There are at least a thousand people who still depend daily on the email, web browsing, and voluminous amounts of content available through a 20-year-old company that has changed its name a little too often, but never its commitment to service. You may have once known it as FreedomBox, or, later, Serotek. Now, the charismatic blind guy who dreamed that company into existence and the colleague he affectionately dubbed “boy genius” are back as cofounders of a brand-new organization: Pneuma Solutions. They’re bringing the Serotek services on board to be sure those long, loyal customers suffer no abandonment, which is commendable, but perhaps even more exciting are the new products they are rolling out during this pandemic.
Meet the Co-Founders
20 years ago, the company that would become best known as Serotek was launched by Mike Calvo. Much of its success was credited to its brilliant software developer, Matt Campbell. First, there was FreedomBox, later called System Access. There was SAMNet, an amazing smorgasbord of online content, DocuScan Plus (OCR cloud-based software for scanning paper documents), and the list goes on.
In 2013, Mike Calvo left the company to follow a variety of other pursuits, both personal and professional. He helped get technology into the hands of blind people in less privileged countries, He helped promote the belief that accessibility is a right in multiple countries and languages, and he even met his now wife while hanging out in Cuba.
Meanwhile, Matt Campbell kept the fires burning under all of the vital software components comprising Serotek, such as the Sero app for iOS and Android, System Access, SamNet, and DocuScan Plus, but he, too, eventually went off in another direction. For three years, Campbell hung his professional hat (or keyboard?) at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. He is credited with many of the accessibility leaps and bounds made by Microsoft’s Narrator for Windows, which can now hold its own among third-party screen readers. While he had many colleagues and friends at Microsoft who are also blind or low vision, Campbell was the only visually impaired developer on the Windows Accessibility Team. His personal and professional experience, played a role in giving something worthwhile to blind consumers everywhere.
After three years, however, Campbell felt that his mission was accomplished. Campbell and his longtime friend and colleague, Mike Calvo, wanted to solve new problems in the tech arena. Consequently, a new mission and a little bit of homesickness found Campbell packing his bags at the end of 2020 and moving back to Kansas. More significantly for AccessWorld readers, he and Calvo are now co-founders of the new company, Pneuma Solutions.
Accessing Online Documents with Scribe
Any blind or low vision person who spends a fair amount of time online knows the frustration of researching a topic and running up against that wall of inaccessibility when the needed document doesn’t translate. Pneuma Solutions has developed a tool called Scribe that uses what they call Augmented Document Remediation to convert inaccessible online documents to accessible information. With a 96- percent accuracy rate, they can convert documents to a variety of languages and a variety of file formats, including braille, large print, rtf, mp3, epub, pdf, and more. Do you struggle with independently accessing and reviewing your medical records or tax documents? Have you been excluded when your new employer handed you the employee handbook or longtime employer updated employee policies? Usually, all of these and many other kinds of essential personal information that our sighted peers take for granted can be accessed in various online formats, documentation that Is often not accessible if you are blind or low vision.
Pneuma Solutions is reaching out to hospitals, universities, government agencies, and corporations to render such documentation readable for all. With Scribe, inaccessible documentation can be converted to a format you can read.
Recognizing the additional strain placed on blind and low vision students with the shift to online learning imposed by the pandemic, Calvo and Campbell began offering Scribe for Education as a free service to all K-12 students and teachers back in May 2020. Now, instructional materials of all kinds that are in inaccessible PDF or other formats can be converted to the format of your choice. At this point, some 50 organizations have taken advantage of the service. Calvo says that word of mouth has been the major means of advertising, so growth is steady but not necessarily fast.
Scribe for Meetings
The most exciting development to emerge from Pneuma Solutions thus far also arose out of needs born of the pandemic. Online learning and online meetings have been around for decades, but with the quarantines and shutdowns prompted by the spread of COVID-19, the numbers of people studying, working, and planning in online virtual meeting rooms has exploded.
Students of all ages, from preschool to graduate school, are attending class from home, completing lessons online, and gathering with teachers and peers in virtual online groups. Bankers, lawyers, rehabilitation professionals, software developers and more are also working from home, attending training sessions, presentations, and meetings in virtual environments.
For the most part, meeting via Zoom Cloud Meetings works well for blind people with even a modest amount of tech savvy. With an iPhone or Android app or from your Windows or Mac computer, you can join a meeting, raise your hand, mute and unmute yourself, change whether your peers see you or your surroundings, and find out who else is in the virtual room. Where equality has stopped, however, is when a teacher, or team leader is presenting information on the screen as part of the meeting.
Pneuma Solutions has developed a tool that makes content shared onscreen accessible. With Scribe for Meetings, a blind meeting participant can access the same information in real time as the sighted participants who see it on the screen. The presenter simply uploads the presentation beforehand and provides a link to participants with visual impairments. T hat link becomes live at the meeting’s outset, and a completely accessible, navigable version is right there, available to review at your own pace along with sighted classmates or coworkers.
If the presenter hasn’t sent you a link, you can go to the Scribe for Meetings site and enter your Zoom invitation link to locate the correct file. What Pneuma calls the Scribe Bot joins the Zoom meeting or webinar as an additional participant, synchronizing your accessible content with the images being shared on the screen. If the presenter jumps around — from Slide 1 to Slide 5 to Slide 6 and back again, for example— the Scribe Bot will keep pace, showing you the same slide in your chosen accessible format.
Scribe for Meetings can make presentations available in the format of your choice—braille, large print, pdf, epub, etc. and is multilingual as well. Like Scribe for Education, all of the conversion is performed on demand, so that if your teacher or employer isn’t the type who plans weeks in advance, you will still have an equal spot at the virtual table. Presentations can be uploaded to the Scribe for Meetings site just minutes before the meeting time and the accessible files will be available.
Rather than charging consumers, Calvo and Campbell are marketing Scribe for Meetings by demonstrating it to universities, corporations, and government agencies. If, for example, you are a student at a state university and your university buys into Scribe for Meetings, every professor and employee of that university can use Scribe for Meetings to make presentations accessible. As long as the PowerPoint deck is uploaded to Scribe for Meetings, you will get a link to those documents to read in real time with your access technology and to do so in tandem with your fellow meeting attendees.
At this point, Scribe for Meetings is only accessible for Zoom Cloud Meetings and webinars, but plans are under way for it to be available for use with Microsoft Teams and other platforms as well.
For the last few months, Calvo and Campbell have been conducting demonstrations for universities and a few companies, tweaking the machine intelligence along the way, and making the product better. Pricing is available at a variety of levels, with free sessions offered to agencies specifically serving people with visual disabilities.
Once an organization registers with Pneuma Solutions, the Scribe for Meetings product is immediately available to everyone for every meeting within that organization. To help spread the word and bring Scribe for Meetings into the online meetings that matter most to you, Pneuma Solutions has developed downloadable tools to help consumers reach out to specific leaders. Called the Self-Advocacy Kit, this dedicated area of the Pneuma Solutions web site offers letters to suit a variety of needs. If you want your boss, your professor, your pastor, or your board president to begin using Scribe for Meetings in order to provide you with equal access during Zoom and other online meetings, you can download an already formatted letter matching your particular situation, fill in the particular names, and send it off.
For organizations serving blind and visually impaired consumers, Scribe for Meetings is free. For others, the cost will be $99 per webinar or a variety subscription-style packages that can provide accessible meetings throughout an organization for an affordable monthly fee. Although the product is available now, they expect to be out of beta and in full service mode by April.
Dreamers like Mike Calvo and Matt Campbell don’t just get one idea and relax. From FreedomBox to System Access to DocuScan, Sero, RIM, Scribe, and Scribe for Meetings, they just keep contemplating the problems they and other blind individuals face and then look at ways to solve them. Today, the focus is Augmented Document Mediation, but what the blind community really needs, they say, is Augmented Media Remediation.
“Eventually,” Calvo explains, “we hope we can offer immediate description for all those YouTube videos, in the same way that we can now offer immediate conversion of documents.” Our complete independence and access to content and images, he says, lies in teaching machines to do the work. “As long as we blind consumers have to depend on humans to do it, we’ll never have full access. We’ll never have real time access until machines can do it.”
Of course, someone has to teach the machines. So far, the dreamers and doers at Pneuma Solutions, Mike Calvo and Matt Campbell, look pretty promising for filling that role.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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