Legends and Pioneers of Blindness Assistive Technology
New York, NY
June 25, 2004
Interviewer: Tony Candela
Introduction to interview with Saba Hocek
Tony Candela: My quest to find legends and pioneers for this interview series has led me to very few women. Saba Hocek is one of only a few exceptions.
Saba, along with her brother, Adam, formed Ad Hoc Systems in the early 1980's and produced the first OCR Recognition system for Personal Computers. Saba and Adam preceded Kurzweil and Arkanstone by at least two years.
The story of how Ad Hoc Systems was eventually driven out of business by Arkanstone, is compelling. It makes for very good listening and shows that even in a business as philanthropically oriented as Blindness Assistive Technology, the bottom line counts in the end.
Saba also has some incredible stories to tell about her upbringing and places in the world in which she lived and grew up. Her story of being in Tehran during the time of the Iranian revolution is quite fascinating.
I interviewed Saba in her Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan, New York City and throughout the interview you will hear varying degrees of good old New York City traffic noise.
Beginning of Interview
Saba Hocek: My name is Saba Hocek. Date of birth is January 2, 1960. Born in New York, NY.
Tony Candela: Saba, thank you very much for giving me this interview, Legends and Pioneers of Blindness Assistive Technology. You were in the business for a while and then you got out of the business.
We are in your apartment in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It's very lovely. Here you live with your husband, Bill.
So, tell us what you're doing these days.
Saba Hocek: Okay. Well, first of all welcome and thanks for taking the time and welcome back to New York.
What am I doing right now is basically computer consulting. I do custom database design, the majority of which is done in Microsoft Access, I do Network Administration and also, I still have clients from the blindness industry who still rely on me to come and train on and install software and if their computer is having problems, to help them with that. I still have some ties left over from those days. And that's pretty much how my time is occupied.
I do have one pretty much permanent consulting job that I've been with for about ten years now, at a Mental Health clinic and I seem to basically do everything that is computer related or electricity related there.
Tony Candela: With computers, if it can go wrong it will go wrong, right?
Saba Hocek: Absolutely.
Tony Candela: So what would be a typical day for you?
Saba Hocek: A typical day, if I am at my permanent consulting place, where I am three days a week, it's basically going in and I am either working on a data base design. At the Mental Health clinic there is constantly things that need to be done. It's a fairly large database that maintains client records.
In addition to that, there are also other projects that I work on. For example, as a result of 911, being that the Mental Health clinic is located on the Lower East Side, we were right there.
And so we were a fairly strong instrument in helping the people out. And as a result, we did an organization, or a division I should say, that was helping victims of 911 to psychologically recover from this disaster.
And so, once again, from the computer end of it, we needed to maintain certain information, check progress and so forth. So these are the types of programs that I'll be developing.
In addition to that, I cover all network administration, maintaining the equipment. I do have an assistant for the past few years so he would also help me out. And that's pretty much an average day for me. Outside of that, I could be going anywhere within the tri-state area, really.
As I said, I do have some clients who have been with me for 18 years now and probably one of the very first systems that we sold, we sold to him. And he, unfortunately at that time, he had low vision and has since become totally blind, so over the years we've upgraded him with different equipment and when he changed jobs, trained him on the new software that they would be using there and so forth.
And then I have new clients, who most of them are for database design. And again, it's over the past at least ten years, it's really been all Microsoft Access, since Version 1.0.
Tony Candela: Did you and do you have a continuing need to learn new software or to hurry up and keep up with the latest progress in computer design or software design?
Saba Hocek: You know what, what I can realize is of course you have to keep up, to an extent. But you can't be learning everything that there is, because the change is so incredibly rapid.
So what I've learned to do in the most efficient way is that I keep abreast with pretty much everything that's going on. And then I wait until, if a client says, "I'm in need of a let's just say, an accounting package. Then I will go ahead and do all the research necessary for the accounting package.
But until then, by the time somebody is asking me for something like that, if I start looking and keeping up to date with it on a daily basis, their system could be obsolete by that point and it's just not worth my time at that point.
And I do enjoy my free time, so I'm not a total computer geek.
Tony Candela: And you're essentially, totally, it sounds like, in business for yourself, except for your relationship with The Mental Health Center. Is it as an outside consultant, or?
Saba Hocek: Everything I do is independent.
Tony Candela: You're not on salary with them?
Saba Hocek: They hired me for a one-month project and they realized that they constantly have needs. So ten years later I'm still there.
Tony Candela: Did computer systems within The Mental Health Center, suffer because of the disaster of the World Trade Center going down?
Saba Hocek: We did have some computer disasters. Not as severe as it could have been. But we didn't have any electricity for a while. We had no phone service for about two months. So I would say that unfortunately, the clients suffered far more than computers did, because when they needed us most, they unfortunately couldn't contact us by phone.
Tony Candela: Then in effect, the caseloads suddenly rose, with all the extra folks needing help to get through the shock of the disaster.
Saba Hocek: Absolutely.
Tony Candela: Wow. Did you stay right in the same headquarters throughout that whole period, at The Mental Health Center?
Saba Hocek: Yes, well the Mental Health Center is located on the Lower East Side. Actually, they are in tenement buildings and they're spread across that entire area. It's a not-for-profit so we're on the basement level of these buildings. So we all stayed there.
Tony Candela: And how much effort do you keep with keeping up with the assistive technologies out there, for your blind clients?
Saba Hocek: Again, it really has a lot more to do with what the people's needs are at the time. I don't, by any means, claim to be, shall I say, active in the industry. Because I'm not. That would be a false statement, by all means.
And my clients are aware of this. But they have a lot of trust in me and they refuse to have anybody else touch their systems. So I feel very proud for that and when they say, "I'm ready to upgrade now." Then I say, "Okay." Then I go and do my homework.
And thankfully, between the Internet and resources and some friends in the industry, I can collect enough information to give them a very well informed result.
Tony Candela: What types of things do your visually impaired customers have in their computers that you've had to do some homework on lately?
Saba Hocek: Reading systems and screen readers. That's really the main thing.
Tony Candela: And for screen readers, mostly JAWS and Window Eyes, I'm going to imagine.
Saba Hocek: Yes, the majority of the time, I have to say that the clients that I do still maintain, and I will say again, because I'm not active in the industry. I don't get new clients, from the blindness industry.
And my existing clients, they all use JAWS, just by coincidence. It's not that it was something that I persuaded them one way or the other at the time. I had a variety of different systems out there, depending on what their needs were, which is something that we during the days of Ad Hoc reading systems, that is something that we always pushed on them, that you have to take each client separately. Forget about the dollar signs and give them, suggest to them, what would best suit their needs.
Tony Candela: When you say Ad Hoc reading systems, that's a company?
Saba Hocek: That's correct. And that was my company.
Tony Candela: Okay. And we will talk about that. Do you interact with people, in the business, in the vision impairment business, any more?
Saba Hocek: My main contact, and very dear friend, I should say, is Bob Keenan and that's pretty much it, Occasionally, I might talk to one or two other people, here and there. But it's usually by coincidence.
Tony Candela: There are very few women who fit the category of Legends and Pioneers of Blindness Assistive Technology. And you are one of them. Folks that were around we'll say for this very young business, back toward the beginning.
And it's funny to think that the 1980s were the beginning. Anything that's PC-based. Of course the 1980s.
Did you feel at all out of place when you were doing your software design, back in the 1980s, as a woman in this business?
Saba Hocek: I think to an extent that I was already used to being more of a rarity. In college, women in Computer Science or Computer Engineering, were not common. Prior to that, I was a Field Engineer. It did happen to me where I'd walk into a company to fix their computer and the person in charge would say, "Don't touch my computers. I'm not having a woman touch my computers." So I was used to that. And I learned that it can also work to your benefit.
So, yes there are certain difficulties behind it. I think that when you are a minority that you have to prove yourself more.
But that was okay. That didn't bother me.
But the other side of it is that because you are a minority, you stand out. And so you do get a certain amount more attention than the majority would be getting. Traditionally, there is a certain amount of sex appeal that goes on. It is human nature.
As I said, there is certain benefits to it and there are certain disadvantages.
Tony Candela: Today, with the practitioners of assistive technology training, although I don't think anyone has ever taken an inventory of all of the practitioners out there who are doing training and doing some of the work that you described: systems upgrading, that type of thing. In the blindness and vision-impaired business, it's much more of an even distribution now. You find many, many, many women in the business and this has evolved.
I suppose this is probably a parallel to many other professions. There are many more women engineers now than ever before. That kind of thing.
You came up during a time when all this was new.
Saba Hocek: Well, there's one thing I have learned, one of many things that the blindness industry has taught me, and that's that sometimes coming up too early can be literally detrimental to you. It is more harmful than good sometimes to come up with a technology that is more advanced than people are ready to accept.
And that's equally, had I come out into the industry 20 years earlier, I'm not sure if I could have been able to get as far as I did. Because I'm not sure society would have been ready to accept a woman designer in this industry.
They could accept a trainer, cause that sort of falls under the teacher category, and we accepted female teachers. But to actually be the developer of a product, that fell into a totally different area.
Tony Candela: Saba, can you tell me a bit more about Ad Hoc Systems?
Saba Hocek: Ad Hoc Systems has given me the opportunity to be able to do what I do enjoy very much and that's designing software. I like variety, so it allows me that variety. I enjoy seeing that I've helped people, although it's not the type of help as I had with Ad Hoc Reading Systems, when we were designing equipment in the blindness industry. But it's making people be more productive in their work. Making life easier for them. And as a result, making them happy.
And it also allows me a lot of free time, a lot of flexibility. Being able actually to have free time, when I'm not consulting, and do other things. At Ad Hoc Reading Systems, it really was a 20-hour day, 7 days a week, for many, many years.
That's pretty much it with Ad Hoc Systems. It's the variety. It's getting down on my knees and pulling equipment apart and fixing it. Or, designing the software or teaching people how to use various different products, whether they're adaptive technology or just your standard word processor. Whatever the case might be.
Tony Candela: Do you ever run into situations where a lot of the mainstream work you do directly benefits the less but still, obviously you're in it, the assistive technology work that you do?
Saba Hocek: I can't think of a situation that really helps in that respect. Because most of the stuff that I do is the database design, is in Microsoft Access, which up until only fairly recently has adaptive technology and Access worked more gracefully together.
So unfortunately, I really can't say that I've had been able to tie the two together.
Tony Candela: If you received an order, I'm curious, that's all, if you received a request for help. Let's say Bob called you and said, "I've got a job situation and they're using Access. They've got a blind client." Would you partner up with say somebody, to go into a job situation to help out?
Saba Hocek: Oh, sure. Absolutely. And I've had, not necessarily within the blindness industry, but I have had situations where if I can use somebody else's expertise and we can work together to develop a better product, then absolutely. And if I can do something within the blindness industry, where I could have some impact in the blindness market, even better.
Tony Candela: Before we go to Ad Hoc Reading Systems, since with Ad Hoc Systems, you have some free time, what other things do you like to do? How do you spend some of that free time?
Saba Hocek: For one thing, I'm right here in Manhattan, which offers everything. From concerts in the park, to museums, to just seeing friends, to meeting people. But outside of that, I guess my big interests lie in...I take ballet classes, I sculpt in a medium called Sculpy, which is Manhattan-proof clay. Doesn't make dust or dirt. I play the piano and I take voice lessons. So I've got lots of hobbies to fill my days very quickly.
Tony Candela: And you sound like you have a good voice. You have a very nice speaking voice so I'm going to imagine that if you dabble in singing at all, you're probably pretty good.
Saba Hocek: Thank you.
Tony Candela: We will not ask you for a sample for our interview.
Saba Hocek: I appreciate that.
Tony Candela: Tell us a bit about Ad Hoc Reading Systems. How it came about. What you did.
Saba Hocek: Ad Hoc Reading Systems was founded by my brother Adam Hocek back in '85. It was actually called Ad Hoc Systems, at the time. It was a computer consulting firm for both hardware and software design. Adam did the hardware design and I, at that time, was in my last year of college, and I was doing the software design. So I was literally, he was sending off the projects out in Michigan and I'd do the design and send it back to him. He was in New Jersey at the time.
Tony Candela: And where did you go to college?
Saba Hocek: Western Michigan. In Kalamazoo.
And then I graduated. I joined him, probably about six months after, I had joined him and we had a number of projects. I was surprised that one project we had was, again, it was for standard consulting work. They wanted to transfer from this huge computer system, a dedicated system, that did mailing labels. Which is funny, because when you think about it today, you have that on your little PDA. But in those days, it literally was a computer the size of a room, had a dedicated room, and they kept their mailing list on there. And they wanted to transfer that over onto a PC and actually get into the PC world.
And there was no means of transferring that information. They said it was a dedicated system.
So, just at that time, a scanner had come out. And this was the first full-scale scanner. I can't remember the name of it. I do remember it started with an E, but I can't remember the full name. It was in the shape of a bubble. It was like a half a sphere. And when you opened it, it only took single sheets, there wasn't an automatic sheet feeder, or anything like that. You laid the paper down and it literally folded over this bubble.
So we took the thousands and thousands of mailing labels, they printed it out on sheets of paper, and we had written software that intelligently would go and look at the address and try to figure out which was the first name, which was the last name, what the address was, because the old system was not very well organized. And also, some of the addresses were incomplete, so we didn't want to have incomplete addresses in there.
So that was our project.
And one day, my brother and I were sitting out, we were working out of our parent's home at that point. And Adam, at the time, my brother, was doing his Ph.D. as well. And we're hanging out on the balcony and his Ph.D. work was being done in voice recognition and he had done a lot of work prior to that in voice recognition, speech synthesis.
So we were out on the balcony and I said, "Wouldn't that be neat if you could combine the speech synthesis, the voice recognition, and the scanner, all in one."
And he turned to me and he says, "You know, it's not that difficult." Now I at the time had no clue about anything related to voice synthesis or voice recognition. I said, "You're kidding me, really?" And he said, "No, this is how it would be done. Now there's a couple of companies that are out there that, let's forget the voice recognition for awhile and stick with the speech synthesis. They have the hardware and then you just write the software for it and the software works like this and that."
I got all excited. I'm a much more spontaneous person that my brother is, who will take things much more systematically. And what I'm going to say now, is probably a story that very few people know. But it is a funny story and it is how we truthfully came about.
So, I said, "Well, can we do it?" He said, "Well, look, why don't you give it a try. Look into it a little bit. See if there's a market for it and if there is, let's go for it." I said, "Okay. That makes sense."
So, the next day, I got on the phone and I dialed here and I dialed there and I just came across... Then what we thought about right away, was for blind people. So I started looking up in the phone book with anything dealing with blind people. And it was just one supportive person after the other. "You need to speak to so and so. You need to speak to so and so."
The next thing I know, I'm talking to the AFB. Now who was it that I was talking to there? Not exactly positive. It's been many years. But, in any case, the gentleman was all excited. "That's fabulous. All we know of is the Kurzweil, which at that time was $50,000 and how much are you going to have this for?" "It should be around $7,000." "Oh my God, that's absolutely fabulous. When can we see it?" "How's April?" And they said, "That's it. We'll have the unveiling here. Right at the AFB." I said, "Okay, that's great."
So I hung up the phone. I was all excited. And you have to realize, we don't have anything, but an idea.
My brother came home that day and I told him, "You're not going to believe this. We're going to have an unveiling at the AFB on April 14th. "An unveiling for what?" I said, "The system. You said it wasn't hard to do. We're going to do it."
He was ready to kill me. This was in December, right around holiday time. The parts that we needed, we needed a C compiler and we needed the speech synthesizer, which we were getting from, help me out here, not TSI, but who was connected to TSI, Speech, Speech+.
So we were getting...we needed that. And so they arrived the first week of January and we worked day and night. April 14th we went to the AFB. Meanwhile, the Kurzweil had dropped their system down to $25,000. And right there in the first row, was a gentleman from Kurzweil.
Tony Candela: Do you think it was Ray Kurzweil himself, or one of his representatives?
Saba Hocek: One of his representatives.
And so that was it. At the time I was 26 years old. And we had about 100 attendees at the AFB. And we started it off with, we didn't bother bringing a monitor because that was the way that in a sense we proved our system. That it really was, truly adaptive technology.
We named him Zippy and we started the intro off by we had it set up, it starts off, "My name is Zippy," and whatever else. So that was the start of it. And then it went on from there.
Tony Candela: Can you describe in more detail the actual system itself, technically? Some of what you had to do, what kind of code you had to write, that sort of thing.
Saba Hocek: Sure. Basically what we were finding was that the scanners and the optical character recognition, at the time, was sort of on the crude side. I shouldn't say scanners. It was really more the OCR that was the issue.
We used a company, and I want to say their name was OCR Technology. It was a small company. And we licensed their software. They were out of Pennsylvania.
Then what we did is we wrote software that took what the OCR did and then improved that further so we had a huge library of English rules. Things like, if you're absolutely certain that this is a queue, the following letter has to be a "u." If something looks like an address, so if you see, "s, t period, and it's looking like an address, then in the beginning it's probably not an "l" it's probably a "1." Various things like that.
We had huge fun with it. Actually made our OCR far better than most.
Tony Candela: Where did you get the library, or did you compose that yourself?
Saba Hocek: We composed that ourselves. Did a lot of research and composed it ourselves. All this was done in C++. Some in Assembler.
And, in addition to that, the other thing that we wanted for the system was to be really simple to use. It should be a system that anybody could pick up and start using. So it had to be easily menu-driven and menu-driven in a way that a blind person could visualize it as well.
Additionally, we wanted it to be similar to a person reading a book. So we sort of put ourselves in that position and said, "Okay, if you're reading something, how do you do it?" Well you might, if I'm reading an article, let's say, in a magazine. Usually I'll read the first sentence. If it's not of interest to me, I might skip down to the next paragraph. I might want to say, "Oh, let me flip over to page 15." I might also want to highlight as I go along, the things that are of importance.
And again, although with today's technology, this all seems rather obvious, but in the United States there really wasn't any software that did that.
So what we offered was, in terms of a screen reader, initially we were, the first one we used was the one from Artic, Speech + and what we had done with Speech + was that we designed it so that we, all the Speech, the screen reading software was actually designed by us.
The problem that we came across with that, and this totally has to do with our ignorance of the market. It just took a while before we could really understand how a blind person was using the system and what the real needs were.
Quite frankly, it took a learning curve. And what we realized was that, "You know what? I like my screen reader. And I want to be able to flip back and forth between let's say using my screen reader function, as well as your function."
So, in that case, and after we designed it for the Speech + board, we had also did some work with Artic's board. And again, not using the software, just using the hardware.
So over time we realized that this wasn't such a bright idea, after all. So we sort of scratched that part of the program and took off the shelf, allowed the standard product to be used, standard screen readers. So whether it was JAWS screen reader or TSI's or Artic screen reader, you could use anything.
And we had our separate commands, which we used the function keys, in order to be able to go, actually, I think we used the Num pad, in order to move around. So we could do Page Up, Page Down, right and left would take you a word to the right, a word to the left or you can skip by paragraph, and so forth.
Tony Candela: Were those decisions made on the basis of stuff you'd seen out there, such as other Num pads, controls that were being used?
Saba Hocek: At that time, actually, we were the ones who started that concept.
Tony Candela: Cause, as you say, these things are things now, twenty years later, we take for granted and you were inventing these things back then.
Saba Hocek: Exactly.
We used also the Microsoft, not Microsoft, excuse me, Microtech scanner. We had licensed that from them and had our own label put on it. And then we had a special chip put into it, which was so that we could bar code the software that related to the OCR into that chip.
Again, as time went on and the industry started broadening more and more, now people were saying, "But I already have a scanner. I don't want to use your scanner." And so that's when we started pulling away from doing the scanner as one of the things. We said, "Okay, you know what? We'll tie it in with anything you want."
Tony Candela: The decision to use the Microtech scanner to begin with, was there a research process that happened there that led to that decision? Something about the scanner itself that made it palatable?
Saba Hocek: In those days there really weren't that many scanners to choose from. You had the Microtech and Desk Scan were the two hottest scanners on the market. Even HP came later.
Tony Candela: The most ubiquitous scanner of them all, the Hewlett Packard scanners were not there yet.
Saba Hocek: Nope.
Tony Candela: And this was around, just to refresh us, around 1986?
Saba Hocek: '86.
Tony Candela: So how did the Microtech scanner work out? I guess it wasn't one of those bubbles?
Saba Hocek: The Bubble eventually went out of business.
Tony Candela: I can't even conceive of that. I can conceive of a flat bed scanner, and that's all I can conceive of right now.
Saba Hocek: The bubble was quite a sight. And it stood about a good foot and a half high. It was a big box with a big bubble on top. But they were the starters of it.
So in terms of choosing between the Desk Scan vs. the Microtech, it was really a toss-up. They both had their strong points to them. The Desk Scan, at the time, had a better sheet feeder, which we liked. But the bottom line was that Microtech was willing to do a license for us. Because we really wanted to have our label on it.
And again, in retrospect, I would have done things a lot different because, now realizing that, all that really didn't matter. But the way we saw it as such a simple system. All of the components were out there. It was just a matter of writing some software that tied them all together and we just really felt that we protected ourselves by doing some licensing and patent pending and the whole bit, we could get crushed otherwise.
And the truth is that it took two years before people realized that it really was that easy and it could be easily duplicated. So we were two years ahead at this point.
Tony Candela: Did you have known competitors yet, that you were worried about?
Saba Hocek: No. Our only competitor was Kurzweil, and that was, their recognition was far greater. That's without a doubt. They were able to do books and things like that which we were not able to do.
Initially, when we came out, it could only do monotype face, so it had to be like a typewriter in which all the characters are lined up. That is where the technology was at the time. We were able to do a little bit, as time went on, of the, there's so many terms that I haven't used in so many years. Book print we'll call it.
And over time we were able to do that as our OCR developers improved and also we increased our library to understand the characters better. But Kurzweil was way ahead of the game, in that respect. He was also a fair price higher.
Tony Candela: Did you have a consumer research group that you used to find out, as you were developing these things, what blind people like to do? Like you mentioned earlier, you wanted to set this up in such a way so that you could allow somebody to do some of the things you would do if you were reading a book. That kind of gives you a sense that there was a thinking process behind this. Maybe blind people would like this or did blind people come to you and say, "Hey, this is what we would like to do?"
Saba Hocek: It was really unfortunately we did not have a research team. We started this company on literally $10,000, which is nothing, not to start a company.
Initially, we started off working out of our home. Eventually we got some office space and eventually we got some employees. But it was a true start-up company, the kind that you run right out of your basement and build your way up. So we didn't have the funds to actually have a research team go out there. But there was such excitement from the industry, because this is something that blind people really had needed and wanted for years. And knew of, because the Kurzweil was always a carrot in front of them. They knew it could be done but it was not reachable, not at $50,000 for your average person.
So, we got a lot of support, in that respect and we got a lot of feedback. The New Jersey Commission for the Blind, for example, was very helpful to us in providing us with suggestions and feedback.
Tony Candela: Do you remember where your first "not in your basement" offices were? What the address was or what town?
Saba Hocek: Yes. It was my parent's home. It was in East Brunswick, New Jersey.
Tony Candela: And when you opened up your own office?
Saba Hocek: It was in Princeton.
Tony Candela: When you were at Western Michigan University, what were you majoring in?
Saba Hocek: Computer Science.
Tony Candela: What did they teach in Computer Science classes at that time, mid '80's?
Saba Hocek: Basically you went through Pascal, FORTRAN, Assembler. You went through database, a rather intensive course. Of course you had obviously all the elective type of things. You're asking me to go back a number of years here.
We only had punch cards for one of our classes. The rest of it was actually done through terminals. Not PCs.
Tony Candela: Not PCs?
Saba Hocek: There were no PCs on campus, at the time.
Tony Candela: It happens, and I'm wondering if it had some subtle influence, that if I mention this, it might come back to you. But if it doesn't, don't make it up.
It happens that Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo is somewhat of a stronghold for the blindness field. They had one of the earliest and most successful Masters Degree programs in Mobility Instruction. They trained Rehabilitation teachers there. And I'm wondering if there is any influence of being in that environment on you that when you're sitting on that balcony with Adam, you pieced together something that might be good for the blind? Do you think there was that influence or not?
Saba Hocek: Not in the least. I never knew about this aspect of Western Michigan until you told me. When I think back, yeah, I did see a number of people who were blind or with various other disabilities, but I never really paid any mind to it. People are people. It just didn't occur to me even.
Tony Candela: That suggests a degree of openness to diversity that you had. They were there and you just thought it was part of the normal environment. There's a lot of people, even in the early '80's that still raise an eyebrow if they saw a bunch of blind people walking around on a campus. So, to your credit, it was just a normal thing for you.
Saba Hocek: I guess. Yeah. I've always done, again probably a lot of this had to do with having lived in many different places and thereby not ever having really an assumption of what to expect and that probably has a lot to do with it.
Tony Candela: Could you continue telling us what happened with Ad Hoc Reading Systems? I guess you had that unveiling on April 14th.
Saba Hocek: That's right. April 14th we had the unveiling. We came home and there was on our answering machine, an order. That was a woman by the name of Janice O'Hara, who was a woman with a lot of determination and always eager to try to...she loved technology.
And I'll never forget how shocked we were. We hadn't even gotten back from the AFB unveiling, and there was an order.
The very next day, we got yet another order. This time from New Jersey Commission for the Blind. And we were just ecstatic.
Meanwhile, during this time, we had...prior to the unveiling, we had gotten in touch with The Small Business Bureau, in hope that perhaps they could give us some guidance, some funding, something like that.
And they kept on telling us that we were sitting on a pot of gold. And I'll never forget having been in their office and as I was telling the gentleman about what our system would do, he said, "Can you excuse me one moment." "Certainly." Picks up the phone, starts talking to the person on the other end, "You won't believe what I've got here." And he starts going off about the system and how we're sitting on a pot of gold. You're the first in the world.
Hangs up the phone and turns to me and he says, "Do you know who that was?" I said, "No." He said, "That was Merrill Lynch.
Tony Candela: Oh my goodness.
Saba Hocek: That's right. That's what I said.
So it came probably just shortly before the unveiling. So meanwhile, we have all the research trying to pull a deal. We've to people coming over checking out the equipment, this and that. They were insisting we should go public. All this sort of stuff.
So finally we kept on asking them, "What is it that you want? Give us an idea of what type of contract we're negotiating here." They wouldn't give us any numbers.
"Well, we want to give you a total of 2%." "And we will guarantee you $100 per month, for the next two years while we try to make this company go public."
Thank you. And here's the door.
So they had us stringing along for awhile, as well. So after that brush and after the unveiling at the AFB, and once again we were all excited and everything, we got our two orders and then it was stagnant. Those were the only two orders that we received for a number of months.
Tony Candela: A number of months?
Saba Hocek: Yes. So we struggled along. We got a lot of feedback in the interim. And again, the New Jersey Commission was very supportive and provided us with a lot of feedback, because they had the system right there in their office, so they had a lot of people using it.
Tony Candela: Did you have a main contact person that you dealt with at the New Jersey Commission?
Saba Hocek: Yes. But I can't remember the person's name right now, I hate to say.
Tony Candela: What did you make of that rather meager offer from Merrill Lynch? Was it a business maneuver, or did you worry at all they weren't sure?
Saba Hocek: I have to say, it was very disappointing to be manipulated in this way. Merrill Lynch was not Merrill Lynch. It was somebody who happened to work at Merrill Lynch. Basically, what we learned of these companies, the Small Business Administration, is that there are people who their job is to help companies start companies. But basically what they do is they have their little contacts that are willing to invest some money, small amounts of money. And they basically try to get you while you're very vulnerable, to give up a huge amount.
It was very disappointing because it dragged on for a very long time. Actually, when I think about it it must have been way beyond the unveiling, because it dragged on for close to nine months. And we only started this thing in January. It was even beyond the unveiling, but it was just very conniving, for a lesser word.
Tony Candela: They took a silk purse and turned it into a sow's ear. As opposed to the reverse.
Saba Hocek: Right.
So we started learning a lot more and we literally worked day and night. An average of 20 hour days, seven days a week. Never anything below maybe 15 hours was the least I remember working in a day.
Tony Candela: Wow, that's intense.
Saba Hocek: It was really intense. We reprogrammed it to be compatible with all the various different screen readers out there. That it wasn't Speech synthesizer dependent. Because the Speech Plus board was an expensive board. That in itself was $1700.
TSI's system was, I think, again my memory isn't that great, but it was somewhere in the area of like $2500. It was the most expensive screen reader you could get at the time. And, a big chunk of that was really the hardware of it.
So people complained. They wanted to have that in place. And every time they started understanding also where the blind people were coming from. In other words, they wanted their independence, wherever they could get it from. And understandably so.
So, they didn't want somebody to say, "No, you have to use this component." "Give me as much flexibility as I can possibly have." And so that's what we began to do.
Meanwhile, of course, improving our software. "I'd like to also be able to jump to a particular page number and then mark that page and then jump back," or whatever. Being able to simply maneuver within the document.
Tony Candela: Much as this was still the DOS environment, what everyone was used to doing, probably in something like Word Perfect 5.1. It was close to that.
Saba Hocek: And one of the things that we had come up with during that second phase of development was we actually had, it was a multi-tasking system, which at that time, this was in the DOS days so there was no multi-tasking. And we developed a system in which they could actually switch between being in a screen in their Ad Hoc Reading System, reading a document and then, with the flip of a particular key stroke, go right back into Word Perfect, and continue writing the letter.
So it was really advanced in that way.
And that way you could allow them, what we wanted was that if they had to be, for example, typing a letter and wanting to reference something that they received, then they would have scanned it and they were reading it, and now they can go back and forth within Word Perfect, writing the letter and then going back to reading the letter they received.
Tony Candela: And as you moved along, did you stay strictly with the auditory? Was there any thought yet about involving the monitor in the process in some way?
Saba Hocek: The monitor, no. We never included that. As a matter of fact, for all the shows, we never even bothered taking the monitor.
But what did happen over time, I guess it was, it must have been about four years into it. So I'm going to guess that by this point it's probably about 1990 or so. And at this stage, right around then, is when Adam decided that it was such a small market. It's very hard to try to make a living within the blindness industry, because, thankfully, it is small.
So we tried to open up into other disabilities. We had some people with other disabilities, but again, it was still within the same reading system. It was basically people with a print disability.
And then it was just getting very tough, so Adam decided that he would probably pull out of the company and go into something that was a little bit...He's more a hardware designer or very, very low level design. And that's not the direction that Ad Hoc Reading Systems was taking anymore. It just wasn't a challenge enough for him, so he split off and I continued on with the company.
Somewhere around that time is when Lori Converso, I don't know if you remember her, and Kathy Mercado...
Tony Candela: I know Cathy Mercado, yes.
Saba Hocek: Well Cathy and Laurie both worked for the New Jersey Commission for the Blind. And so they both came to join me.
Tony Candela: Did you keep the name as Ad Hoc Reading Systems?
Saba Hocek: Yes. So then we continued on from there. We started branching out overseas as well. Our systems were going. We were actually doing quite well in Europe, especially in Sweden. We were doing very well. I'd say that a big chunk of our sales were going there.
Tony Candela: What did you do about the language translation?
Saba Hocek: We had a really neat way to do that. Basically, every command we had was in a file. You go into a word processor and you could type up whatever you wanted in there. It could be translated into any language.
The whole list of every command that appears in the software. And being that it was compatible with any of the screen readers, it didn't matter which screen reader you used. It was totally independent of that.
So it was only our software' design that we needed to worry about the translation. And that's how we got around that was that we designed it in a way so that all the commands were linked to, were imported, from a data file. And so when we shipped it off to Sweden, they would translate it into whichever language they needed it for, depending on where they were shipping out to. So that worked out really nicely.
And then we made an agreement, also, with Papenmeyer. So they sold our systems in Germany and we were selling their Braille displays here, refreshable Braille.
Again, another very, very expensive piece of equipment, but all the refreshable Braille at that time was really expensive, in the area of $15,000.
Tony Candela: Well they're still very expensive, but at least now they're down to between $4-7 or 8,000. But they're still very expensive. Our industry has its next quantum leap goal, I think, to do something about a less expensive but yet effective Braille display.
Saba Hocek: Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Braille displays is that there aren't enough Braille readers out there. People who read Braille. And so you go from first of all, the general, and this is what really turned us off when we were initially doing research, the general blindness market is not a very large number. The number of totally blind, is a very small portion of that. It is like 15%, if I'm not mistaken. Of those 15%, something like 90% of them, are senior citizens.
So the leftovers are our industry. Because the senior citizens for the most part, especially in the 1980's, were they ready to be looking at a PC with a scanner and this and that? It was, no. Today, yes. It's different. Today you've got lots of senior citizens on the Internet and so forth, but not in the '80's.
So you're dealing with a very tiny market. Now, of that tiny percent of totally blind, non-senior citizen people, you've got a tiny, tiny population who can read Braille.
Tony Candela: And of that population, not every one of them reads Braille with sufficient facility to want to spend $7,000 or $15,000 on a Braille display.
Saba Hocek: Right.