A week before the 2007 national convention of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), Jay Leventhal telephoned to ask me to write a new semiregular AccessWorld column of musings and opinions, replete with facts and a bare minimum of fiction, on trends and convergences in access technology, happenings and disappearances in the industry, new ideas and new products, brilliant gadgets, and even more brilliant people. My focus would be on the bleeding edge surrounding small mobile devices, where the fresh imagination of new visionaries—combined with the experience of beloved magicians of old—are forging new ways of thinking, operating, working, and studying for consumers who are blind. Thus, having decided to leave long-term forecasting safely to the Delphic prophecies of Ray Kurzweil, I set out to discover trend-setting devices and, perhaps through them, to attempt to capture a fuzzy snapshot of the elusive state of the accessible art and its near-term future.

The Art of Navigation

On the morning of July 3, 2007, while attempting to weave my way back to the 17th-floor bank of elevators somewhere in the middle of the futuristic hotel in Atlanta where I was attending the NFB convention, I could not help but feel that I was virtually immersed—and getting progressively more and more lost—in the frustrating electronic maze of the old Infocom adventure game of Zork. The hotel, designed in the 1960s by a creative architect who had no conception of the bemusing challenges presented to people who are blind in navigating complex multilevel environments, is a true masterpiece of architectural prowess, with its breathtakingly open internal structure, each floor just subtly different from the next. It was a true adventure game for me to weave my way by dead reckoning, applying my marginal skills in echolocation, mostly through pure luck, in and out of the myriad dead ends and seemingly meaningless passages surrounding the elevator bank on the 17th floor. Yet, my "flawless" mobility skills and "impeccable" cane travel technique finally led me back to the elevators. Thus down I went, riding the allegedly gleaming and glass-enclosed car, safely to the Marquis level—by no means my final destination.

On the Marquis level, I continued to walk randomly in the open environment, feeling like a lab rat in some clever grand maze designed by a mad behavioral scientist. Avoiding the lap pools, with their concrete edges conveniently raised to shin level; homing in on the beacon of NFB president Marc Maurer's sonorous voice emanating from the open doors to the General Assembly; and bumping into or avoiding skittering children, snuffling dogs, canes, gaggles of conventioneers, sofas, chairs, and sundry objects, I stopped in total confusion and begged for directions to the exhibit hall, which was apparently somewhere below me on the International level. "You can't miss it," claimed the smiling volunteer, pointing his chin and forefinger in a new direction that my Herbertian second sight did not seem to grok. The volunteer was positive that I could not miss the bright blue stairs at the end of some imaginary hall "over there." Did he even know the meaning of the word blind?

I eventually discovered the stairs after obtaining verbal confirmation "in situ" from a conventioneer with low vision that the stairs were indeed blue, trundled down to the International level, miraculously avoided the door to the cavernous underground parking lot, and followed the steadily increasing human din—a clear indication of my fast-approaching Holy Grail. Then I was finally greeted by a smiling Gerry Lazarus (NFB's director of special programs), who was guarding the entrance of the bustling exhibit hall. Lazarus—ever mindful of my geographic ineptitudes—spared me additional navigational humiliations and mercifully ushered me to the IBM booth next to LevelStar. There, for the next several days, I featured the early fruit of a technological partnership between the two respective companies—an initial research prototype of an accessible interface to the IBM Bluebird corporate multimedia library, created specifically to enhance the education and training of IBM employees, and now running on the Icon Mobile Manager.

Guido Corona standing in a hallway at the 2007 NFB convention wearing an IBM shirt.

Caption: Guido Corona of IBM's Human Ability and Accessibility Center.

The Fitful History of Assistive Technology

Safely tethered to my booth and listening to the soundscape emanating from the hundreds of visitors on the exhibit floor, I realized that the moderately directed Brownian wanderings of these bustling federationists—as well as my early dendritic traveling quest through the hotel—was like the haphazard evolution of access technology, developing by fits and starts, temporarily lost in sudden blind alleys, making sudden strides, filling niches only to desert them, and seemingly passing through brief directed phases followed by more spurts of quasi-random growth soon to be abandoned. It is only a glad delusion of our ever-optimistic wishful thinking that access technology evolves by steady directed motion—without unexpected surprises, faulty steps, missed turns, deceptive flashes in the proverbial pan, sudden stumbles, or pause or retreat—in our perennial illusion of an unstoppable and majestic path to progress. Over the past 20 years, I have come to realize that this is but a pipe dream; the evolution of all technology, particularly in the world of accessibility, is more dendritic than a directed graph, tasting more of the confounding complexity of Brownian motion than of the elegant simplicity of the straight line, each frozen instant of its history reminiscent of the bewildering Cambrian fossilized record of the Burgess shale's, so masterly described by Stephen J. Gould in Wonderful Life.

The Ultimate Goal

Undeniably, my goal at this convention was not solely to feature IBM accessibility services and technologies at Table 121—solutions that may eventually lead to a more inclusive world for everyone. It was also to get a feel for where ever-evolving technology is now taking the consumer who is blind.

An Icon of Innovation

In my hand, I held the Icon from LevelStar, the brainchild of Marc Mulcahy—cofounder of the company. Just over one-quarter the width of a BrailleNote, less than half its depth, and perhaps one-third its thickness, the Icon packs a wallop of hardware and software features and services in a scant seven-ounce package. Standing behind the table in the next booth, Mulcahy explained his design philosophy and how he conceived the Icon to fulfill the emerging needs of knowledge-dependent professionals, students and consumers who are blind.

According to Mulcahy, neither the current generation of dedicated small devices for people who are blind, limited as they are by their aging designs, nor mainstream Smartphones and PDAs (personal digital assistants), which are hampered by hardware limitations and the complexity and sometimes cumbersome operations of mobile screen readers, fully address the growing need of people who are blind for elegant and simple access to information, recreation, education, and work, anytime and anywhere. He then explained how, in his view, the Icon constitutes the first of a new class of talking smart devices for people who are blind, combining quasi-desktop-class hardware, complete with massive hard-drive storage and a mini-SD card slot, wireless 802.11B, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, integrated stereo and mono earphone speakers, a built-in microphone, and a user-replaceable Lithium rechargeable battery.

In addition, Mulcahy noted, the Icon sports a sturdy carrying case with a belt loop, together with a full suite of powerful software applications, including office-productivity programs like a word processor, POP3 e-mail, a scheduler-planner, and telephone contacts. The lover of learning and recreational reading is not left behind, he said, with directly downloadable Bookshare DAISY books and newspapers, and upcoming National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) Digital Talking Book support, a music player, news feeds from podcasts, and RSS (really simple syndication, protocols for accessing regularly changing web content). Furthermore, the Internet junky may enjoy full Internet browsing through the MiniMo Mozilla-based browser, which is capable of handling forms and the recently impassible pages that are replete with on-mouse-over and mouse-click events. The software suite is completed by contextual online help and by a host of utilities like a calculator, stopwatch, sound-voice recorder, online software updates and online problem reporting, a disk drive mode for turning Icon into a remote storage device, and even a file manager.

Mulcahy assured me that telephony and GPS (global positioning system) capabilities will come in the future. He then reminded me that the Icon's cell phone-style keypad is fully capable of uncontracted or contracted braille; computer braille; and a new and ingenious reduced-keystroke variant, dubbed thumb braille, which was created for small numeric keypads by Larry Skutchan of the American Printing House for the Blind (APH). While Mulcahy took a well-deserved breath of air-conditioned exhibit-hall air, I suddenly smiled, comforted by the knowledge that for dinosaurs like myself, the Icon keypad supports ABC text input and numeric input and that by early next year, I should be able to type in full and noncramped QWERTY or braille comfort on the full-size keyboard of the upcoming Icon docking station, which will also give me wired 10-base Ethernet connectivity, USB ports, a longer battery life, larger stereo speakers, and a welcome flip-out wrist rest.

At this point, Skutchan barged into the conversation and reminded me that the Icon software was developed in partnership with APH and that APH is marketing an intriguing hardware variant of Icon that is augmented by an integrated braille keypad, called Braille+. Ever the techno-dweeb, he proudly added that Icon is predicated on open standards like Linux, Python, Mozilla, and OPML. He concluded that Icon and Braille+ already support open wireless networks, WEP 64- and 128-bit encryption, and WPA, while support of EAP TLS and LEAP for highly secure wireless environments is coming soon. Jenny Axeler, the charming hostess of the Icon on the Level Podcasts, jumped into the discussion and pointed out that the LevelStar Icon and the APH Braille+ are identically priced at $1,395.

An Even Smaller, Simple Alternative

Just down the main aisle from me, Marvin Sandler, of Independent Living Aids, was showcasing the Nano from European manufacturer Caretec. This little notetaking device may appeal to the user who wants to take quick notes in uncrammed braille comfort without being crowded by a busy design or by the complexity of the rich function set of its competitors. The approximate size of the first box of six full-length colored pencils that my mother purchased for me almost half a century ago, the Nano—approximately 6.8 inches by 2.1 inches by 0.7 inches and weighing a mere 4.7 ounces—is an uncluttered hardware package that has at least one unique feature. Most of its top face is occupied by what feels like an excellent computer braille keypad with firm and dimpled rubber keys having a satisfying silent, positive feedback. But what seems perhaps more unique to this $695 pocket-sized notetaker is the alternative use that nonbraille users can make of the set of small, round arrow keys, in the traditional inverted "T" arrangement, toward the right of the unit. These keys can be used for inputting text in a manner that is reminiscent of data entry through an onscreen keyboard on a PC. And for those who opt to use neither braille nor arrowed-input, the Nano lets you record voice notes, memos, and address entries through its internal microphone and plays them back to you through its hefty, loud, built-in speaker. Once again, what is remarkable is not so much the Nano's unassuming lineup of simple software applications, but its multimodal input capabilities—somewhat like what is encountered on the Icon and Braille+—the integration of braille and texting input on the same device, augmented here by the application of voice-recording entries in the Address Book.

Reflecting on these handheld devices, the question that comes to mind is this: Are these high-end quasi-desktop replacements—the Icon and Braille+ at one extreme and the deceptively modest Nano at the other—just flashes in the pan, or are they true forerunners of a new, more flexible, class of devices for people who are blind that are capable of multimodal input and output and of new services that are vital to our marketplace, which older and more established designs are not serving? Looking at the growing plethora of other miniaturized tools—from new solid-state DAISY book readers to smartphones to miniaturized and handheld text reading systems, all sporting a bewildering mixture of engineering insights and "body plan" oddities, I cannot help but think that we are on the verge of a Cambrian evolutionary explosion in our already, admittedly tumultuous but always beloved, world of access technology for people who are blind. What would Stephen J. Gould, the evolutionary biologist, say?

While the question may remain forever unanswered, my editor gently nudged me to attempt to forecast the short-term future of accessible PDAs for people who are blind. A cursory look at the new and innovative Voice Sense by Human Interface Management Service, which was featured at the GW Micro table and priced at $1,895, seemed to confirm my hypothesis: Compared to older and well-established talking PDA designs, the physical footprint of these devices is shrinking dramatically to what is approaching a minimal optimum ergonomic size, accompanied by an almost-commensurate shrinking of their price tags, In addition, the hardware and software capabilities of most of these devices are increasing rapidly and may soon approach those of some high-end ultralight mainstream laptop computers, which are already equipped with WAN (wide area networking) and GPS receivers.

Although I claim neither special insight nor insider's knowledge, it is not difficult to guess that as technology packaging evolves and more advanced chip sets become available for these small underlying XScale platforms (based on the ARM ultra-low-power processors designed for PDAs) and mechanical packages, processors will become even faster than the current 520Mhz PXA270 ARM processor (already slightly overclocked to 540 Mhz of the Voice Sense), larger hard drives than the 30 GB of the Icon and Braille+, support for high-capacity SD cards (which may include up to 32 GB of storage, as is now available on the new Victor Reader Stream DAISY player by HumanWare), and wireless G networking and USB 2.0-capable chips (as is already implemented on the Voice Sense). It is perhaps more difficult to predict where software will lead: definitely to true virtual-memory management for more efficient multitasking (as currently on the Icon); to a more integrated presence of GPS navigation, telephony, and WAN data services; to support for Digital Talking Books from NLS, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind—all rumored for the Icon and, it is hoped, also for Audible.com books. Yet, although hardware sets are dictated by available technology to a great extent, software complements and capabilities have been, are now, and will be heavily influenced by key requirements that are voiced by end-users. So, let your voice be heard!

How long will these new devices be with us? If the stellar longevity of such distinguished predecessors as the BrailleNote from HumanWare and the PAC Mate from Freedom Scientific may serve as indications, it may be expected that the most successful representatives of the new generation may be with us—in one form or another—for at least four to five years. "Not quite as successful as my beloved trilobites," I can hear the disembodied voice of Stephen J. Gould grumbling faintly from afar. "And do you even know how long that amazing Hallucigenia stuck around? Several million times longer than that puny half decade of yours!" I hear him quip.

On My Way Home

It was finally the end of a busy day on the convention floor. Lazarus was ushering the last few stragglers out the glass doors. Amazingly, I found the infamous blue stairs on my own, climbed back up to the Marquis level, and rode two more flights up by elevator. I was trying to find the main service stairs of the hotel. I assured a concerned volunteer that I had not yet lost my marbles and that I firmly intended to climb all the way to my room on the 43rd floor. Fifteen minutes later, gripped by the excitement emanating from my Icon, which was still reading a Bookshare DAISY e-text book on the fall of the ancient Roman republic, I overshot the 43rd floor and, moderately winded, finally emerged from the stairwell at the 47th floor.

PS: I eventually found my way back to my room, but how I did so is another sappy (no, not the SAPI synthesizer) story!

Guido Corona
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