Imagine a device that you can carry in your pocket that would scan signage in a new environment, menus at your favorite restaurants, or handouts at a meeting and read them to you. Imagine a handheld real-time caption gadget that would, through voice recognition, "hear" a conversation or lecture and instantly display it as text on your personal screen. Imagine a suit of clothing that would enable a paraplegic to walk up a flight of stairs. All these fantasies, according to Raymond Kurzweil, renowned inventor, author, and predictor of technological trends, will become realities for people with disabilities within the next 25 years.
Kurzweil's keynote address on March 19, 2003, launched the 18th annual conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities and set exactly the right tone for the ensuing four days of informative workshops, displays of innovative products, and energizing interaction among people from around the world who work in the field of assistive technology (AT).
The CSUN conference, as it is called (for its sponsoring organization, the California State University at Northridge Center on Disabilities) has become a showcase for brand-new products, as well as upgrades and new features added to existing ones. Products of interest to every disability group are on hand, and workshops are held in which product information, techniques, and programs related to AT are shared.
A head-mounted mouse to enable a quadriplegic to manipulate an onscreen keyboard, communication devices for people with speech difficulties, and screen readers for people who are blind were found at neighboring exhibits in the several rooms of products on display in two large Los Angeles hotels. AccessWorld was there, too, in every capacity: displaying AccessWorld and other AFB information in the exhibit hall, making workshop presentations, and gathering information on products and trends in technology.
Caption: The author receives a demonstration of the Victor Reader Vibe DAISY book player.
Presented here is a sample of the information that was available in more than 300 workshops. Sessions at CSUN, incidentally, are coded as Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced, as well as by the types of disabilities for which they are most relevant. This is a welcome guide in designing an individual schedule.
Global positioning satellite (GPS) software that can be used by people who are blind or have low vision was explored in workshops presented by staff members of Pulse Data HumanWare and VisuAide of Canada. Workshops on every screen reader, braille display, and screen magnifier were available, as were sessions on distance learning, locating and using electronic texts, and a variety of approaches to rendering services or materials accessible. (There was even a session that provided an overview of this magazine!)
The DAISY Consortium (DAISY stands for Digital Accessible Information System) had a notable presence at the 2003 conference —including a booth in the exhibit hall and an entire day of workshops on the subject, dubbed "DAISY Day." Emerging and evolving for some time now, with plenty of growing pains yet to come, the DAISY approach to reading audio material enables the reader to jump easily and instantly from point to point in a text; bookmark particular passages; and, in general, handle DAISY recorded material in much the same way that a sighted person approaches a printed text. Hardware and software players were on display, as well as a variety of materials that provided samples of DAISY content.
VisuAide announced Victor Reader Vibe, a small DAISY book player that also plays MP3 files and music CDs. Priced at $219, the Vibe is the least-expensive DAISY book player to date. The Vibe is a clamshell-style device with buttons arranged on top in the shape of an old rotary telephone dial, with embossed tactile markings and controls grouped in easy recognizable zones.
VisuAide also launched Trekker, a GPS-based orientation tool. Trekker consists of a personal digital assistant (PDA), a GPS receiver, a speaker, and a battery pack, all worn on a strap around the neck. It offers talking menus, talking maps, and GPS information and has features that are designed to enable a person who is blind to determine his or her position, create routes, and receive information on navigating to a destination. (See the review in this issue for more details.)
GW Micro announced Window-Eyes 4.5, the latest upgrade to its screen reader. This version includes support for Citrix client terminal emulation. More and more governmental agencies and corporations are installing applications, such as Word, Internet Explorer, and Excel, on their network servers, rather than on each employee's computer, which means easier maintenance for network administrators. Window-Eyes 4.5 will allow users to log on to a network and do their jobs using applications that are not on their own machines. Version 4.5 will ship with the DECtalk Access32 speech synthesizer and include enhanced support for PeopleSoft Tools 8.4 human resources software and an option for automatically sending Window-Eyes error reports to GW Micro.
A number of workshops addressed the issue of accessible cellular telephones, but one that was of particular interest was that presented by Gregg C. Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin. In a study of possible phones of the future that would address specific needs of people with disabilities, as well as the universal needs of all consumers, Trace has developed four telephones (for testing only, not for marketing) with various new features.
Caption: Gregg Vanderheiden, director of Trace Research and Development Center, discusses phones of the future.
Consider, for example, a hands-free phone that would dial as soon as you spoke to it; a preprogrammable phone that you could leave with someone who needed to call you personally and that would make the call immediately when opened; or, my favorite, a phone with a "talk" feature that, when activated, would speak the function of every key pressed. Using an approach that Vanderheiden called "enhanced and extended usability," the center is pursuing development of phones with louder volume, larger screens, and more easily manipulated buttons.
I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing
Bill McCann, president of Dancing Dots, led an informative session on teaching blind students to read braille music. In addition to the innovative course material itself, the session also explored the use of the newest product from Dancing Dots—using the SAL (Speech Assisted Learning) device in this process. Highly interactive, this program enables students to explore the braille characters, press on them to hear notes and values that are spoken, and then respond when "quizzed" by the device to select given characters.
Caption: Bill McCann, president of Dancing Dots, demonstrates the SAL for the author.
Speaking of music, CSUN events don't always end at 5:00 p.m. when the workshops are over and the exhibits close. Here is a sample of some of the evening events.
In a "birthday bash," Pulse Data Humanware hosted a celebration in honor of the third birthday of its popular BrailleNote family of products. Featuring food, wine, prizes, music—and, of course, a birthday cake—the party was attended by some 300 BrailleNote aficionados.
On what was intended to be a much smaller scale, Dancing Dots president Bill McCann organized a kind of jam session/talent show on Friday night that featured blind musicians. Word spread, and the resulting event spilled into three large dining rooms and included a cash bar and even dancing.
Most important, however, the featured talent included a number of gifted blind musicians who are AT vendors or trainers by day! Among them were Bill McCann himself; AT trainer Peggy Martinez; and Gordon Kent, a blind composer and multi-talented musician. The event showcased demonstrations of music composed on the spot using Dancing Dots CakeTalk (JAWS scripts developed for the commercial CakeWalk composition software). The first composer was 9-year-old Rachel Flowers, a bright, energetic child from California who is blind. Rachel composed for the audience her own rendition of "America," which was then sung with memorable beauty by Rachel and her mother (who is also blind). The next guest composer was the renowned Ray Charles—who composed a piece, sang it with the band, and then remained to share the evening with the CSUN guests. Other famous guests simply enjoyed the comraderie and ambiance rather than performing, including award-winning jazz performer Diane Schur and renowned singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder.
AT Made Accessible
The CSUN conference has become such a major event that planning for 2004 began three months prior to the 2003 event. Despite its size, the conference is run smoothly, efficiently, and with remarkable attention to detail. Attendees who are blind or have low vision are given materials in the alternate format of choice (braille, large print, or computer disk), along with tactile maps of both hotels. A permanently staffed accessibility table is on hand in both hotels as well to respond to accessibility needs.
If you can attend only one technology conference per year, CSUN provides education, innovation, infectious energy, and a blindness friendly environment. For my part, I can't wait for CSUN 2004—to see if any of Ray Kurzweil's predictions are nearer to being realized.