as I prepared to descend on to Anaheim for this year's edition of the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference, I honestly was not sure what to expect. My previous two experiences attending the conference were vastly different from each other for obvious reasons. The 2019 event was dotted with sponsor exhibits, showcase suites, and an air of corporateness which was pervasive throughout the event. Hundreds of employees and contractors from the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Amazon lined the halls and meeting rooms eager to share their latest improvements. Contrast that with 2020, where we were just beginning to learn about a virus which would change our world for the next two years and beyond. Many people and companies were caught off guard by Covid-19, including the conference organizers, who admittedly were a bit unprepared for the week ahead. The exhibit hall was so quiet that two people could easily have a conversation with each other across the hall without needing to yell. Showcase suites were empty, and the attendance was in the hundreds, not thousands. And just a couple of months before this year's event, the omicron wave led to further uncertainty about what exactly we would find at this year's event.
But after an entirely virtual event in 2021 which was devoid of many new product announcements, companies large and small return to Anaheim, eager to show off their latest innovations. And while some large companies like Google and Microsoft shows to not attend or maintain a much smaller presence, the conference itself felt almost normal and provided plenty of opportunities for networking, learning, and exploring. Conference organizers added many health and safety policies, including requiring a COVID-19 vaccine or a negative test before arrival, and daily health screenings which led to a wristband which provided for entry for the day. The conference was not as big as in past years, but I felt it was big enough, with plenty of new products and technologies to try out. Once again, AFB access world has partnered with blind bargains to sponsor audio coverage for the conference. New podcasts are being posted weekly, and you can go to the Blind Bargains audio page to listen to them.
Perhaps the most talked about development of this conference was the prevalence of various tactile tablets and other modern Braille devices. In fact, there is so much to talk about in this area that we split off all of this news into another article that Judy Dixon has submitted for this issue, so check that out to learn all about many of the amazing Braille updates at the conference. But there's even more braille news and plenty of other things to talk about, so let's dive right in.
Getting Around with GoodMaps
One of the big challenges presented by any large conference is how to actually get around the thing. There have been many attempts over the years to provide various forms of indoor navigation at conferences, from manually written directions to a basic level of navigation using beacons. GoodMaps Explore is a free app available for both iOS and Android which provides both basic outdoor navigation, as well as indoor wayfinding and navigation for buildings where the technology has been deployed. Instead of using beacons, a building is first scanned with a mobile camera that supports LiDAR. LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging, and is used to measure variable distance, which is particularly important when determining exactly where items are located inside a building. Essentially, this is the electronic version of someone doing mental mapping to figure out how to get from place to place. When a user opens the GoodMaps app add a place where indoor navigation is available, they are alerted of this and can then point their phone outward and vertically in order to obtain their current position. Once this position has been determined, the user can then navigate to nearby locations, such as the nearest restroom or the coffee shop. If the user chooses to get directions, they could then start walking and follow the guidance of the app, with updated directions given every 20 or 30 feet. This tended to work the best in hallways and more defined spaces, as opposed to a wide-open hotel lobby. The technology also currently makes the most sense for spaces that do not change often, as opposed to an exhibit hall which would have a different layout for every event. The app is still early in its development, and this conference provided an excellent way for the company to see the technology work in real time.
One thing that sets GoodMaps apart from other indoor navigation platforms is the desire to target mainstream companies as potential customers. The technology that is being used could be quite useful for first responders, maintenance employees, and companies who wanted to embed an accessible mapping experience inside their own app. Companies can choose to either share all of their data publicly or restrict some of it for employees or other authorized personnel. In addition, the cost to implement the technology should theoretically be much less because there is no need to install and maintain beacons throughout an entire building; they're only needed at entrances, according to the company. GoodMaps is actively seeking partners to expand their indoor navigation technology to more buildings around the world.
Hims Provides Miniature Power
In 2021, Hims released the BrailleSense 6, an updated version of its Polaris Android-based notetaker. You can read all about that from our November 2021 review written by Jamie Pauls. Now, the Polaris Mini is receiving the same set of updates and new features and has been dubbed the BrailleSense 6 Mini. It features 20 cells of refreshable braille as well as a modern 8-core processor and 128GB of memory. Like its larger sibling, it includes a 13-megapixel camera, Bluetooth 5.1, and 802.11AC Wi-Fi, plenty fast for today's applications. Other than the obvious difference in cells, the mini uses a Micro SD memory card slot instead of full-size SD, a mono speaker instead of stereo, and 2 USB type C ports instead of 4 total USB ports on the 32-cell unit. Both the 6 and 6 Mini run Android 10, which despite not being the latest version, is capable of running today's modern applications. One thing that impresses me about Hims products is their compatibility with a wide variety of mainstream accessories, from USB webcams to external speakers. It's available now for preorder for $4,595, and a limited upgrade program for Polaris Mini users is also being offered.
One of the new features that BrailleSense users can expect to find any day now is expanded support for Google Drive as well as Microsoft OneDrive and Dropbox. Browsing through your personal or shared drives on any of these services is as simple as going through folders on your own local machine. Providing support for the three major collaboration apps becomes vitally important in both education and the workplace. Software updates for Hims notetakers are always free.
Orbit Research Aims for Simple and Affordable with the Orbit Speak
The Braille 'n Speak is back! That proclamation may be a bit of a hyperbole, but it was certainly a phrase that was uttered several times during the week. That's because Orbit Research (no relation to the former Blazie Engineering) announced a new product called the Orbit Speak, a tiny, speech-based notetaking device scheduled for release this fall. The 8-ounce device felt and looked similar, and just a bit thicker than the Orbit Writer, the $99 Braille keyboard released by the company in 2020. While the Orbit Writer is simply a keyboard that connects to a phone or computer for typing, the Orbit Speak will also include basic notetaking features found in the Orbit Reader 20 and 40 braille displays, minus the display part. Additional features, such as the ability to download books from Bookshare and other services, are also being considered. It uses USB Type C for charging and will include an SD card slot and a headphone jack. Many of the details of this brand-new product are still being worked out, but the company expects to sell the Orbit Speak for a few hundred dollars.
AIRA Coming to a Desktop Near You
Visual assistance app AIRA has provided services through its mobile apps for several years now, but some users have often used the platform for computer-related tasks. Currently, getting help navigating an inaccessible website or completing other computing tasks often requires the use of an app called TeamViewer, a way for AIRA agents to see and interact with the user's screen. While this is a workable solution, it requires some setup and often will eat into a user's precious and paid minutes before any tasks are started. AIRA desktop seeks to change this, providing an option for users to contact agents directly from their computer. While AIRA got its start at focusing on navigation-related tasks, the need for visual help in other areas has expanded over the years as users think of new ways to harness the power of the service. AIRA desktop is currently in a private testing phase and is expected to roll out later this year.
Hardcopy Braille is Going Rogue
Yes, tactile graphics on a tablet are very cool, but nobody can match the resolution and detail provided by a modern braille embosser, especially those made by braille graphics leader ViewPlus. The VP Rogue and Rogue Sheet are new, single-sided embossers which focus on high-quality graphics, the type needed for detailed images used by educators and standardized tests. The rogue, at $5,995, uses tractor fed paper while the Rogue Sheet costs $500 more and uses cut sheet paper. Both models print at 120 characters per second, though like most printers, this number lowers significantly when printing complex images. The braille samples I felt simply felt stunning, with variable dot heights and various in-fill styles providing expression for embossed copies of historical landmarks. Since the embosser does not do interpoint braille, it is best used for graphics and other documents that need to be printed in a high-quality, single-sided format.
Around the World with a Talking Globe
One of the newer entries to the exhibit hall was Spanish company Sicsa Futuro. The business was displaying a variety of daily living aids and toys including talking watches and some nice tactile board games, but the product that caught the most attention was their talking globe. Measuring a bit more than a foot in diameter, the tactile globe included raised features for mountain ranges and other large land features. It was paired with a wand which could be pointed at various locations on the globe to speak the location or region it was touching. The density of a globe of this size makes it impossible to, for instance, label every state or small country in the world, but the demonstration version did feature over 140 points of interest around the world. Versions of the globe are currently being created for various countries and expect to sell for under $200.
Sony Brings Speech to More Products
one mainstream company which did make an appearance this year was Sony. In addition to their previous products which had accessibility features such as televisions and PlayStations, they were demoing some new products which, while not created for people who are blind, might very well be appreciated by this audience. One such product was the LinkBuds, a set of wireless earbuds which includes a hole in the center to allow for outside noise to pass through. IN addition, the adaptive Volume Control is designed to adjust the sound based on the environment. It's encouraging to see more headphone manufacturers think about how to also pass through the sounds of the outside world, whether electronically or in a more low-tech fashion. the buds are available now for $179. What is impressive to me, is that Sony is thinking about accessibility on a wide variety of products, from portable Walkman’s to their high-end video cameras. Check out this page to learn more about many of their accessibility features.
BlindShell Officially Comes Stateside
The BlindShell talking cell phones have been available in the United States for a couple of years now, but now it will be easier and quicker to get your phone repaired or obtain spare parts. BlindShell USA is a newly formed company which will lead the U.S. operations for the accessible cell phone brand, created by Matapo in the Czech Republic. Led by President Bari Azman, BlindShell USA will support its existing dealer network and provide an increased level of support to both distributors and end users, which should lead to a better overall experience for customers.
One might say that this year's CSUN conference was the perfect size, and just what was needed after two years of limited in-person interactions and endless Zoom meetings. While many mainstream companies stayed away, the big players in assistive technology were back in a big way, and excited to talk about new products and toss around ideas for the future. Unlike 2020, I felt I had plenty of things to check out during the three days of exhibits, and even ran out of time before I was able to get to everything. Even more important was renewing connections, both in the industry and personally, which had been largely set aside during the height of COVID. If anything, the vibe of CSUN gave me encouragement that the summer conventions might also be more normal than expected, and I am now looking forward to more opportunities for that coveted in-person interaction. The conference is indeed returning to Anaheim in 2023, and I hope you are able to attend. But if not, you know where to go to find the latest coverage of what's new in assistive technology.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.