO Fabien Jeannau on this podcast.

Wear Your Magnifier

Several companies showed the latest versions of wearable devices that can provide magnification for people with a variety of low-vision needs. Each falls into one of two general categories: glasses-mounted cameras and VR headset-based units powered by a smartphone. We wrote about the Zoomax Aceight in a February 2019 AccessWorld article about ATIA, and it was on display at CSUN, too. Most other wearables on the floor were based on headsets, and though these weren’t entirely new for 2019, their prevalence seems to be growing. the IrisVision wearable consists of a Samsung VR headset and smartphone. It’s intended for people with central vision loss of the kind caused by macular degeneration, as well as users with field restrictions caused by glaucoma or RP, according to IrisVision. The updated platform, now called IrisVision Live, provides OCR with speech, and can project text in large print as it speaks. The device now includes voice commands for basic functions, like zoom and brightness. There’s also Google Assistant functionality, with support from Google and from Samsung engineering. You can watch and search for YouTube videos on the headset, and there’s a photo gallery for viewing and saving pictures you take. IrisVision customers can obtain tech support from service providers who can connect to the device remotely. Owners of existing IrisVision devices can be upgraded to the new software. To learn more, see this podcast with IrisVision’s Tom Persky.

TrySight’s ViewPoint is also based on a VR headset. It includes speech recognition and OCR. Voice commands allow the user to zoom, change color scheme, and adjust brightness, among other options. It’s priced at $2,995. Customers can try the ViewPoint for 60 days, free, to be sure it’s right for their needs. Blind Bargains learned about it in this podcast.

More Tablet Choices

TrySight was among several companies showing off portable magnifiers based on tablets. We’ve seen Android and Windows tablets before, but this year, iPad-based devices made their debut, featuring the brand-new, high-end 12.9-inch iPad Pro from Apple. The device provides magnification, OCR, and speech within apps from the vendor, and full access to the iPad when you leave the app. TrySight says it offers the only iPad-based OCR and reading software, though we found at least one other vendor offering iPad-based OCR. The foldable stand is metal and weighs less than 3 pounds. The product includes a carrying bag. It’s priced at $3,995. TrySight also sells Windows and Android-based tablets in smaller sizes.

PatriotVision has also added an iPad-based tablet to its magnifier lineup. The Patriot Pro 12.9, currently based on the previous-generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro—with an update to the current model coming within a month, pending a new stand design—includes magnifier and OCR software with speech. The Patriot Pro uses Apple voices, and offers a distance-viewing mode, along with reading support. The device weighs eight pounds, including the foldable stand. Blind Bargains spoke with Charles Palmer about the Patriot Pro. He said Android is easier to work with as the basis for a tablet magnifier, but customers, and even institutions providing equipment for people with low vision, prefer the iPad. Palmer says the iPad screen is also superior, which matters in magnification. The Patriot Pro 12.9 is $3,995.

If Windows is more your speed when it comes to operating systems, check out LVI's three-camera ML Tab. It’s based on a Windows Surface Pro tablet, but also includes an optical distance and reading camera, mounted on an arm above the tablet. In total, there are three cameras. The tablet is mounted on a foldable metal stand that includes a reading plate, as well as the camera arm. Below the tablet are physical high-contrast buttons you can use to control the magnifier software. The button functions are duplicated with touch gestures, allowing you to zoom, switch color schemes, or control the cameras. The ML Tab includes OCR and speech, which can be started with a simple gesture. It’s priced at $4,395. The Blind Bargains interview with LVI's Charlie Collins is here.

New Traditional Magnifiers

Traditional CCTVs and portable magnifiers continue to make the scene at CSUN. American Printing House for the Blind is now selling a portable unit called Jupiter, developed with Vespero. The foldable unit features a 13-inch screen and weighs 8 pounds. The magnifier includes reading, distance, and self-view modes, and a light whose brightness is adjustable. Jupiter has 35 color modes. The $3,200 package includes a carrying case.

German magnifier maker Reinecker was showing off several new magnifiers, but none are currently available in the US. The company was hopeful that they would be able to announce US availability soon.

Conclusion

The CSUN Assistive Technology Conference remains the preeminent venue for technology leaders and pacemakers to connect and share developments about the latest advancements in technology. The increasing presence of mainstream companies shows that accessibility is becoming an important component for many more websites and apps. Accessibility experts are becoming more integrated across teams and companies instead of being siloed and ignored. The road to equal access remains long and arduous, but conferences like CSUN prove that there are many victories to be celebrated in the world of access technology.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

Comment on this article.

Related articles:

More by this author:

Author
J.J. Meddaugh
Shelly Brisbin
Article Topic
Conference Coverage