THE BRAILLE MONITORVol. 43, No. 1 January, 2000
THE NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
MARC MAURER, PRESIDENTNational Office
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THE NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND IS NOT AN
ORGANIZATIONSPEAKING FOR THE BLIND--IT IS THE BLIND
SPEAKING FOR THEMSELVES
Vol. 43, No.1 January, 2000
by Marc Maurer
by Euclid J. Herie
Brave New World: Technology for the Blind in the 21st Century
by Raymond Kurzweil
NonVisual Access to Information
The Current State of Technology for the Blind And the Challenge of the
by Curtis Chong
The State of the Law on Technology for the Blind: What It Is and What It
Ought to Be
by James Gashel
Rehabilitation Requirements and the Need for Universal Access to
The Accelerating Pace Of Technology, A Challenge for Vocational Rehabilitation
by Fredric K. Schroeder
America Online: Stonewalling Responsibility and Ignoring Access for the
by Richard Ring
Accessible Automated Teller Machines
by Len Fowler
Access to Electronic and Information Technology: Evolving Federal
Standards for Nonvisual Use
by Pat Cannon
Refreshable Braille Now and in the Years Ahead
by Deane Blazie
Frontiers in Tactile Perception
by T. V. Cranmer
Braille Translation in the Era of the Digitized Book
by Joe Sullivan
Web-Braille: A New Distribution System for Braille Books
by Judy Dixon
Opportunities and Challenges In the Era of Digital Information
Implications of the Digital Talking Book and Beyond
by George Kerscher
Publishing Tools: Converting Obstacles to Opportunities
by Michael Gosse
A View from the Publishers
by Carol Risher
Access to Information: The Next Step Forward
by Gilles P'epin
New Regulations Under the Telecommunications Act: New Opportunities for
by Dale Hatfield
Accessibility for the Blind: The Necessity for Coordination and Joint
by Marc Maurer
Consumers and Vendors of Technology for the Blind: An Underserved
by David Andrews
Nonvisual Access to Electronic Print Displays
by Paul Mitten
Final Discussion Summary
Copyright © 2000 National Federation of the Blind
October 27 and 28, 1999,the National Federation of the Blind and the
Canadian National Institute for the Blind hosted the Fourth U.S./Canada Conference on
Technology for the Blind at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore.
[PHOTO DESCRIPTION: Four photographs appear on this page. They show different sections of the large conference room at the National Center for the Blind. The U-shaped set of tables that usually fills the center of the room was augmented by three more sets, making a total of five lines of tables perpendicular to the head table. The podium from which all presenters spoke was located directly opposite the center of the head table. The pictures demonstrate just how many people attended the Fourth U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind. The bottom right picture shows participants all laughing delightedly at something said.]
[PHOTO CAPTION: The center and east end of the north side of the Conference meeting room]
[PHOTO CAPTION: The east end of the meeting room's south side]
[PHOTO CAPTION: The center of the room and the west end of the south side]
[PHOTO CAPTION: The laughter of Conference participants proves that not every moment of the meeting was serious.]
[PHOTO DESCRIPTION: This picture shows much of the conference head table. Against the back wall three flags are grouped toward the left side. They are the flags of the United States, Canada, and Spain--the countries of conference participants. Standing alone on the right side is the NFB flag.]
[PHOTO CAPTION: Seated at the head table (left to right) are Deane Blazie, Euclid Herie, Marc Maurer, and Raymond Kurzweil.]
by Marc Maurer
Perhaps one of the most perpetually compelling issues in the field of blindness is technology and its power to enhance or frustrate the lives of blind people. When technology for the blind becomes the topic of conversation, there are many experts--often self-proclaimed--and an almost unlimited number of opinions. Technology for the blind is a field of endeavor which is relatively young and fairly diverse. Problems for the blind user of technology abound, and there is no lack of emotion--hope, despair, eagerness, frustration, annoyance, outrage, anger, delight.
The range of emotion exists because the promises made in the name of technology are sometimes astonishingly great, and the disappointments felt by the blind user when it doesn't work are of equal proportion. All too often, just when one vexing problem seems to be on the brink of solution, the technology changes and the target shifts. A completely new set of daunting technological conundrums is presented to the unsuspecting blind public. During the time it takes to solve the new riddles, the blind have diminished access to the information easily used by the sighted.
This is the set of circumstances that serves as the backdrop for the Fourth U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind, which took place on October 27 and 28, 1999. The fourth conference followed the pattern set by the first three. All major organizations of and for the blind in the United States and Canada were invited to participate along with the major manufacturers of technology for the blind and the governmental entities that are likely to have an impact on the development or distribution of access devices or systems. Because of the historic significance of this conference, we are devoting an entire issue of the Braille Monitor to reprinting the proceedings.
The concepts discussed at the meeting are far-reaching, but the Fourth U.S./Canada Conference could not have achieved the significance it did without the first three. The first of these conferences took place at the National Center for the Blind in 1991. It was unique in the field of blindness because no such gathering had ever before occurred, and some wondered whether relations and political differences among entities dealing with blindness would permit any collaboration. However, the conference, hosted by the National Federation of the Blind and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, brought a measure of harmony and cooperation to organizations of and for the blind that had never before existed.
The second of these conferences was convened in 1993, and it was even more harmonious than the first. Many of the producers of technology for the blind welcomed suggestions from the users of that technology. A widespread recognition emerged that joint effort among manufacturers, public and private agencies for the blind, and blind consumers would assist the producers of technology to provide products that would best serve the market and give increased prosperity to all.
In 1996 the Third U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind was convened. For the third time Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, the long-time leader of the National Federation of the Blind and its President Emeritus, planned the gathering with the advice and assistance of Dr. Euclid Herie, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the President of the World Blind Union. Although efforts were still directed toward increasing cooperation at this conference, the desirability of joint action had already become readily apparent from the experiences of the first two conferences. The third conference concentrated on the topics of most immediate concern to blind users of technology.
In each of the first three conferences several people speculated about the shape of the future. These futurists were concerned about technology for the blind, but they also discussed technology for everybody. Some of this speculative dreaming suggested that the gap between technology for the blind and technology for the sighted would narrow. However, immediate frustrations made other participants doubt. In some cases the advances in technology for the blind would, some participants speculated, give a new perspective to the development of technology designed for the sighted. The Third U.S./Canada Conference focused sharply on technology itself.
The Fourth U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind gathered with the spirit, energy, and enthusiasm that had been developed during the first three. Advances in technology for the blind have continued to be made; however, technology in general has also proceeded, and with it new problems in gaining access to information have been created. Consequently, even with advances in technology for the blind, problems for blind users continue to exist. For example, at one time many stated with confidence that no system could ever be manufactured that would permit blind people to gain access to information presented through the graphical user interface. However, determined effort has, to a substantial extent, made this information available in voice and tactile forms.
The fourth conference discussed more than technology. It explored the rights and responsibilities of manufacturers of technology--both producers working exclusively with the blind and those in the broader market. What laws should be adopted to assure access to information for the blind? How can entities dealing with blindness take joint action to bring maximum advantage to blind people? How can governmental agencies be persuaded to assist with access solutions before products are released so that the long and painful process of retrofitting is unnecessary? What role should publishers play in providing fundamental information to the blind as well as to others? These and other similar questions were considered by the conference.
The harmony and perceived need for joint action continued to be as great as they have ever been. In 1991, when Dr. Jernigan and Dr. Herie planned the first of these conferences, they undoubtedly anticipated that the gatherings themselves would assist the participants to comprehend the community of interest that all organizations dealing with blindness have. The consolidation of action within the blindness field may be the greatest accomplishment of the series of conferences on technology for the blind.
They have, of course, had other salutary effects. The need for the blind to have access to information stimulated the development of the NEWSLINE® for the Blind Network and the America's Jobline® system that bring job listings and newspapers to blind people throughout North America by touch-tone telephone. These two systems, pioneered by the National Federation of the Blind and conceived by the imagination of Dr. Jernigan, have resulted at least in part from the stimulus of these conferences on technology. And other developments, too, have been inspired by the cooperative efforts of these conferences. Some of them are laid out in the presentations made to the Fourth Conference. Here, beginning with an alphabetical list of conference attendees, are the proceedings as they occurred:
David Andrews, Minnesota State Services for the Blind
Susan Benbow, Rehabilitation Services Administration
David Best, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
Deane Blazie, Blazie Engineering
John Brabyn, Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Foundation
Michelle Brul`e, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
Brian Buhrow, University of California
Geoffrey Bull, Braille International, Inc.
Pat Cannon, United States Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board
Chris Chamberlain, Frontier Computing
Curtis Chong, National Federation of the Blind
Charles Cook, Roudley Associates
John Cookson, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
T. V. Cranmer, International Braille Research Center
Frank Kurt Cylke, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Judy Dixon, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Oscar Fern`andez, O.N.C.E.
Len Fowler, T-Base Communications
James R. Fruchterman, Arkenstone, Inc.
James Gashel, National Federation of the Blind
Michael Gosse, National Federation of the Blind
Jim Halliday, Humanware, Inc.
Dale Hatfield, Federal Communications Commission
Euclid Herie, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
Janice Hertz, Microsoft Corporation
Mary Ellen Jernigan, National Federation of the Blind
George Kerscher, DAISY Consortium
Chuck King, IBM Special Needs Systems
Raymond Kurzweil, Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, Inc.
Luanne LaLonde, Microsoft Corporation
Mary Frances Laughton, Industry Canada
Jos`e Luis Lorente, O.N.C.E.
Marc Maurer, National Federation of the Blind
Peter Merrill, Betacom
Paul Mitten, Compusult Limited
Betty Nobel, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
Gilles P`epin, VisuAide 2000, Inc.
David Pillischer, Sighted Electronics, Inc.
William M. Raeder, National Braille Press
Lloyd Rasmussen, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Richard Ring, National Federation of the Blind
Carol Risher, Association of American Publishers, Inc.
Mohymen Saddeek, TFI Engineering and Myna Corporation
James Sanders, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
Tony Schenk, Enabling Technologies Company
Fredric Schroeder, Rehabilitation Services Administration
Paul Schroeder, American Foundation for the Blind
Dick Scribner, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic
Dave Skrivanek, Repro-Tronics
Larry Skutchan, American Printing House for the Blind
Susan Spungin, American Foundation for the Blind
Graham Stoodley, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
Linda Studholme, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
Joseph Sullivan, Duxbury Systems, Inc.
Tuck Tinsley, American Printing House for the Blind
Dennis Tottenham, Project Online, Canada
Jutta Treviranus, University of Toronto
Robert Wynn, Hadley School for the Blind
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Euclid Herie]
by Euclid J. Herie
From the Editor: Euclid Herie is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) and President of the World Blind Union (WBU).
The advantage of wearing two hats at once is that one can cover a little more ground. I will indulge your patience for a moment with a few comments. First of all, as President of the World Blind Union, I bring you greetings from the blind of the world and from the officers, including Dr. Maurer, who, as you know, is the President of this region. Also, as President of the CNIB, I bring you greetings from our National Chairman and our Canadian delegation including Mr. Graham Stoodley, who is a member of the CNIB National Board of Directors and Chair of the National Client Services Committee, and Mr. James W. Sanders, Vice President, Client Services and Technology.
I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge Dr. Maurer and the National Federation of the Blind for hosting this event. Hosting such an event takes a great deal of planning and organizing. The NFB are gracious hosts; their generosity of spirit and effort I know will make this event a huge success.
The history that Dr. Maurer referred to is important because there are always new players and stakeholders at the table. Kenneth Jernigan and I talked about the importance of this kind of conference some ten years ago. I have no idea whether he suggested it or we both did. However, I think it is a tribute to his vision that technology would play a major role in creating the opportunity, economic security, and freedom needed by blind people. So I am particularly mindful that Dr. Jernigan would be pleased to know that for the fourth time in this decade we have brought together truly the best and the brightest in North America and around the world. When we met last April, Dr. Maurer suggested that we have a fourth conference, so again, Sir, I appreciate that in your role as President of the NFB you have assumed the mantle of moving this very important agenda forward.
The World Blind Union through its Committee on Technology raises the specter of problems ahead in obtaining accessible and affordable technology because 80 percent of blind people do live in parts of the world where access to technology, electricity, or telephone lines is still a dream of the future. So either our talk of accessibility and affordability can remain as an oxymoron, or we can forge a blueprint that will make it a reality. I urge all of you to take on this challenge at this conference.
Research is critical. I am proud to say that we in Canada, through the CNIB Winston Gordon Award, have recognized excellence in technology. Three winners are present in body or spirit today: Deane Blazie, the first winner; Raymond Kurzweil, the second; and two years ago Kenneth Jernigan was honored at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. We also sponsor a $10,000 research grant, the Ben E. and Mary Hochhausen Award available to anyone in the world.
When Kenneth and I talked ten years ago, Web sites and cell phones were really not a part of our daily lives as they are today. It is amazing how much progress we have made in this decade. Also this past decade we have seen a time of deregulating only to regulate. We will be speaking a lot about that in the next two days because, as we have freed up the airwaves and other public supports such as transportation and other things,it has forced in the disability field, and certainly in the blindness field, pressures to create regulations that put a stop to the kind of systemic discrimination that all of us face so often in our daily activities.
We must be mindful of what these so-called freedoms are going to mean in our world in the next millennium with terms such as e-com and digital economy. However, either blind people in the world are going to be within the digital economy, or we are going to fall outside the realm. I would suggest to you that in some parts of the world--even in developed countries--as the digital economy speeds up, gains momentum, and is hugely funded, blind people are victimized and continue to fall between the cracks. I know that you will be astounded in the course of these next few days at what you will hear in that regard. We must understand the implications for blind persons of globalization as a phenomenon and a reality of our life in the future. . . . The NAFTA agreements in our countries, the European Bloc, the now G 20 that has been established, the UN agencies and that whole entire system affect blind people directly.
In Canada we have established partnerships within the blindness field, for example, with the Library of Congress through Mr. Cylke's programs and with many other countries around the world. I truly believe, whether in accessible technology or the range of services and programs, that this sector will not escape globalization any more than the other things that touch your life. We are seeing these trends move ever more rapidly. It is therefore incumbent on the leadership in this room during these two days to exploit this opportunity. Let us take the long-term view, create that vision, build on it, and secure it. As the conference agenda indicates, we are here to set in motion action plans for the technology services that blind people will require in the third millennium.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Raymond Kurzweil]
Brave New World: Technology for the Blind in the 21st Century
by Raymond Kurzweil, Ph.D.
From the Editor: Ray Kurzweil has demonstrated his commitment to improving the lives of blind people through technology since the mid-seventies. He is a talented inventor and thinker, and he has keynoted all four of the U.S./Canada technology seminars. We found it necessary to summarize parts of his remarks as the keynote speaker on October 27 since a written transcription of his demonstration of his new language-translation program would have made very little sense.
It's a great pleasure to be here at the headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind, which I would honestly say is my favorite organization, and I see many of my favorite people here, whom I have kept running into over the past quarter century. This is a very rewarding field of work, and I think people who discover it never leave. So it's always the same group of people.
It started about a quarter century ago when I met Jim Gashel--who hasn't changed a bit--and he introduced me to Dr. Jernigan. We had this little project of a reading machine for the blind, which we were trying to interest people in, and a lot of people were interested in it and wished us well. But Dr. Jernigan, being the visionary and entrepreneurial person that he was, wanted to get involved and help us--help us in ways we hadn't expected, including helping us design the reading machine. We didn't realize we needed that help, but we did. Dr. Jernigan and Mr. Gashel organized a whole team of blind engineers and helped insure that the reading machine would be really useful to blind people.
In my first session with Dr. Jernigan I didn't know a lot about blindness--I'm still learning, though I know more than I did a quarter of a century ago. He said that blindness could be just a characteristic, just a minor inconvenience, and that blind people could accomplish anything they wanted to, just like sighted people. At the time I wondered to myself to what extent that was really true--was this a goal or a political statement, or was it a reality? I want to come back to that as I talk about the role of technology because I think technology has one small part to play in realizing Dr. Jernigan's vision. I very quickly came to recognize that Dr. Jernigan's statement was a plain, realistic assessment, provided that you had an organization like the National Federation of the Blind to make some prerequisites of the vision a reality. Those prerequisites include training in the skills and knowledge to accomplish the things desired.
The right attitudes about what blind people can accomplish are important for blind and sighted people alike. And information accessibility in all forms must be encouraged at every level. Technology has one role to play, but the technology needs to be useful to blind people. It needs to have the right features. Blind people must be involved in its development. The technology and the skills needed to use it effectively must be available.
I want to come back to those issues, and I want to talk about how, in my view, technology will develop in general over the next century. I think we will be hearing a good bit about technology issues in the very near term at this conference. So I think it's appropriate to start out with a little more expansive view about where technology will go over the next several decades and how that will affect technology for the disabled, with particular regard to the visually impaired.
I would like to start with some contemporary technology. This is technology circa 1999--actually I should probably say circa 2001. I had to decide whether to show you some bullet-proof technology that would be reliable or share with you some really cutting-edge technology that's not so bullet-proof. I opted for the latter, so I hope you'll bear with me. This is a rather complicated assemblage of software components, which usually work well together, but this is only the second time I have given this demonstration. I gave it in a private meeting with Bill Gates about ten days ago because he likes to stay on the cutting edge. It actually worked pretty well. It did make one mistake, which I will share with you after I give you this demo.
[Dr. Kurzweil began by calibrating the system for the acoustical environment in which it would be working. He then said three times in a clear voice, "It is very good to be here comma." After a pause a female voice repeated the words in extremely understandable German. Speaking in short, clear phrases, he went on to say that this was a demonstration of a prototype of a translating telephone and that in several years anyone would be able to speak to anyone else regardless of the languages spoken by the parties. Each phrase was faithfully translated into excellently accented German.
After making a small alteration in his equipment, Dr. Kurzweil spoke again, and after one patch of gobbledy-gook, French replaced the German. The same female voice spoke just as acceptable French as it had German. Then Dr. Kurzweil spoke in French, and the system produced unaccented English. In fairness one should point out that the machine's French pronunciation was considerably better than the human being's; yet the machine understood it and did its job.]
This was a combination of three technologies running on a notebook computer: speech recognition (Version 4 of Voice Express, the Kurzweil voice-to-text technology I sold to Lernout & Hauspie two years ago), language translation, which can go back and forth in sixteen languages, and RealSpeak, which is a new speech synthesizer. This system uses a new version of Voice Express. I have another one which I used to dictate my book, but this is a fresh one that has only heard me for about ten minutes, so you can see that it is quite accurate.
As for RealSpeak, I've been watching speech synthesis for twenty-five years, since we developed the first full text-to-speech twenty-five years ago in the Kurzweil Reading Machine. The early text-to-speech required some getting used to. Over time speech synthesis has gotten more understandable, but it has still sounded synthetic. RealSpeak is new technology. It's not quite out as a product, but it is coming out. That was not recorded speech; it was text-to-speech. [He then typed a sentence into the computer for the system to read back, proving that it really was producing high-quality synthetic speech.] The speed can be varied.
This full text-to-speech system will be in our reading machine anyway, along with the language translation, so that you can read something in French and hear it translated in a human-sounding voice. A lot of the technology is actually devoted to the prosodics, understanding at least the grammar of the speech, so the inflection is fairly reasonable--not as intelligent as a human reading it, but pretty good. There will be other voices, and next year you will be able to record a sample of your own voice and have the machine speak in your voice or maybe someone else's voice that you like to listen to.
Let me now talk about where technology is going. We will be hearing a lot about the next few years, so I'll concentrate on the more distant future, as is, perhaps, fitting for a keynote. Then I will come back and address what the implications are for technology for blindness, which is something that has been important to me for twenty-five years, and I'm sure to all of you.
How many people here are familiar with Moore's law? Virtually every hand went up. I always ask that question, but now it is sometimes almost insulting to do so. It's like asking if you have heard of computers. But only two or three years ago relatively few hands went up in most audiences, even among people in the computer industry. So Moore's law has become more and more noticeable.
What is Moore's law? It says that transistors on an integrated circuit get smaller--take up about half as much space--every two years. This means that you can put twice as many transistors on an integrated circuit. And, because they are smaller and the electrons don't have to travel as far, they run twice as fast. That's actually a quadrupling of computer power for the same unit cost every two years. That's been going on for quite some time. Gordon Moore first noticed it in the 1960's. At first he said it was every twelve months; then he revised it to every twenty-four months in the 1970's. Where does Moore's Law come from? Why is this happening? Randy Isaacs from IBM Research says it's just a basic set of industry expectations, that it's been going on, so we know where we need to be at particular times in the future, and we target our research to be there. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But in examining where technology will go in the twenty-first century, it's important to understand this phenomenon in greater depth because that paradigm of the shrinking transistors is going to come to an end. There is some controversy as to whether it is in ten years or twenty years, but sometime during the teen years, 2010 to 2019, the key features of transistors will be so small that they will be only a few atoms in width, and we won't be able to shrink them anymore. So is that the end of Moore's Law? Well yes, but is it the end of the acceleration of computer power, the exponential growth of computing that we have seen in recent decades?
That is a very important question to answer because, depending on the outcome, either computer technology will continue to become more and more profound, or it will level off. So I have spent a lot of time examining that issue. Relatively little has been written about it. The first thing I did was to consider all of the computers over the past hundred years--forty-nine machines going back to 1900. I started with the computer that did the 1890 U.S. census and ran up to the Turing Robinson machine built out of telephone relays that cracked the German Enigma code.
That's actually an interesting story. A Polish spy had stolen the German Enigma machine, which had three coding wheels, and they figured out how it coded. But they needed a computer to figure out every combination of the coding wheels in order to decode messages. The only problem was that they didn't have a computer, So Turing invented the computer and built the first functioning computer in 1942. It succeeded in breaking the German code, and Churchill had a complete transcription of all the German military messages.
He knew when the Nazis were going to bomb various English cities. He was under great pressure to warn city officials so that they could take necessary precautions, and he refused to do that because he figured that, if the Germans saw these precautions, they would realize that their code had been broken. He didn't really use this information until the Battle of Britain when suddenly the English planes just seemed to know at every moment where the German planes would be. Despite the fact that they were outnumbered, they won the Battle of Britain. And if it hadn't been for that, we wouldn't have had a place from which to launch our D-Day invasion.
Anyway, I have that machine on the chart in the early '40's. Then there was the vacuum-tube computer that CBS used to predict the election of Eisenhower in 1952. The notebook computer you bought your daughter for Christmas last year is on the chart also. I put the computers on an exponential graph, in which a straight line would mean exponential growth. The first thing I noticed was that the exponential growth of computers goes back a hundred years, long before we had any integrated circuits, long before Moore's Law was feasible. So it turns out that Moore's Law is not the first but the fifth paradigm to project exponential growth in computing, starting with the relay-based electro-mechanical calculators, then relay-based computers, then vacuum-based computers, then transistor-based computers, and finally integrated-circuit computers.
The other thing I noticed is that it's actually not a straight line. That graph is another exponential; the rate of exponential growth in computing has actually been growing exponentially. We doubled computing power every three years at the beginning of the century, every two years in the middle of the century; and now we are doubling it every year. So that rate continues to accelerate. One of the predictions that this suggests is that, when Moore's Law dies, there'll be another, a sixth paradigm to continue the exponential growth of computing.
We don't have to look far to figure out what that is. Despite the fact that they are very dense, integrated circuits are built in two dimensions; they're flat. Our brains, by contrast, are built in three dimensions. We live in a three-dimensional world; why not use the third dimension? That obviously will be the sixth paradigm. There are already chips with dozens of layers of circuitry; they are building some now with hundreds of layers of circuitry. And there is a new technology called nanotubes, which are basically pentagonal tubes of carbon atoms, and researchers have been able to arrange them in such a way that they can do every kind of electrical manipulation--emulate transistors and other types of electrical components. So they can actually build three-dimensional computing circuits at the atomic level using these molecular structures that are extremely strong and impervious to heat, which is the main problem in building two-dimensional circuits.
They have built small-scale circuits; they haven't yet built a full nanotube-based computer, but this is technology that we can touch and feel. We know that it works. A one-inch cube of nanotube circuitry would be a million times more powerful than the human brain. There are probably a dozen different three-dimensional types of circuitry being developed. We can't be sure which one will prevail, but I think we can have confidence that a sixth paradigm will be there when this fifth paradigm of Moore's Law runs out of steam just as in the 1950's, when they were building vacuum-tube-based computers. They kept shrinking the vacuum tubes and making them smaller and smaller. They finally came to a fundamental limit where they just couldn't make them any smaller; then transistors came along. Transistors are not small tubes; it's a completely different paradigm.
As we look at the history of technology, we see that this exponential growth of a technical process is inherent in all of technology. Moore's Law is not the only example of exponential growth. Take the human genome scans, a completely different issue. We can sequence DNA at a certain speed. Twelve years ago the human genome project was announced, and it was greeted with a lot of skepticism because people pointed out that at the speed with which we could then scan the human genome, it would take 10,000 years to finish the project. Proponents of the project said, "Well, technology accelerates, so we'll figure out how to make this fast." And indeed, if you plot genome sequencing speeds, they have accelerated in the same way that computing speeds have. We are now going to finish that project on time, in a fifteen-year period. In fact, it is going to finish years early.
Brain scanning used to be very crude, low-resolution, and slow, but it has also accelerated in the same way. We can make this basic observation about technology in general. Technology is an evolutionary process, and it accelerates. The first steps in technology took tens of thousands of years. It took thousands of years to figure out that, if you sharpened both sides of a stone, you created a sharp edge which made a useful tool. It also took tens of thousands of years to develop the other early steps in technology such as the wheel and using fire. But a key difference between the human species and other species is that we remembered these innovations. There are many examples of other species using tools, but they don't have a species-wide knowledge base that they pass down from generation to generation and to which they add on layers of innovation.
Humans, in contrast, have used the tools from one generation to create the tools of the next. So a thousand years ago paradigm shifts took only a few hundred years rather than tens of thousands of years. We accomplished more in the nineteenth century than in the ten centuries before it. We accomplished more in the first twenty years of the twentieth century than we did in all of the nineteenth. Today paradigm shifts take only a few years. The World Wide Web didn't exist in anything like its current form just a few years ago. So technology accelerates.
If we take an even broader view, we can say that any evolutionary process accelerates. Technology is just one example of that. Take the evolution of life forms. It took billions of years for the first cells to form. Then in the Cambrian explosion paradigm shifts took only tens of millions of years. Later on humanoids would evolve in only a few million years, then homo sapiens in only a few hundred thousand years. At that point the accelerating pace of the evolution of life forms became too fast for DNA-guided protein synthesis to keep up with it, and the cutting edge of evolution on Earth migrated from the evolution of life forms, changed from evolution of DNA-guided protein synthesis to the evolution of technology.
Obviously DNA-guided biological evolution continues, but it is at such a slow pace that it is insignificant compared to the accelerating pace of technology. The key point is that technology in the twenty-first century will become so powerful that it will provide the next step in evolution.
If we view Moore's Law in this perspective, it's just one example of an accelerating technological process. It took us ninety years to achieve the first MIPS (million instructions per second) per thousand dollars. Now we add a MIPS per thousand dollars every day. So that process is accelerating. It is one of many accelerating processes in technology. Any particular innovation allows us to grow exponentially for a while, but then the paradigm eventually ends, and it's taken over by some other innovation. It is basically the process of human innovation and creativity that allows the exponential growth of a technology to continue. We can view the exponential growth of computing as an example of the exponential growth of any evolutionary process, and it goes back to the evolution of life on Earth. It's a multi-billion-year process which is now getting faster and faster.
There are many technologies waiting in the wings which will continue that process. Where will this take us in the twenty-first century? The human brain is immensely powerful in one way. It's remarkable that such an intricate, complex, rich, and deep-thinking entity could evolve through natural selection. On the other hand its design is limited and crude in certain respects. The tremendous power of the human brain comes from its massively parallel organization. We have a hundred billion neurons. Each of them has a thousand connections to other neurons. That's a hundred trillion connections. The calculations take place in the connections, so that's a hundred-trillion-fold parallelism.
This notebook computer I have up here does one thing at a time, and it does it very quickly. The human brain, by contrast, does a hundred trillion things at a time. That's a very different type of organization. On the other hand, the circuitry it uses is an electrochemical form of information-processing. It's both analog and digital. We can do analog processing with electronics--there's nothing unique there. But it's very slow. The human brain interneural connections calculate at about two hundred calculations per second, which is at least ten million times slower than electronic circuits. Neurons are quite big, clumsy objects compared to electronic circuits. Most of their complexity is devoted to maintaining their life processes and reproduction, not their information-processing capabilities. If we take that hundred trillion connections and multiply it by two hundred calculations per second, we get a capacity of about twenty billion million calculations per second, or about twenty billion MIPS, which is on the order of a million times more powerful than notebook computers today.
But, as I mentioned, electronics and computing is growing exponentially; human thinking is not. It is relatively fixed. Our human thinking is constrained to a mere hundred trillion calculations at a time. Nonbiological intelligence has no such constraint. I have developed a mathematical model of this double exponential growth, which matches different technological processes. (Another one, by the way, is miniaturization. You have certainly noticed in your lifetime how technology gets smaller and smaller. That's actually another predictable exponential process. Right now we are shrinking technology at a rate of 5.6 per linear dimension per decade.) So we can project where technology will be, at least in these types of quantitative terms,at different points in time. By 2019 a thousand-dollar computer--and they won't look like this rectangular box I have on the podium--will match that twenty billion million calculations per second. By 2030 a thousand-dollar computer will be a thousand times more powerful than the human brain. By 2050 a thousand dollars of computation will equal the thinking capacity of ten billion brains. I might be off a year or two on that.
I did actually predict in a book I wrote in the 1980's that by 1998 a computer would take the world chess championship, based on how many moves ahead I thought the computer would need to look to match the playing of a human grand master or chess champion. That was actually off by a year because it happened in 1997.
But by 2019 we will have the basic capacity of human thinking in nonbiological form. That's a necessary but not sufficient condition to recreate human intelligence. We could have a machine that's a million times more powerful than the human brain and have merely a very fast calculator that could calculate your spreadsheet in a billionth of a second. But we wouldn't necessarily have the richness, subtlety, suppleness, and flexibility of human intelligence. We wouldn't have the endearing qualities of human thought. How are we going to achieve that, which I would call the software of human intelligence: the knowledge, the skills of human intelligence?
Before I address that question, let me say that, once nonbiological intelligence achieves the richness and capabilities of human intelligence and all the diverse ways that humans excel in thinking, it will necessarily soar past it for several reasons. For one thing machines can share their knowledge. If I spend years learning French, I can't download that knowledge to you. Humans can communicate, something that other species have not been able to do, in the way of building up a species-wide dialogue and cultural knowledge base and technological knowledge base, but we don't have quick downloading ports on our neurotransmitter concentrations.
If I learn French, where is that knowledge; what is it; what represents all of my knowledge and skills and personality and capabilities? It's a pattern of information; it's a pattern on interneuronal connections. Our brains do grow new connections between neurons. That's part of our skill and knowledge. It's a vast, intricate pattern of information that's in my brain--in everyone's brain--representing memories, knowledge, and skill. And we don't have a way of taking that pattern and quickly instantiating it into someone else's brain.
Machines do have that. Take this system I just demonstrated to you. We spent years teaching several research computers how to recognize human speech. We started with certain methods which were imperfect. We had tens of thousands of hours of recorded human speech, which is annotated with the accurate transcription. We had the speech-recognition system try to recognize it, and when it made mistakes, we corrected it. We've automated that teaching process, and patiently we have taught it to correct its errors. It adjusts its pattern of information to be able to do a better job. But after years we have a system in our laboratory which does a very good job of recognizing human speech.
Now, if you want your notebook computer to recognize human speech, you don't have to go through those years of training. You can quickly load the program, which is the pattern of information that we've evolved over a couple of decades of research, and you can load it in a matter of seconds. So computers can share their knowledge; they do have the means of loading these patterns quickly. As we build these nonbiological equivalents of our thinking process, we are not going to leave out quick downloading ports for interneuronal connection patterns and neuro-transmission concentration patterns.
Another advantage is that electronics is inherently faster--ten million times faster right now and continuing to get faster. As we can build structures that are equivalent in three dimensions to the massively parallel processing of the human brain, they will be inherently faster than human thinking.
Machines have more accurate memories. We are all hard-pressed to remember a handful of phone numbers. Machines can remember billions of facts accurately and recall them very quickly. So, if we combine the subtlety and richness of human thinking with some of these advantages of knowledge-sharing, speed, and accuracy of memory, it will be a formidable combination. And the nonbiological forms of intelligence will continue to grow exponentially.
But how are we going to achieve that software of intelligence? All of this speed is just brute force,crunching of information. It's not the subtlety and richness of human intelligence. In my book [The Age of Spiritual Machines] I talk about a number of different scenarios, but I'll just address one, which I think is the most compelling. We have an example of an entity that has human-level intelligence: the human brain. We have several dozen examples in this room. It's not hidden from us.
It's not impossible to access that information. In fact, we are well down that path. We've been scanning the human brain,and, as I mentioned earlier, the speed and resolution of our ability to do that is continuing to accelerate as well. We have the ability today actually to scan the human brain with sufficient resolution and fineness of detail to see every single detail, all the neurotransmitter concentrations, the interneural connections, provided that the scanning tip is in close physical proximity to those neural features. So we take that scanning tip and move it around in the brain so that it's near every single interneural connection, every neurotransmitter concentration, every detail.
How are we going to do that without making a mess of things? We are going to do it in the following way. This is a scenario that we can touch and feel today. Everything I am going to describe is feasible today, except for cost and size. But those are aspects that we can readily predict because of the ongoing trends of the accelerating price performance of computing and diminishing size or miniaturization. We simply develop what I call little nanobots, nano-robots, the size of blood cells, which are little computers with some robotic and scanning capability, and send them through the bloodstream. By the way, we already have early prototypes of nanobots, something called smart dust, which is extremely tiny specks that actually have computers in them, scanning devices, communication devices. They can actually fly; they have little wings. So we are already building little tiny devices.
By 2030 we will be able to send billions of these little nanobots through the bloodstream. They will travel through every capillary in the brain and get into close physical proximity to every neural feature and build up a big database of exactly how that human brain is organized.The results will at least be a data dump of the organization of a human brain. What are we going to do with that information? One thing is that we are going to learn how the human brain works and understand how those massively parallel analog algorithms work. That's already underway. We actually already have maps of the early auditory and visual cortex. This speech-recognition, for example, has built into it the transformations that the human brain does on sound information. Without that speech recognition wouldn't work very well. So we are already applying our insights into the human brain from these scanning projects to the design of intelligent software.
Another application of this kind of intelligent software is that we could reinstantiate the whole database into a neural computer of sufficient capacity. That wouldn't necessarily require us to understand all the methods. We would need to understand local brain processes, but not necessarily global brain processes. So if you scan my brain and reinstantiate it into a computer, you'd have a new Ray Kurzweil, and he would claim to have grown up in Queens, New York, and have gone to Massachusetts to go to MIT, and then he met Dr. Jernigan and developed a relationship with the National Federation of the Blind and was involved with reading machines for a few decades. He would say, "I walked into the scanner over there and woke up in the machine here. This technology really works." He will have a memory of having been Ray Kurzweil and will believe that he is Ray Kurzweil.
Of course I'll still be here in my old carbon-cell-based body and brain, and I'll probably end up jealous of the new Ray Kurzweil because he'll be capable of things I could only dream of. Sometimes this scenario is presented as a road to immortality, but there are some philosophical issues that one has to contend with. For example, you could scan my brain while I am sleeping and reinstantiate. I wouldn't even necessarily know about it. If you came to me in the morning and said, "Hey Ray, good news--we've successfully scanned and reinstantiated your brain; we don't need your old carbon-cell-based body and brain anymore," I might discover a flaw in that philosophical perspective.
We could talk for a long time about the philosophical conundrums of what consciousness is and whether these entities are conscious at all. I will say that these entities will certainly seem conscious; they will claim to be human even though they are based on nonbiological thinking processes. They will seem very human, and they will be very intelligent, so they will succeed in convincing us that they are intelligent. We will come to believe them; they will get mad if we don't believe them. Some philosophers will say, no, you cannot be conscious unless you squirt neurotransmitters, or you can't be conscious unless you are based on DNA-guided protein synthesis. Yes, they seem very conscious and they're compelling and they are funny and they get the joke and are emotional and they are very clever, but they don't squirt neurotransmitters, so they aren't conscious. At that point the nonbiological intelligence will crack a joke and will complain about being misunderstood, so we will come to accept that these are conscious entities.
But the more practical scenario we will see is that we will expand our own human intelligence through combining with this nonbiological intelligence. One way we will do this is with these nanobots. Today we have something called neuron transistors. These are little electrical devices, which, if they are in close physical proximity to a neuron, can communicate in both directions with that neuron. They can detect the firing of a neuron and can also cause that neuron to fire or suppress it from firing. That is two-way communication noninvasively--it doesn't have to stick a wire into the neuron; it just has to be next to it.
This technology is being used today. The whole era of neuroimplants has already started. I have a deaf friend who, before he got his cochlear implant, was profoundly deaf. I can now talk to him on the telephone because of his neural implant. There are neural implants for people with Parkinson's Disease--Parkinson's scrambles a certain locus of cells--and this neural implant replaces that neural module with an electronic equivalent and communicates through this type of noninvasive, electronic interface. This was first developed about three years ago. In a dramatic demonstration of the technology, patients with advanced Parkinson's so that they were completely rigid were wheeled in to the room. The doctor, who was controlling them noninvasively through wireless radio control--which is a little scary--flipped the switch, and suddenly they came alive. Their Parkinson's symptoms were eliminated as he activated their neural implants.
In my book I talk about an era of neural implants in which we will all use them to expand our thinking capability, not just to reverse diseases such as Parkinson's. People have challenged that, asking how many people are going to want to get a neural implant? Brain surgery is a pretty big step, a pretty formidable obstacle. The response is that we will be able to do this noninvasively. I just wrote a paper called "The Noninvasive, Surgery-Free, Reversible, Programmable, Distributed Neural Implant." It again uses these nanobots.
Remember that already today we have the means for electronic devices to communicate in both directions in the brain, to detect what is going on in the neural biological circuits and also to control them. So these nanobots go through the blood stream and take up positions in millions or billions of different locations; they can basically expand the brain. They can create new interneural connections because they will all be on a wireless area network. They will also all be plugged into the World Wide Web wirelessly, so they can expand all of our biological networks, or memory, learning capability. We will be able to download knowledge and skills. This will really happen. It will be gradually introduced in different ways. But as we go through the twenty-first century, we will be expanding our thinking capability through this intimate connection with nonbiological intelligence.
So let me come back to technology for the blind and just mention what we'll see as a few milestones. The very early part of the twenty-first century, the next several years, will see a rapid evolution of reading machines. They will take on new capabilities. They will sound human. They will translate languages. This is technology that will be introduced very soon. They will also get smaller. I have talked about my vision of hand-held reading machines for many years. We are really very close to having the technical means to have a digital camera that you can hold in the palm of your hand and instantly snap pages with sufficient resolution. We are also close to providing a pocket-sized reading machine that you can hold up to printed information in the real world, not necessarily on paper, like road signs, LTD displays, or other examples of real-world text.
If we look out ten to twenty years from now, computers as we know them are essentially going to disappear. They are not going to be in little boxes and palmtops that you can put into your pocket. They are going to become very small and discrete and be built into our clothing and into other little devices that we can carry around on our bodies. This again is all technology that we can touch and feel today. There are already tiny visual sensors the size of pins that provide very high-resolution imaging. In fact, the smart dust that I talked about has visual sensors. Part of the application for that is spying. One version of this is being developed by the U.S. military so that they can just drop millions of these in enemy territory. These tiny little visual sensors will be flying around and sending back reports on what they see.
But we can also apply this type of technology to the visually impaired. We will have the means constantly to interpret that visual information and present it through other modalities such as whispering in your ear or providing tactile information or combinations thereof. There will be plenty of opportunity to develop the most appropriate means of doing that. It's probably something we can't fully describe today. But information can be presented in many different forms. The reading machine is one example of that.
These visual sensors, which will be looking around in all directions, will be interpreting that information and providing a constant stream of information for a visually impaired person. This would include reading. Any kind of printed information could be spoken or translated by using reading machines, but they will also provide other interpretations of the visual world,
That's the scenario for 2010 to 2020. These devices will also be plugged into the World Wide Web through wireless communication. Everyone is going to walk around plugged into the World Wide Web at all times. Going to a Web site will mean entering a virtual-reality environment. We'll have the means of communicating with other people through that type of wireless communication at all times. These computing devices will be in and around our bodies and clothing within ten years. That's the scenario for between 2010 and 2020.
As we go out to 2030 and beyond, the type of technology I described, which can be introduced inside our bodies and brains, will become a reality. Like every other type of technology, they won't provide every capability that one could imagine initially, but the technology will continue to evolve. The power of the computing substrate will continue to grow exponentially, so we will have the means of introducing knowledge and information into our brains in a more intimate way. This is a vision for everyone. Ultimately that will mean that we will have many different ways of experiencing the world and expanding our knowledge.
Of course it will be important to develop and design this technology in ways that provide equal access for people with disabilities to overcome the disabilities and overcome the handicaps associated with disabilities. One lesson I have learned is the difference between the words "disability" and "handicap." Visual impairment, blindness, is a disability, and it may or may not be a handicap, depending on whether that person has the right set of skills and access to the right kind of technology. That's why organizations like the National Federation of the Blind and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind are vital, so that the power of this technology is applied to overcoming those handicaps.
One handicap is the inability to access ordinary print for material that isn't readily available in Braille or Talking Book form. Reading machines have the potential of overcoming that, provided that they are designed in the right way and that people have access to them and that they are affordable and distributed and that people learn how to use them. That's true for all technology. Overcoming handicaps is not necessarily an issue of technology. Sometimes simple technical solutions such as the fiber glass cane can overcome limitations in travel. But that's a matter of having the right set of skills, and again we need organizations like the NFB to make sure that they are available.
We will have many new tools in the future. These will provide opportunity, but there will also be challenges as we saw with the graphical user interface, which was a new technology that suddenly made visual information from the computer harder to access. With concerted efforts over the past five to ten years we've made great progress in making GUI information available. But we are going to continue to have those kinds of challenges when new technologies that create new sources of information are introduced. It's important that we keep in mind accessibility and make sure that blind people have access to the information. But I think the technical tools will be there, provided that we develop them in the right way.
That's really the purpose of this conference, to deal with some of the near-term issues of new technology. That will continue to be the case as we go forward. But I think we will have the tools, provided that we develop them in the right ways to continue the vision that Dr. Jernigan articulated, which I quickly decided back twenty-five years ago was true for all the people I met coming out of the Iowa Commission and from the National Federation of the Blind, but wasn't true for every blind person. Some didn't have the access, the training, and really the attitude that information is available in many different forms and that there is nothing that a blind person is unable to accomplish if there is access to the information and skills. That is the purpose of this conference. Technology has one role to play. I look forward to continuing to work on this. I've been involved with this field for twenty-five years, and I look forward to working with Dr. Maurer and Dr. Herie and other leaders of this field to continue that progress.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Curtis Chong]
The Current State of Technology for the Blind And the Challenge for the Twenty-first Century
by Curtis Chong
From the Editor: Curtis Chong is the Director of the National Federation of the Blinds Technology Department.
I am very pleased to be able to talk with you today and to tell you where I think we are with respect to technology for the blind. I also hope to share some of my thoughts about what I think we should do in the next century to ensure that the blind get a piece of the action in the area of technology.
It is fair to say that we, the blind, have entered the age of technology with a vengeance. Technology has profoundly affected our lives. We see this in the classroom, where the blind child learns to use an electronic note-taker, Braille embosser, or computer. We see this in the colleges and universities, where blind students routinely write and spell-check their college papers with word-processing software and communicate using e-mail. We see this in the vocational rehabilitation system, where clients ask their counselors for computers, screen-reading programs, print-reading systems, and electronic note-takers to help them compete with the sighted. We see this in the office, where blind employees use the same computer programs as their sighted peers. We see this in the home, where blind people struggle to learn enough so that they can use computers to manage personal finances, send e-mail to friends and relatives, and shop on the Web.
Much of the technology we use today was designed specifically for the blind. Other technology, developed for the general commercial market, is used by the blind with the help of so-called assistive technology. And to a growing extent there is commercial off-the-shelf technology which has in it enough nonvisual access that a blind person can use it out of the box.
We have speech output and refreshable Braille note-takers which, while pretending not to be computers, allow us to take notes, organize information, execute ordinary and scientific calculations, and keep track of time and appointments. You might think of these devices as personal digital assistants (PDA's) for the blind. However, unlike PDA's for the sighted, our PDA's still can't send and receive faxes or e-mail, they don't fit very well into fanny packs, and they cost a lot more.
We have Braille embossers of all types that receive text from computers and produce anything from personal letters to magazine-style publications. Because of these embossers and the Grade II translation programs which are necessary accompaniments, we can get more literary Braille than has ever been produced before. Because of improvements in Grade II translation software, the level of skill required to produce readable, properly-formatted literary Braille depends less upon an understanding of the Braille code than on an understanding of the differences between print and Braille formatting. The Brailling of mathematics and highly technical material still requires more sophistication, however; the electronic source format for these materials cannot yet be converted automatically into properly-formatted Nemeth Code or Computer Braille.
We have refreshable Braille displays with which we can read a single line of rapidly-changing text. However, these devices are still beyond the financial reach of most blind individuals, and the cost of manufacturing a refreshable Braille display with multiple lines is still prohibitive.
We have stand-alone reading machines and computer software that can convert pages of printed text into speech. For those blind users who don't mind working with a system that is not necessarily blind-friendly, this technology can also be found in the commercial market--for a lot less money. But the technology still misses on average about one in every hundred letters, does not handle cursive writing or pictures, requires at least thirty seconds to process each printed page, and is not portable by any stretch of the imagination.
We have NEWSLINE® for the Blind and America's Jobline®. These technologies were developed by the National Federation of the Blind to close the gap in access to information technology for the blind. With NEWSLINE the texts of seven national and more than twenty local newspapers are made available to blind people around the country who need only a conventional touch-tone telephone to access the system. With America's Jobline blind people and many others now have access to job announcements on America's Job Bank, and they don't need a computer to get this information. While these technologies provide the blind with unprecedented access to important information, there are still not enough local service centers to blanket the country.
Moving away from blindness-specific technology, we have the personal computer, made nonvisually accessible with the help of screen-access software and hardware. The combination of blindness-specific technology with off-the-shelf commercial technology has given us unprecedented access to information in a way that we have never had before. It has also given rise to challenges whose solution requires the blending of technical expertise from the commercial sector and from the blindness sector.
Today, no matter what professional job you have, the personal computer is an important and highly visible part of getting your work done. If you can't use a personal computer or if you can't find a way to get somebody else to do your computer-related tasks, you will be operating at a severe disadvantage, and your ability to produce quality work will be diminished. This is the reality today, and I predict that the ability to use a computer will become even more important for the professional jobs of tomorrow. This will be as true for the blind as for the sighted. The difference for us, the blind, is that unless the technology moves in a radically different direction, we will still have to rely upon so-called third-party or assistive technology to use the computer--technology which introduces added complexity, requires additional training, and demands its own unique brand of technical expertise.
While we are on the subject of the personal computer, we cannot avoid talking about access to the Windows operating system and Windows applications. Today we have fairly good access to the Windows 95, 98, and NT operating systems. Most operating system functions are accessible through the keyboard, and the screen- access vendors have enough information about how these operating systems work to keep track of what most operating-system functions send to the screen. Windows 98, released by Microsoft last year, tries to make things on the screen appear as if you are browsing the Web. This confuses many of the screen-reading programs. Fortunately, with a bit of customization, the Web-like appearance can be turned off. (This is, by the way, one example of some good work that has been accomplished by Microsoft to aid the accessibility effort.) On a less positive note, with Windows NT, it is still not possible today for a blind computer user to run a screen-reading program while identifying him- or herself to the operating system. Logging in is still more a matter of faith and good keyboarding skills.
Nonvisual access to Windows-based word processors, data base programs, accounting packages, Web browsers, and e-mail clients is still not what it should be. Yes, to a greater or lesser extent we can use Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer, the Access data base program, various e-mail programs, and other Windows applications, but our ability to use these programs with 100% efficiency leaves a lot to be desired. It is also far too easy for any access that might have been gained on a current version to be lost when a new version is released. There are also too many programs, developed internally by employers for their employees, which work either poorly or not at all with screen- access technology for the blind. This is a significant barrier to employment.
All of this is to say that our access to Windows and its applications is far from perfect. I still cringe whenever I hear about a new Windows program or a proposed upgrade to Windows itself. Why? Because the first thing I ask myself is, "Will the upgrade or program work with screen-access technology for the blind?" In the case of a Windows upgrade, it is almost certain that the screen-access technology will have to be updated to deal with internal changes that have been made to the operating system.
In the case of a new program--such as a new customer service application used by XYZ employer, it is more likely that the program will not work well or at all with screen-access technology for the blind. We can't go out and hunt up a new financial management program, a new data base program, or a new word processor and just buy it because we like its features. We have to pay for the program, test it with our screen-access technology, and if it doesn't work, return it and hope to get our money back.
The World Wide Web is likely to become a critical element of the solution to our nonvisual access problem. Although most of us think of the Web in the context of Windows, Netscape, and Internet Explorer, the fact is that Web-based information is not dependent on a specific operating system or computer platform. The technology of the Web is very quickly becoming central to all manner of inter- and intranet applications. E-commerce, electronic forms, online encyclopedias, and chat rooms: these are but a few of the applications which either are or soon will be based on Web technology. In order for the blind to have nonvisual access to the Web, we must have nonvisual access to the Web pages themselves, the Web browsing and other software which brings the Web pages to the user, and the tools which help us to design and publish our own Web pages.
All of these access issues are currently under consideration by the Web Access Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium. What this means for the blind is that the entire range of nonvisual and other access issues is being considered internationally. So far as I can tell, a good deal has already been accomplished. The WAI has already released a recommendation on Web content accessibility and is hard at work on accessibility guidelines for user agents and authoring tools. If the recommendations emerging from the work of WAI are followed, we stand a very good chance of having the kind of access we need in order to take full advantage of this burgeoning technology.
I want to talk briefly about access to electronic copies of published works. At one time there were those who thought that, if you wanted an electronic copy of a printed book, it was sufficient to get a plain ASCII text version from the publisher. Anyone who has done any transcription with today's Braille translation software will tell you that converting straight ASCII text to properly formatted Braille is a labor-intensive process. The reasons for this are too complex to discuss here, but suffice it to say that what is needed is material from the publishers with more information about how the material is structured. Is a line of text a sidebar, a heading, a line item in a table of contents, an index item, or simply a normal paragraph? Which text is supposed to go into a footnote? What should be done with the repetitive information that often appears at the top or bottom of each page?
If electronic copies of published books contained this information from the beginning, the process of converting the material into Braille would be much easier. Unfortunately, publishing tools in use today are designed to provide visual--not logical--structural information. As long as the source material is prepared only for visual presentation, we will always have this problem of conversion from a visual format to a nonvisual one. This increases the amount of work required to get a good Braille textbook from an electronic copy supplied by the publishers.
No discussion of the current state of technology would be complete without mentioning digitally controlled appliances and the problems they pose for the blind. As far as I know, very little work is going on to attack the problem of on-screen menus, buttons that we cannot feel, rotary knobs whose settings can be ascertained only by looking at a visual display, and "smart" appliances which refuse to forget your last mistake and take you right back to your disaster even after you pull the plug.
The other day I went to look at some electronic appliances. Do you know that there are now stoves and ovens with controls on smooth glass surfaces that are completely undetectable by touch? Admittedly these digital controls appear today only on some high- end appliances. But if nothing is done, it is only a matter of time before they begin creeping into the lower-end appliances. At the very least the blind consumer shopping for appliances today must give careful attention in the store to how the controls operate or risk finding out after it has been delivered that the appliance cannot be operated without sight.
I want to turn now to considerations for the twenty-first century. I think everyone would agree that in the next century our use of technology will increase in ways we haven't even begun to imagine. We, the blind, must be able to take advantage of the new technologies that are sure to be developed or risk being relegated to the technological backwaters of society.
We must find ways to obtain nonvisual access to operating systems and application software without having to use software- and hardware-dependent strategies. We are fortunate indeed that Windows and the Intel-based processor on which it runs have achieved widespread use in the world today. This has permitted the development of a variety of screen-access programs, stimulating competition, and reducing costs to the consumer. But what will happen if we have to contend with ten or more different operating systems and dozens of different processor types? Where will screen-access technology be able to take us then?
One possibility is a smart screen reader capable of looking at and interpreting the contents of any video display. Another is the development of a cross-platform protocol which allows information to be transmitted between any computer-controlled system and a portable access device. I am sure there are other possible solutions. We just have to get busy and create them.
Developers and designers of commercial technology must be encouraged--if not required--to include nonvisual access during the design stage of their products and to provide the information we need directly--for example, a self-voicing application. This will allow nonvisual access to be added at a point where its cost is relatively trivial, and it will help to move nonvisual access into the commercial market, where its cost can be spread over billions of consumers.
Inevitably there will be times when we will be able to use specific devices only with a combination of sighted assistance and old-fashioned basic blindness skills. This underscores the continuing need for training programs which teach the alternative techniques of blindness while promoting a positive, can-do attitude which encourages innovation, creativity, and self-reliance. Remember, the human brain continues to be the most flexible computer in the world. Oftentimes the simplest methods provide the most effective solutions.
We must find ways to make complex technologies easier to use. For too long we have forced the blind user to accommodate his or her tasks and skills to conform to the requirements of the technology--not the other way around. Why can't technology be smart enough to accommodate itself to the blind user? If I can't see the screen of a computer, shouldn't it be smart enough to talk to me? A picture may be worth a thousand words, but what if I need to hear the thousand words? If I don't know how to type, why can't the computer listen to what I have to say and do what I want? Yes, computers aren't smart enough to do these things today, but they surely will be tomorrow. Our challenge is to ensure that the development of more sophisticated technologies works to our benefit instead of putting roadblocks in our path.
We must find a way to bring together the concepts of visual and logical structure in electronic publications. At the very least, publishers of commercial books intended for the sighted must be willing to put some effort into the task of converting materials intended for visual presentation into a format which facilitates production of material in nonvisual formats such as Braille or speech.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing us in the next century is the unpredictability of technological change. We know that the one constant we can count on with respect to technology is change. We also know that even our best predictions are often proven wrong. In 1981 Bill Gates said, "640K ought to be enough for anybody." The desktop computers of today, with anywhere from 32 to 128 to 256 megabytes of memory, are vivid reminders of the fallacy of that statement. So, while we know that big changes are ahead, we must also bear in mind that the nature of those changes is hard to predict. If we exercise our human talents of flexibility, adaptability, and creativity and if we always keep in mind the competence and normality of the blind, the next century will indeed be a time of progress and accomplishment.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: James Gashel]
The State of the Law on Technology and the Blind: What It Is, and What It Ought to Be
by James Gashel
From the Editor: Jim Gashel is the Director of Governmental Affairs for the National Federation of the Blind.
There ought to be a law! This is what we're taught to say in my line of work. I am the Director of Governmental Affairs for the National Federation of the Blind. Having laws made, rather than having machines made, is our way of fixing things and solving problems. This is what many people say is wrong with our country. Perhaps that is so, but I still say, "There ought to be a law!"
For those of us who are blind, the advent of modern and evolving communications technology virtually forces this response--"There ought to be a law." I can remember only a few years ago when a single computer workstation was nothing more than that--a stand-alone computer with a monitor and a printer connected to it. You could use it to process words, keep lists, or perform computations, but that was just about it. If you wanted to find information that did not reside within that system, you would have to go somewhere else to look it up. If you wanted to communicate with another person about the information, you could use the computer to write that person a letter, then print the letter out, drop it in the mail, and hope. That's the way it was, even in the early part of the decade now ending.
I realize that many--perhaps most of you in this group--may not have the same perspective on technology that I do because working in this field is your life. For most people in the world, however, contact with sophisticated computer and communications technology has not been a common, daily experience. Besides, someone else with the ability and skill required could usually be called upon to operate the equipment when needed. If you were blind, unless computers were directly within your line of work--such as programming them--you could avoid interacting with them pretty much altogether. At least that's what I did.
Now the world is changing. That is obvious. And the way we communicate with one another is changing every day. On Monday of this week, for example, I received my first spoken-word e-mail message. I have no idea why the person sent the message as a wave file, using a service called "shout-mail," but, if the message itself was not interesting (which, like most of my e-mail, it was not) the technology used to deliver the message certainly was.
More than being just interesting, of course, the technology which is now at our fingertips has become a regular part of daily life. Access to electronic information technology is absolutely essential. The communications infrastructure now being built will make skilled use of this technology even more essential for anyone, blind or sighted, in the years ahead. Simply put, we are all being forced to become technology-literate, or watch from the sidelines while those who are technology-literate pass us by.
The pace of implementing new ways to communicate and acquire information is frightening to some, but the failure to include a means of nonvisual access is most frightening for blind people. I say that this is most frightening because barriers to communication are intolerable roadblocks to success in the knowledge-based economy of today and beyond. Barriers to the acquisition of information are not the kind of nuisance-level annoyance that the blind can overcome with good training. The barriers in the cyber-world are real. Unless we respond effectively, these barriers now being built will impose a competitive disadvantage upon blind people as a class.
This is obviously a serious matter. Therefore I submit that, among the things which must be done, we need more laws. I know there are laws on the books already to deal with technology access, but we really do need more of them. The Americans with Disabilities Act declares that discrimination on the basis of disability is illegal in public services and in public accommodations provided by private entities. This prohibition is echoed and applied to governmental entities--federal, state, and local--by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended. Isn't this enough law? I don't think so.
Laws against discrimination are fine as a general proposition, and we usually support them. However, using the law of nondiscrimination to address technology access has not worked, or at least not worked very well. I think this is so because enforcement of laws against discrimination occurs more or less as a case-by-case event. Also enforcement usually occurs to correct wrongdoing after the fact.
With nonvisual access to information technology, we need to correct wrongdoing before the fact--before the technology is built and particularly before it is installed. If that does not occur, the claim of hardship, which will be presented as a defense against a charge of discrimination, may be overpowering. After all, most judges can see, and they generally don't believe that a failure to make a device one way, as opposed to another, would constitute discrimination.
This is why our approach to access has focused on the law of procurement and not solely on nondiscrimination law. I think that most of you are aware of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, which was completely revised as a part of the latest series of amendments to the Rehabilitation Act, enacted in 1998.
Section 508 speaks forcefully for access requirements in the development, purchasing, and use of electronic and information technology by agencies of the federal government. Later in this conference Pat Cannon, who serves as one of the public members on the Access Board, will discuss the new standards being developed under this law. These standards are expected to be in effect for all of the federal government next August.
This is certainly part of what is needed, but it is still not enough. About two and a half years ago the National Federation of the Blind published a model bill for states to use in promoting nonvisual access to information technology. To date, five states--Arkansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Texas, and Virginia--have enacted laws patterned on this model.
The provisions of these laws differ somewhat from one state to another, but the general thrust is the same--to require all procurement contracts for information technology to include a nonvisual access clause. In Maryland and most of the other states as well, the content of this clause is specified in the law, requiring (1) that the technology must provide equivalent access for effective use by both visual and nonvisual means; (2) that the technology will present information, including prompts used for interactive communications, in formats intended for both visual and nonvisual use; (3) that the technology can be integrated into networks for obtaining, retrieving, and disseminating information used by individuals who are not blind or visually impaired; and (4) that technology which is designed to be compatible with nonvisual access devices and software will be obtained whenever such technology, not requiring modification, is available.
The bottom-line, fundamental point of this legislation is that systems and technology which are purchased and used by the state must be designed with compatibility for nonvisual use built in from the very beginning. In case you hadn't noticed, the federal government is not the only entity involved in the procurement of information technology. When we placed this bill before the Maryland General Assembly two years ago, the state was expecting to spend close to half a billion dollars on information technology in that year alone. The same is happening everywhere. Cities and counties too are purchasing information technology in order to be part of the new infrastructure being used to communicate and disseminate information.
In the view of the National Federation of the Blind, and I suspect that this is a generally held view within this group as well, any public entity must include criteria for nonvisual access in contracts for the purchase of information technology. The same is true of private entities that provide services to the public. We must see to it that they do it.
Therefore consistent enactment of the model access legislation in as many political jurisdictions as possible, and applying to as many entities as possible--states, counties, cities, school districts, the private sector, etc.--must be placed at the top of our priority list. The technology of the future will certainly have a new look. Our responsibility is to insist upon a new sound and a new feel to the technology as well. The times require it, and the law must demand it.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Fredric Schroeder]
Rehabilitation Requirements and the Need for Universal Access to Information: The Accelerated Pace of Technology, a Challenge for Vocational Rehabilitation
by Fredric K. Schroeder, Ph.D.
From the Editor: Dr. Schroeder is the Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, U.S. Department of Education.
I was very pleased in an earlier presentation to hear Mr. Chong talk about some of the access issues surrounding the ubiquitous appliances filling our lives. Last May I had the honor of being at the ceremony when Dr. Maurer was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Louisville. I was talking about this issue with Dr. and Mrs. Maurer and Dr. Cranmer. In particular I was complaining about remote controls for televisions in hotels. I said that it seemed to me there should be some simple, commonly agreed-upon symbols to signify frequent activities, such as up-and-down channel, up-and-down volume, and on-off buttons.
It wouldn't solve all the problems; it certainly wouldn't solve the problem of menu-driven features now on televisions. (I was astonished one time, when I was trying to run a hotel television, suddenly to have Spanish coming over my TV. I do not speak Spanish fluently, so it was some disadvantage to me to have this happen.) Anyway, I was saying that, just as the dot on the five of telephone and other keypads has become widespread, there ought to be a standardized set of symbols for television remote controls. Mrs. Maurer commented that perhaps we could call it the Uniform Button Code, which I thought had some merit.
My purpose this morning is to talk to you about technology as it relates to rehabilitation. Successive Harris polls commissioned by the National Organization on Disability have shown that two-thirds of people with disabilities in the United States are unemployed. The Social Security Administration reports that over seven million people now receive Social Security Supplemental Income or Social Security Disability Insurance at a cost of more than eighty billion dollars annually. The high unemployment of blind people and others with disabilities is a national tragedy. Accordingly, two years ago President Clinton noted, "If America is to continue to grow and prosper, if we are to lead the challenging global economy of the twenty-first century, we cannot afford to ignore the talents, energy, and creativity of the fifty-four million Americans with disabilities."
But how do we solve the unemployment and underemployment of the blind and others? All of you are aware of recent changes to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act that strengthen the requirement for federal agencies to purchase accessible technology. Later you will hear a detailed discussion of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board's work on developing accessibility standards. It is critical that the federal government put its buying power to work as an economic incentive for industry to consider accessibility at the development stage. I have distributed copies of a document giving updated information on the status of Section 508 implementation and a letter from Assistant Secretary Judith Heumann and the Director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, Katherine Seelman, concerning the applicability of Section 508 requirements to states receiving funds under the Assistive Technology Act.
But what other resources can help address the unemployment and underemployment of blind people and others? In America the vocational rehabilitation program commits two-and-a-half billion dollars each year to support job training efforts for blind people and others with disabilities. The services available through the VR program are many and varied, according to the unique needs of the individual. The VR system provides assessment services, planning services, adjustment training, specific job skills training, placement services, assistive technology services, and much more. Yet to conceptualize the VR program as nothing more than a dispenser of discrete services is to miss the most important aspect of rehabilitation.
While these services are important, it must be understood that services support a set of expectations. Services do not drive expectations; expectations drive and define our services. If we assume that blind people can work in only a narrowly defined number of jobs and occupations, then our services, and for that matter, our creativity will be employed in support of this minimal expectation.
I believe that there are essentially two paradigms of blindness which have an impact on the future development of access technology. One (and it is the one most commonly held by society) is that the blind, by virtue of their disability, are inherently less capable and less productive than others. If our expectation is that the blind will always be less capable than the sighted, any degree of progress which appears to ameliorate any amount of incapacity will be regarded as improvement. Simply put, this paradigm starts with the presumption that the way the sighted perform work is the best and most efficient method, and hence the challenge to our technology is to seek methods by which the blind can perform work in the same manner as the sighted.
Alternatively, there are those (unfortunately a minority, but at least a growing minority) who hold the view that blind people can compete alongside the sighted and achieve a status of real equality. The view is that what is important is what an individual accomplishes and not how the individual performs a given task. If expectations drive technology, then a shared vision premised on the fundamental equality of the blind is essential to the development of future technology. In other words, if we believe that blind people can perform work as well as others, we will not be satisfied with our technology until it enables blind people to work competitively.
Under this paradigm we set aside the methods by which the sighted function and concentrate on the product or outcome we desire. I recognize that there is an immediate need to give blind people access to the technology readily available in the workplace. However, I believe that the long-term challenge to our technological development is to find the best and most efficient ways for blind people to perform work, rather than continuing to seek to modify the methods used by the sighted.
Given that most commercial technology assumes the user to have sight, the use of graphics will unquestionably continue to expand. As the use of graphics increases, the challenge of providing blind people equal access becomes more and more daunting. Recently we have seen efforts to create text descriptions of graphic material. This approach is useful; yet, as more and more visual information is integrated into the high-tech workplace, the awkwardness of representing visual information using text will be compounded. More to the point, the reason that the sighted use graphics is often that it is a concise way of representing complex material or relationships. Simply adapting our technology so that graphical material has a text equivalent fails to address the point that the graphical presentation of material was a better, more concise, and perhaps more comprehensible representation of complex information.
What I am promoting is a construct in which blind people are seen as inherently different from the sighted, yet not inferior to them. Some presume that to acknowledge difference is somehow an affirmation of inferiority. On the contrary, I believe it is only through the declaration of difference that we can assert true equality. People from different nations may have striking differences, the most obvious of which may be a difference in language. In some instances a concept that is readily expressed in one language may be quite difficult to express in another. Surely this does not imply that one language is, therefore, superior to another. If we accept that blind people function differently from the sighted, then the task is not simply to give blind people access to what the sighted see but to create methods by which both the blind and the sighted have optimum access to needed information and, thus, the same opportunity to work competitively.
Presently we are preoccupied, perhaps out of necessity, with giving the blind access to what the sighted see without recognizing that what the sighted see is simply a representation of information designed with vision in mind. True access for the blind, therefore, starts not with what the sighted see but with the information which needs to be conveyed to the user. If we presume that the blind can receive, comprehend, analyze, and express ideas and information as readily as the sighted, then the limitation of today's technology becomes just that--the limitation of our technology--not the limitation of the blind. I believe that we need such a goal for access technology, a goal that transcends our current technology and charts a course for future development, a goal that is rooted in the promise of real equality for the blind rather than in the lesser promise of decreased dependency.
You may think that what I am suggesting is entirely unrealistic. While it is desirable to develop technologies that allow blind people access to information in ways that are designed specifically for blind people, the odds of such development happening are quite low, given the complexity of the task and the small number of blind people. But I think there is a larger market than simply blind people who could benefit from other approaches to accessing information.
Computer technology is still a relatively new phenomenon. Accordingly, the people who are involved in designing the hardware and software in current use for the most part are people for whom computers make sense. For this reason they tend to share a common learning style, an orientation that leads them to view information in similar ways. I believe that current computer technology, such as word processing, is rooted in the assumption that all people are spatial learners. This is true because the people who develop the programs--that is the people for whom computers make sense--are most likely spatial in their orientation. Accordingly, when people are not spatial, when they cannot make sense of the graphical world, they are generally met with frustration since they cannot understand why the spatial graphical display of information is easy and efficient. These people hate upgrades. They do not regard them as improvements but rather as introducing new and entirely incomprehensible icons, any one of which is likely to initiate all manner of trouble. Assurances that the new system is easier and more powerful than the old one do not impress them.
Yesterday I was working in my office, only to be confronted by a message indicating that I had performed "an illegal operation." This message may mean something to all of you, but to me it meant that the computer would not do what I wanted it to do, and, beyond that, it was blaming me for the problem. Some of these problems are due to our technology, and some are due to the fact that our technology mostly assumes a given learning style or orientation. What I am suggesting is that blind people are not the only people who need alternative ways of viewing information.
There will always be a need for blind people to interact using the technology devised for the sighted, as there will doubtless always be a need for language interpreters. And as with interpreters, the process of communication from one language or medium to another will undoubtedly bring with it some measure of inefficiency. Yet I believe this is the context in which computer access for the blind should be viewed, not simply access to the computer screen, but access to the information contained in the computer.
It may well be that some information will need to be tactually represented, either through some type of refreshable device or by means of a device which is conceptually refreshable and which allows the creation of solid, three-dimensional objects. We may need systems that employ sound, not simply for the purpose of synthesizing speech, but perhaps to lend color, depth, and intensity to concepts or information being expressed. We must view the screen as simply a vehicle for conveying information visually and recognize that the material on the screen is not the information itself but a representation of information, thought, and ideas.
The measure of our success therefore is the degree of access blind people have to the information available to the sighted in ways that are as efficient as the access the sighted have to the information by means of graphics, not some less tangible incremental progress toward eliminating new and emerging technological hurdles.
We have made much progress, and we will continue to make more. I believe there is a genuine possibility for full and meaningful integration of the blind into society. To accomplish this end, we must be willing to challenge ourselves to believe in a vision of the future that surpasses our current technology and experience. We must be willing to become partners in a movement toward accelerated change that brings with it risk and promise. Blind people want to be productive. Blind people want to live normal lives as normal people with the opportunity for education, employment, and social integration. To accomplish this goal, we must first believe that it is possible. When we believe that it is possible, then we will drive our technology to develop in support of our beliefs.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Richard Ring]
America Online: Stonewalling Responsibility and Ignoring Access for the Blind
by Richard Ring
From the Editor: Richard Ring is the Supervisor of the NFB's International Braille and Technology Center in Baltimore.
The first time I had the opportunity to speak to the U.S./ Canada Conference on Technology, I had the dubious honor of following Dr. Kurzweil. Now I have the honor of being the first speaker after a good lunch.
Access to the world of personal computers is one of the most important issues facing blind consumers and professionals alike. When we look back on the state of accessibility that existed at the time of the Third U.S/Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind, which was held at the National Center for the Blind in November of 1996, we can see that we have come quite a distance. Many of the breakthroughs in accessibility can be attributed to the work of those of you attending this conference.
Screen-access programs that allow blind people access to the Windows operating system have improved dramatically during the past three years. Many of these programs provide support not only for speech synthesizers (both hardware and software) but for refreshable Braille displays as well. Many Windows applications now function reasonably well with the latest versions of screen- access programs. Though there are many barriers still to be overcome, access to most off-the-shelf software appears to be achievable in the foreseeable future.
Two of the most frequently asked questions at the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind are "How do I get on
line?" and "How do I use the Internet?" The Internet dominates our world today as few things ever have. One cannot open a newspaper or magazine, listen to the radio, or watch television without being inundated with references to some aspect of the Internet. Any organization or individual of consequence has a Web site: corporations, universities, governmental agencies, and even private citizens.
The list of things we can do online is growing, it seems, faster each day. One can purchase nearly anything, apply for loans and credit cards, and obtain access to governmental services. There is no end in sight to how much commerce, entertainment, and access to information of all kinds is going to be available to those who can successfully use the Internet. It is not surprising, therefore, that more and more people are getting online every day, and while it might be argued that a relatively small percentage of the population is currently using the Internet, that percentage is growing at a remarkable rate.
Blind people are no exception. We want access to the Internet as much as anyone else. Because of improvements made to screen reading programs and a little cooperation from commercial software developers, this access is becoming easier to accomplish. These improvements have made the World Wide Web a far more rewarding and productive venture for the blind than it once was.
The majority of Internet service providers--those companies who provide our connection to the Internet--can be used by blind persons, chiefly because they do not force us to use a specific piece of software to obtain that access. Rather they provide a gateway to the Internet, allowing the user to choose the e-mail client, Web browser, and news reader that function best with his or her screen-access software. However, one major player on the Internet, America Online (AOL), has steadfastly refused to adopt this convention. Because of its insistence that users run proprietary AOL software, the blind have been effectively shut out of AOL and any access to the Internet they might have hoped to obtain through the AOL service.
America Online is the largest provider of Internet access in the world. It has nearly nineteen million subscribers world wide. It saturates our mailboxes with CD's offering us hours of free access. The AOL software is available in supermarkets and on the Web. AOL says that it can support as many as four million simultaneous logons. Add to this the fact that AOL has already gobbled up Compuserve and Netscape, and you begin to understand why we are discussing AOL today.
The bottom line is that the blind are barred from effective access to AOL's proprietary software; it simply doesn't work at all well with our screen reading software. It is that simple.
What makes the AOL software so difficult for the blind computer user? To answer this question, let us first examine how software that is nonvisually accessible works. First, it provides keyboard equivalents for the many commands normally executed by sighted users with the mouse. While screen-access programs for the blind contain features to move the mouse pointer from the keyboard, it is far easier and more efficient when a blind person can use keyboard shortcuts to execute various commands.
Second, nonvisually accessible software uses standard Windows controls--controls which can be detected by screen reading programs. These controls include, but are not limited to the following: pull-down menus, list boxes, edit boxes, combo boxes, radio and other push buttons, and check boxes. It is also important for text labels to be associated with these controls. For example, when you tab over a button which says "cancel," the screen reading software detects the label and says "cancel button." When you tab into an edit box where you are to enter your first name, the screen reading software sees the label "first name," and says "first name."
Another aspect of nonvisually accessible software is the use of focus to let the screen reading program know where the user's attention should be directed. When a blind user invokes functions from the keyboard, it is extremely important for the focus to move as keyboard commands are executed. For example, if you use the up and down arrow keys to move through the items in a list box, it is important for the focus to move to each item on the list as it is highlighted.
Nonvisually accessible applications do not require screen- access software to be customized to deal with unknown control types or window classes. Although it is possible to configure screen reading programs to function with unfriendly or incompatible software, such tasks are usually beyond the capabilities of the average computer user.
Let us now turn our attention to the AOL software itself. We looked at two versions: AOL 4.0 and, most recently, AOL 5.0. We noticed no significant differences between these two versions. Both were equally inaccessible to the blind.
The first problem we encountered with the AOL software occurred during the sign-up and installation process. Without sighted assistance, you cannot press the button which tells AOL whether you are a new or existing user. The forms used to select a local access number and enter personal information (i.e., your name, address, and credit card number) are not compatible with screen-access software. The blind person has no way to know what information needs to be entered at any given time.
After the AOL software has dialed and established a connection with the main AOL system, the blind computer user is presented with a complex and busy screen layout. Most of the information which can be discerned easily by sight eludes detection by the screen-access program. In many cases, after you complete the logon procedure, you are presented with the welcome screen. Visually this screen resembles a complex dialogue box containing multiple pages in a window with the traditional title bar, menu bar, and toolbar. This may be the visual appearance of the screen, but internally, where it is captured by the screen- access program, it is anything but standard. This makes it difficult if not impossible for the blind user to learn anything about the choices that can be selected. After logon AOL will play a wave file which says, "Welcome," and, if unread electronic mail is pending, another wave file which says, "You've got mail!" These wave files are more gimmicky than anything else, and they certainly don't help the blind user to understand what to do next.
The majority of the controls displayed on the welcome screen are unlabeled icons. The text on the screen can be seen visually, but because a lot of it consists of bitmapped images of text, it is unavailable to the screen reading program. Accordingly, though there are many services available to a sighted user of AOL, these services are nearly impossible for a blind user to discover, let alone activate.
One problem with the AOL software that we discovered right away is that you cannot predict what screen will appear when you connect to the system. You might get the welcome screen just discussed, a screen of advertisements, or a screen which asks you to enter a search term. The point is that you cannot predict with certainty what screen will appear when you establish a connection with AOL.
On the screen of advertisements which sometimes appears, a group of buttons is displayed. You will see buttons labeled "No thanks" and "Tell me more." While it is possible to hear the names of these buttons and while you can move between them with the tab key, the behavior of the buttons is inconsistent. Sometimes you can activate a button by pressing the spacebar. At other times pressing the spacebar doesn't work. Also you cannot read the text of the advertisement without using your screen reading program's mouse movement keys to examine the screen.
Many of the available AOL services are invoked from the welcome screen. However, because of the nature of this screen, a blind user can never be certain what service he or she is selecting. There are many services: an online encyclopedia, chat rooms, headline news, shopping, sending and receiving e-mail, etc. One service is called Channels. It appears to provide the AOL user with a convenient way to browse through numerous areas of information and then to focus upon a desired information category or service. Channels is quite inaccessible to blind users. Both opening the Channels screen and selecting a desired channel require sighted assistance.
One service which would certainly be of interest to AOL users is Headline News. This service is not accessible to the blind for two reasons. First, the "Headline News" selection is very difficult to find on the screen, and, second, the news is presented using an animated news-ticker-like display, which screen-access technology cannot track.
While the majority of AOL services are largely inaccessible to the blind person using speech or Braille screen-access software, it would appear that AOL's electronic mail service is minimally usable. We discovered by accident that a few keyboard commands can be used to invoke various e-mail functions. Let me walk you through the steps necessary to send e-mail with the AOL software. First you press CTRL-M to activate the "Write Mail" function. At this point, although your screen reading program doesn't tell you this, you are in the "to:" field, where you would enter the recipient's e-mail address. You type the address and then press the Tab key to go to the next field. Again, the screen reading program doesn't tell you what the field name is, but you can infer after some exploration that you should continue pressing Tab until you hear the word "subject" spoken. You then type the subject of your note and press Tab again, at which point you guess that you are in the body of your message, where you can begin writing. If you want to send a carbon copy or a blind carbon copy, you have to hunt around the screen with your simulated mouse pointer until you find the appropriate buttons. Believe it or not, this is the most accessible of all the AOL services.
The World Wide Web can be explored using the AOL software. AOL displays what appears to be an ordinary Web page, but the screen reading program has no clue that a Web page is being displayed. The user is therefore unable to navigate the page using the Tab and Enter keys as is customary when using more accessible Web-browsing software. We learned that, once a connection has been established with AOL, you can use an ordinary more accessible Web-browsing program to surf the Web. We would like to think that this feature was deliberately included in the AOL system, but we can't be sure.
We could continue to catalog the many aspects of AOL's software which make it a difficult and frustrating experience for the blind computer user, but it is clear from what we have said thus far that AOL is not a place where the blind are currently made to feel welcome. It is also clear from some of the correspondence we have had with individuals from AOL that the company simply doesn't get it.
On October 26, 1998, almost exactly one year ago, Curtis Chong, the Director of Technology for the National Federation of the Blind, wrote a letter to Rob Jennings, who was at that time serving as AOL's Vice President of Programming and Development. In this letter Mr. Chong outlined many of the problems blind people were experiencing with the AOL software and suggested steps that AOL might take to solve the problem. The letter was cordial and informative. Although Mr. Jennings did respond to Mr. Chong's letter with a telephone call, he did not keep his promise to visit the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind shortly after the 1999 new year. In fact, we never heard from Mr. Jennings after that one phone call.
In the spring of this year we came across another letter from AOL, written in response to an inquiry about AOL's accessibility to the blind. The letter made much of the fact that AOL was testing software which could convert speech to text and vice versa. It would seem that all of the information Mr. Chong supplied to Rob Jennings was somehow lost in the AOL bureaucracy. Anyone who has been involved in technology for the blind during the past few years would know that text-to-speech and speech-to-text software already exist and that our problems with the AOL program are caused by its inconsistent and nonstandard behavior in the Windows environment--not by any lack of text-to-speech or speech-to-text technology.
In early October we heard from a highly placed AOL official who told us, "We have plenty of good news on our side, since we have been doing serious work to make AOL fully useful to the blind." This is the sum and substance of the information we have received in written form from AOL. We have no idea what the "good news" is, and we certainly have no evidence of any "serious work" being conducted by AOL. It definitely has nothing to do with the recently-released AOL Version 5 software, which is just as inaccessible to the blind as its predecessor.
How long must we wait to achieve full nonvisual access to AOL software and services? Will we see any improvements in AOL Version 6? Version 7? Will we have access in a year? Two years? Three years? The largest Internet service provider in the world should surely be able to demonstrate a better understanding of the issue and a stronger commitment to solving the problem.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Len Fowler]
Talking Bank Machines
by Len Fowler
From the Editor: Len Fowler is co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of T-Base Communications of Ottawa, Canada.
Let me begin by stating that I believe everyone in a democratic society is entitled to be provided with opportunities to participate and contribute. I believe that acknowledgement of cultural and physical diversity is an essential element in a strong and healthy society. I also believe that the conceptualists, designers, and technologists responsible for developing products, programs, and services on behalf of government and industry have a duty to ensure accessibility to the broadest possible range of people. For us this means considering accessibility in the concept design and keeping it simple throughout the development process.
For most people talking bank machines are a new and important step forward in the quest for independence in an ever-changing social and economic system. For others talking bank machines represent a significant advancement toward a future in which all technologies and services are designed to be universally accessible, enabling the full participation of all citizens in the democratic process. And for some people talking bank machines are just another example of rampant liberalism, which will surely be the downfall of the entire economic system by driving the cost of doing business to unimaginably high levels.
Whatever your thoughts about talking bank machines, they are becoming a functional reality in the United States of America. On October 1, 1999, a group of companies with local government support and involvement launched the first American talking bank machine. At a press conference on that day, Susan Leal, Treasurer of the City and County of San Francisco, William Wolverton (President and CEO of the San Francisco Federal Credit Union), Diebold Inc., the Credit Union Cooperative, and I announced the event to the world.
The core technology which led to our involvement in creating talking bank machines was initially developed in 1993 when T-Base was approached by Digital Equipment to provide technical expertise in a joint bid to develop an interactive smart card system for deploying federal employment insurance benefits to Canadians via an electronic network capable of interacting with the existing banking system.
The proof of concept for this project required the development of three software programs: host system software to manage the service delivery, ATM software to manage the human-machine interface, and software to manage smart card interaction with the system. The smart card software was easy. The host and ATM software development proved to be more difficult due to the very limited band width available at that time.
Our lead technical authority, Dan L'Ecuyer, and I developed the plan, and work commenced. Three months later a functioning proof-of-concept host system and ATM were displayed at GTECH (the Government Technology Show in Ottawa, Canada). Unfortunately, the project was shelved due to pending amendments to Canadian Legislation to permit electronic payment of benefits.
However, we used the core of this software with subsequent enhancements to create several other accessible service-delivery systems, namely:
* InfoTouch--the first publicly accessible automated information-access and delivery system capable of producing information products on demand in multiple formats: Braille, large print, audio cassettes, and computer diskettes;
* Universally accessible smart-card system--a cost-effective access module capable of securely interacting with smart cards for service delivery over the Internet; and
* AccessAbill--a system which receives monthly billing and statement data from clients, parses it, translates it on the fly into appropriate formats (Braille, large print, and ASCII text), and prepares for publishing.
In the fall of 1996 T-Base was asked by the Royal Bank of Canada to work as subcontractors to NCR Canada (the ATM equipment supplier) in making the bank's automated bank machines accessible to people with disabilities. We designed the human-machine interface, created bilingual voice files required for audio enhancement, and managed the consumer- and service-provider consultation process. In October 1997 the world's first talking bank machine was launched at the Royal Bank of Canada in Ottawa.
In mid-June 1999 Ms. Laura Arriola, Special Assistant to the Treasurer of the City and County of San Francisco, asked if T-Base could assist the City with the creation of a Talking ATM. An oral agreement with the City of San Francisco Federal Credit Union got us started, and in September, 1999, work began.
Because the base platform is a Diebold ATM running on the Deluxe Network, we requested and received generous assistance from both Deluxe Network and Diebold, Inc., in our development activities.
The first step in the development process was to make the ATM talk by upgrading the existing Diebold ATM with the voice-guidance option as well as scripting and creating the required WAV files, the results being the Talking ATM currently serving the public in San Francisco's City Hall.
In the next phase of our development activities we want to use our core technologies to create an intelligent software module that will be capable of receiving data from the host system in its existing form, parse the data, determine voice file requirements, manage the system key mapping to accept function key or keypad input to provide the user with audio instructions, and return the appropriate data to the host to fulfill transaction requests.
This intelligent software module will enhance rather than replace the existing terminal software. The goal is to avoid the necessity of altering the software currently running on the host system while overcoming local terminal limitations for the provision of accessible services.
Our long-term goal is to provide enough intelligence in the ATM to off-load application code from the host to the terminal. The short-term approach addresses only the issues involving user interaction with the software application. It fails to address a number of issues involving user interaction with the peripheral hardware (for example, cash dispenser or envelope depositor). Context-sensitive voice assistance and smarter handling of error conditions, such as timeouts, are needed. For the ATM to become truly accessible, it is necessary to offer the user much more control over the interactive experience than is currently available. This goal cannot be achieved within the existing host-centric design since it is not practical to maintain remotely a sophisticated human-machine interface.
An additional, and as yet unstated, benefit of addressing accessibility issues in this way is the improved and expanded services which can be made available to all. More intelligence in the ATM will permit a much richer environment to be presented and enable many more services to be developed faster and more cost-effectively than is currently possible, with less lead time to market.
We have outlined our vision for this technology in our paper: "Reversing the Trend: Designing for Accessibility in the Twenty-first Century." It outlines some of the reasons for the failure to consider accessibility issues in the deployment of today's technology-based systems and explains what can be done about it. I invite you to contact me for a copy.
I also invite you, as consumers and providers of services, to give us your comments on the technologies we create and the services we deliver.
Note: Mr. Fowler's e-mail address is <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Pat Cannon]
Access to Electronic and Information Technology: Evolving Federal Standards for Nonvisual Use
by Pat Cannon
From the Editor: Pat Cannon is a member of the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board and Director of the Michigan Commission for the Blind.
I am pleased to be here. Dr. Maurer introduced me as a member of the Access Board and also as the Director of Michigan's Blind Rehabilitation Agency. Both are accurate, but I'd also like to be wearing a consumer hat today as well, and along with that would be the advocate's hat. Richard was talking about the challenge of being the first speaker after lunch. I can relate to that a little differently. I think I am the eighth or ninth speaker today. I sort of feel like Zsa Zsa Gabor's eighth or ninth husband. My challenge will be to do something interesting or different.
I'd like to start with a confession that I too have committed illegal operations. My computer talks to me and has told me so. It's interesting the things that computers will do to you. It's what Mr. Kurzweil was talking about this morning: taking on a life of their own and being sensitive and so forth. Not long after I had that admonishment, I was composing a memo, and the computer said to me without solicitation, "It looks like you are trying to write a letter." I didn't ask for that.
My impulse was to say, "Who asked you?" or "What's it to ya?"
I'd like to talk about what the U.S. Access Board is. The full name is the United States Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. It is an independent federal regulatory agency, and the only agency in federal government that has more letters in its name than it has federal employees, which tells you that it is a small office, located in Washington, D.C. The Access Board was originally established under the Rehabilitation Act to enforce what's called the ABA, the Architectural Barriers Act, which covers access of federal facilities like post offices and so forth. That was the original role of the Access Board. Beyond that, though, it took on a major role when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990. The role of the Access Board at that time was to draft and have the Department of Justice adopt what were called the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (affectionately referred to as ADAAG).
The Accessibility Guidelines for the ADA really set out the standards for providing accessibility in the built environment consistent with requirements of the ADA. This includes scoping requirements and technical requirements and so forth. On the subject of ATM's (automatic teller machines, banking machines) or otherwise interactive-transaction machines, those are covered under the ADA. We believe that the ADA Accessibility Guidelines are under revision right now, and when the new guidelines come out, we believe that you all who were concerned about access for blind people at ATM's will be encouraged by the new requirements that will be embodied in the new ADA.
That's been the role of the Access Board with ABA and the ADA, and about three years ago we had another responsibility, which took us into a new arena, one that was very satisfying, particularly to a lot of people with sensory disabilities. In 1996 Congress enacted and the President signed into law the Telecommunications Act, and the Access Board then took on the responsibility of drafting the rules to implement the Telecommunications Act. Our job was to write the accessibility guidelines for telecommunications equipment and customer premises equipment--things like answering machines, caller ID's, pagers, and all the things that come under the umbrella of telecommunications. Earlier this year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted our guidelines as regulations and gave them the force of law.
I want to talk about the process we've used for the Telecommunications Act Guidelines, as well as for the revisions of the ADA Accessibility Guidelines. It's called an advisory-committee process. It's important because it follows a mandate by President Clinton to negotiate, not dictate. The composition of the Access Board, by the way, is thirteen public members appointed by the President, and twelve federal agency members, so it's a twenty-five member board. But the Administration's mandate was not to make rules in a vacuum in an office or a meeting room in Washington but rather to get out of Washington, get into the communities, and get input from the stakeholders into the rules being made. That's really what the advisory-committee process is all about.
When we were going through the revisions to the ADA Accessibility Guidelines and the Telecommunications Act, we used the advisory-committee process. In this process members of the Advisory Committee included relevant stakeholders. For example, in telecommunications, representatives from the telecommunications industry were there; the technology industry was represented; (a lot of folks here in this room served on that Advisory Committee), as well as people with disabilities and advocacy organizations.
That advisory-committee process is really the first step in rule-promulgation. They effectively make a recommendation to the Board of what the guidelines should look like. The Board then considers them, maybe tweaks them, and ultimately publishes them in what's called a notice of proposed rule-making.
That's very similar to the process we used with Section 508. You heard earlier today from Dr. Schroeder and also Mr. Gashel a little bit about Section 508. As you heard, Section 508 was originally put into the Rehabilitation Act in 1986 to require the federal government to procure and use only accessible electronic and information technology. The problem with Section 508 at that time was that the guidelines set forth were really not binding, and there were, to be blunt, no teeth in that language. Section 508, I think, is now much stronger.
As you heard earlier, on August 7, 1998, when Congress passed the Workforce Investment Act, the Rehabilitation Act Amendments became part of that, and as such Section 508 was rewritten and now has some strength in it. That's what I'd like to comment on briefly. The process again used an advisory committee. Curtis Chong was on that committee, and maybe some others in this room. As a starting point I think we used some of the same language and processes we used with the Telecommunications Act because to some extent we are talking about similar kinds of technology.
Out of that came the recommendations from what's called the EIAAC (Electronic and Information Access Advisory Committee). The EIAAC set forth its recommendations to the Access Board, and we are in process right now; in fact, as we speak, in Washington they are putting the last pages to bed, and within three weeks we will see the proposed rules for Section 508 published as a notice of proposed rule-making. We expect that to happen somewhere between the middle and end of November. That's the process that has gotten us to this point. You now have a little background in what the Access Board is and, perhaps, what it is not, as well.
Electronic and information technology really is all of those things that come into play in transporting information, whether it's computer hardware or software--any kind of information conveyance is covered under information technology. As a starting point we used the definition of information technology which was included in another federal statute called the Clinger-Cohen Act. The federal government is the entity covered under Section 508. Any federal agency or department is covered under 508 and, as such, they may not develop, procure, use, or in any other way put in place electronic information technology that is not accessible to people with disabilities.
Section 508 does not cover the private sector. When we first published the committee report, there was some misunderstanding in some parts of the country. People thought that it applied to private industry or to private Web pages and so forth. It does not; it applies to the federal government or to any item that is contracted for with the federal government. That's who it applies to. The requirement of the federal government is pretty clear. The technology that is in place must be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities.
The exceptions to that are quite limited, similar to what's in the ADA. There is a defense of undue burden, which is significant difficulty and expense. Even if the federal agency could make the case of significant difficulty or expense or undue burden, that does not take them off the hook for having to provide the information or data in another way that is accessible to and usable by a person with a disability. There is also a narrow exception for national security interests, combat, arsenals, and so forth that those kinds of systems are exempt from the Section 508 requirements.
I talked about having more teeth in it. The enforcement mechanism in Section 508 is going to be what is to be called the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR). These guidelines are what federal government is guided by in procuring all of the things that it requires. They are pretty stringent requirements. The accessibility provisions of Section 508 will become part of the FAR regulations or the FAR Manual. The enforcement power is that, if people--federal employees or citizens--believe they have not been granted the accessibility they need by an agency because information was not available to them because of disability, they could file a complaint. The complaint process is very similar to the process in place for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. People can be given injunctive relief and compensation for attorney fees and so forth. Section 508 does not provide for compensatory or punitive damages.
We expect that the rules will be published, as I said, by the end of November. There will be a sixty-day comment period, and after that the federal-acquisition-regulation people will have to adopt that in their regulations, and, beginning August 7, 2000, all equipment must be accessible. Any equipment or electronic information technology acquired after that date that is not consistent with regulation would be in violation of the law.
That's the long and the short of where the Access Board is with electronic and information technology. I just want to make one personal comment as a consumer and advocate. There are a lot of brilliant minds in this room who have created magnificent technology, and you have done so because of your talent. You have also taken risks. As a consumer I just want to say thank you. Thank you very much because you have really helped a great deal to level the playing field.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Deane Blazie]
Refreshable Braille Now and in the Years Ahead
by Deane Blazie
From the Editor: Deane Blazie is President of Blazie Engineering:
I am going to try to keep this talk light because I am often accused of being too serious. I don't think we can talk about Braille display technology in the present and in the future without talking about the past. So, briefly, the first I knew about Braille displays--and these were Braille displays that were commercially available--was from Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Schonherr in Germany from the University of Stuttgart. (If anybody disagrees with any of this, by the way, it may be because I made it up, and you may be right.) They had electro-mechanical displays based on very tiny solenoids. These would latch a pin in the up or down direction. We even sold a few of these at my previous company, Maryland Computer Services, and they worked fairly well. They were prone to stick due to dust and dirt a lot more than current displays, but they actually worked. That was sometime in the mid-1970's.
Then in the late '70's Oleg Tretiakoff introduced the first Piezoelectric display. He eventually put it in a device, and it was sold around the country. Does anyone remember the name of that device? The company was Elinfa, and the device was the Digi-cassette. Remember, you had to turn it upside-down on its side to get it in the record mode? That's the truth. Oleg invented the first one and he tried to market it to TeleSensory but decided they could do their own, and in the early eighties TeleSensory introduced the VersaBraille with their own display based on Oleg's Piezo design.
The VersaBraille was really the first high-volume product using refreshable Braille displays that were more or less what everything today is based on. In the early to mid-eighties the Europeans got into the act when Frans Tiemon from Holland started making Braille modules. Again, he was able to get around the various patents that were on the market at the timeTeleSensory and Tretiakoff. He eventually took over a large share of the market.
Mr. Schaefer, who was with the early mechanical Braille displays, eventually started a company called Metec in Germany, and they also eventually, in the late eighties, went to the Piezo displays. In fact, right now he is probably the largest producer of Braille displays in the world. Since the mid-eighties we have made only incremental improvements in Piezo Braille displays.
Before I talk about the present, let me talk about some things that have been tried in Braille-display design. I'm sure you have a hundred stories of things you can think of--but these are some of the things I remember, most of which we should discourage people from trying again. But, you never know; maybe somebody will make one of them work.
We have tried electric shock to the finger tip in a six-dot pattern--not a bad idea; it just doesn't work. We have also tried thermal sensing of the finger tip by putting very tiny chip resisters on a substrate and heating them up, but again it didn't work well. There are a lot of problems with these ideas, but at the time they seemed good.
IBM had an interesting idea. They took a Braille module, one six-dot Braille display and said, well, if you have one of those, why not put it on a slider, and, as you slide it, it moves the display as if you had a long line of eighty characters. That really did seem like a good idea, but again it didn't pan out. The problem is that your finger isn't moving across the Braille; your finger is sitting on a display of six dots; and, as you move the slider and hit a certain point, it switches to the next character, and your finger feels the next character. We all know now that Braille isn't read that way. Braille is read by brushing your finger across the pins or across the surface of the Braille page. The brushing is much more useful to the sense of touch. So, while the idea IBM had was good, it also didn't work well.
That same idea was used by Mr. Perenio in Spain. In fact, he may be still working on it; I'm not sure. But again there's the same problem; your finger really does need to brush across the Braille.
Along the same lines, somebody as recently as this year has come up with an idea through a NASA/Langley grant, I believe. They were paid to do a prototype, but the idea was the same thing. If you could reduce the number of Braille cells, then you could reduce the cost a lot. That is a good idea. The trouble is: how do you get the finger to feel as if it's moving across a Braille page? Their idea is to have a rotating wheel that causes the Braille to move under your finger. They have two cells of Braille and a big mechanism underneath that pops the dots up at the right time. The jury is still out. I don't think they have actually built one; they just have a concept, and they are looking for funding for it. So the idea is still around that we should be able to simulate your finger's moving across a sheet of Braille.
In the 1970's there was a moving belt of Braille. Then about six or seven years ago Densitron Corporation tried to revive that idea. This was a belt of Mylar, and they would punch the dots up in the Mylar and display the forty cells. Then, when you pushed the button at the end to read the next line, the belt would rotate underneath the device and be erased by pushing the dots down in the other direction. The line would then be repainted as the belt moved around. That didn't make it to the market either for lots of reasons: the Mylar would wear out; it didn't feel very good; it was slow; it was noisy--lots of reasons.
In the early 1990's TeleSensory tried a different thing, which was a one-cell display on the BrailleMate. Actually, I have known people who have used it, and I have watched BrailleMate users. They really do get some information from that single cell. You can turn in your BrailleMate, by the way, and get a brand new Braille Lite--a little commercial plug.
That brings us to the present state of the art. The Piezo display still rules. There is virtually nothing on the market except Piezo Braille displays. They all use the same technology, a little piece of ceramic substrate that's shaped to the right dimensions. You put 200 volts on it, and it bends. The trouble with those is that they're expensive. The current price on a Braille cell, which is eight dots, has gone from around a hundred dollars a cell in the early eighties--OEM [original equipment manufacturer] cost if you bought a bunch of them--to about $35 a cell now. That thirty-five-dollar price is negotiable, but it's roughly $35 a cell. So we have made some improvements, and if you consider the cost of money, that's probably a five-fold reduction in the cost of a Braille cell, which is pretty good. But it's still too expensive.
Piezo displays have also gotten smaller. The earlier ones were probably five inches long and two inches high. The original VersaBrailles were huge, huge things. Now Braille cells are on the order of half an inch high and three inches long. I think we will continue to see incremental improvements in the size of Braille displays. I don't think we will see a large decrease in the price. They will hover around the $29 to $30 range for quite some time unless there is a breakthrough in the basic movement, the bender.
That brings us to the future, and who knows what the future will bring. I think I know about most of the research going on out there in the line of Braille displays and there is quite a bit going on. There needs to be a lot more, so you guys with big pocketbooks, like Dr. Schroeder, should really be spending some of that money on Braille-display research, not necessarily with us, but a lot of funding is needed.
First of all there are mechanical displays that are being researched. The rotating wheel I mentioned: they're looking for someone to take that technology and build it and see if it really works. Pneumatic displays: about ten years ago we built a pneumatic display. This was one driven by air. I think a pneumatic display still has a lot of promise. We gave up on it because we ran out of funding that we had gotten from a grant, and we got excited about another technology, so we didn't pursue it. But I really think, and our engineers think, that a pneumatic display has good possibilities. I don't know of anyone else working on pneumatic displays at present.
Dan Hinton from Science Applications International has taken over a National Science Foundation grant for a mechanical display. I don't know the current status of this work; I saw it about a year ago here at the Center, and it was more or less a mechanical display like a print head that poked up dots from underneath and painted the dots on a display. Then something else would erase them--not a bad idea, low cost, pretty low-tech, but it really might work. But as far as I know, work has stopped on it because I haven't heard anything at all.
The real breakthrough may come in what's called smart materials. You have heard a lot of talk about Moore's law and how it applies not only to electronics but to science in general and technology and just about everything in our lives. We are seeing a lot coming out of materials lately, and the advancements have been exponential. A tremendous number of new materials are coming out. One of these is the field of electrorheological fluids. The simplest one is cornstarch and corn oil. You mix the two together, and you get an electrorheological fluid. Pour it into your Braille display, and send it back in to get it repaired. When you put an electric field on these ER fluids, which is really easy to do, they get stiffer; their viscosity changes. So instead of pouring like water, they would pour like pancake syrup. The viscosity of the fluid gets lower, so if you could apply that to a Braille display, you should be able to move the Braille dots up and down.
There are some patents out there showing how Braille displays can be made from these electrorheological fluids. Again, nobody has taken the ball and run with it, and I think it deserves some attention. I really think these are possible. We did a very short study of them and concluded that the viscosity doesn't change enough, so you might get into problems. We didn't continue the research, but I really think the idea deserves some attention. There are more and more ER fluids being developed and the viscosity change is larger, so they may be usable.
The next area is a polymer, which is a huge class of materials. Smart polymers do all kinds of things when you put an electric field on them or a magnetic field; they react in different ways. Electrostrictive polymers are the ones we've looked at. These are polymers that either shrink when you put an electric field on them or grow. You might have heard of electrostrictive gels; these are actually polymers that can grow and contract as you put an electric field on them. These show a lot of promise.
Texas Instruments announced a Braille display based on these. It was supposed to be the be-all and end-all of Braille displays, and it may be. But so far not much has happened with it. Texas Instruments wanted to make a very high-quality projection television. So one of their polymer physicists, Marvin Cowens, demonstrated how he could make a very small mirror, about a half-inch square, and put a million little, tiny mirrors on this substrate, and he could make each mirror tilt a little bit. By tilting enough, he could deflect the light off the screen, so essentially he had a television set based on mirrors. He really made these things, and I believe TI sells them in a product. It was all done with mirrors--you see why I get accused of being too serious. If you can move a small mirror, why not a Braille dot?
I made about three dozen phone calls to TI, but finally I got them to release to the public domain the information on these polymers. So it is available. Anybody who wants to do research on these can get the information. I really do believe there's potential here, probably more than in any of the other fields I have mentioned. The formulae are in the TI literature; they can give you data on how fast or slow they reacted. The only thing we saw was that it took three or four seconds for the pin to go down. But they thought they knew why that was happening, and they thought it could be fixed. The TI polymer is based on Polyacrilimid, in case anybody wants to research it. I have paperwork on most of these if anybody wants it; I'd be glad to share it. Nothing I've talked about so far is proprietary.
Another total area outside of smart materials is called MEMs (micro electronic machines). These are the little robots that Ray Kurzweil was talking about this morning. I'm sure they use some of this MEMs technology to move those little wings that fly around. These things are able to move little, tiny parts inside a microchip. The microchips look just like parts say inside a Braille 'n Speak or anything else, except that they have moveable members.
The problem for Braille displays is that the parts move only on the order of twenty-five microns, and that's just not enough to get a good display. However, Stanford Research Institute--SRI it's now called--has a grant application in to do some work with MEMs to try to make a Braille display. They think they have a way to do it that can actually result in a real Braille display with the normal twenty-five thousandths of an inch movement. I read the proposal; in fact, we're teaming with them on it. And it looks as if it is feasible. They would start on the display somewhere in the year 2000.
The last area, and one that we are involved in more than any other, is shape memory alloys (SMA), titanium nickel alloys. This is an old technology; it's been around and been worked on quite a bit by a company out in California called TiNi, Inc. They worked on it for four or five years, and they actually did make a Braille cell. It was demonstrated here at the NFB National Center. The problem was that it wasn't reliable and took a lot of power to activate. There were some mechanical parts on it that are very difficult to make and duplicate. The activator is a little wire about the size of a human hair, four mils in diameter. A tiny piece of wire that would make a Braille dot go up and down costs about two cents. So the pricing is right to make a very low-cost Braille display. The trouble is that it does use a lot of current, and it's rather difficult to work with.
Over the past two years we've experimented with SMA wires a lot, and we've gotten over fifty million actuations on a piece of wire. At that point the wire stabilized and stopped changing properties, so we concluded that it would probably do another fifty million actuations. We now have a single dot going up and down fifty million times; it takes a long time to do fifty million actuations; figure it out. We are in the process now of designing an actual Braille module with these wires. They may be incredibly difficult to build. They've got little, tiny springs in them. But assuming that you can get robots to put these things together, they really do have promise. That's the display work going on at Blazie Engineering. I don't know anyone else working on shape memory alloy except Purdue University, and I believe their research has stopped.
I still think that the Holy Grail in blindness is the full-page display. Everybody who is designing Braille modules wants to try to make one that you can replicate in two dimensions so that you can make a full page. There is a lot of talk about whether you really need a full page, or is four lines or six lines or eight enough? I believe that four lines is probably enough, but not being a blind person, I just extrapolate what I see people doing. A full-page display has been made by Metec. There are probably two in existence, probably not more than that--four, Dave tells me. They sell for about $50,000. And it's also a graphics display so that you can actually display dot patterns as well. It uses the little, tiny solenoids that Shaefer and Schonherr developed a long time ago.
That in my opinion is the current state of the area in Braille displays. We need more research money in Braille displays, more people doing the work--not just more money in the same pockets but new people, with new ideas doing the research. I know VisuAide is doing some research on Braille displays--I'm not supposed to tell you that--but I didn't sign a nondisclosure, so I can tell you. The last thing I would like to tell you is sort of a commercial plug. You know we are working on an Optacon grant. We are also still repairing Optacons. If you've got a broken Optacon, we'll try to fix it.
One way that you could help us is that, if you know anybody who has Optacons that aren't being used, give them to us so that we can use them for parts. We just can't find enough parts. Some state agencies have donated five, six, and seven Optacons that were in their closets, just sitting there gathering dust. There are a lot of people who depend on an Optacon for their jobs and their livelihoods, so they need to keep them repaired. With no parts anymore, we are begging people, please, donate your Optacons if you're not using them anymore, and we will get what we can for them for you. And if you have one that needs to be repaired, send it to us, and we will do our best to repair it.
Finally, our Optacon grant is being funded by the National Science Foundation. It's not nearly enough to finish the project. We are having trouble with the tactile ray technology now. We are going back to the old way of doing it, which is brute force, but trying to modernize it. So, if anybody has any funding sources and wants to see this project speeded up, please talk to me sometime before the end of the meeting.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Tim Cranmer]
A Call for Research on Braille Reading and Haptic Perception
by T. V. Cranmer
From the Editor: Tim Cranmer is President of the International Braille Research Center and Director of Research for the National Federation of the Blind.
It is surprising how little we know about how blind people write and read Braille. It is all the more surprising once it is understood that writing is just as important to the blind as it is to all people who possess normal sight. It fulfills the same function for me as it does for you in the audience with your pens and pencils near to hand.
There is something about the written word that delights the human mind. There is something mystical, miraculous, and not fully understood that happens when the trained and practiced fingers of a blind reader skim the symmetrical patterns of Braille dots that transfer to his conscious mind words, thoughts, ideas, and emotions from a friend or from people long dead.
Braille seems magical to those who have forgotten that infants instinctively reach out to touch things they see to grasp their new surroundings better. Braille is mystical to those who forget that children want to hold a toy in their hands and won't settle for just looking at it. We all must be reminded from time to time that touch and sight are peers in the hierarchy of the senses.
We who are blind haven't always enjoyed the marvel of the written word. According to a usually reliable source, National Geographic, our progenitor, Lucy, the hominid that made bipedal footprints on the shore of a lake in Africa, lived some three million years ago. I think it is safe to assume that Lucy was illiterate. According to the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica, writing appeared in Mesopotamia some eight thousand years ago. Braille appeared in France about 1829. From these facts it is clear that the time writing first appeared to the time Louis Braille invented the code that the blind use today spanned several thousand years. In this long interim it was left to others, sighted others, to record the blindness experience.
Writing, in all its forms, is a marvelous invention of man. The encoded presence of your name or mine in print or Braille continues to delight us. A case in point:
The interview that I gave for an appearance on the "Sixty Minutes" TV program lasted for some four hours. When the show aired, my part lasted but a moment. A big part of that brief appearance on camera was focused on Lesley Stahl's name written in Braille on a Braille Lite. My hands were shown reading as I spoke "L E S L E Y, S T A H L." No mention was made of the fact that I had to ask the hostess how to spell her name because I had never before seen it written. The orderly pattern of Braille dots that represented the name of Lesley Stahl was magical. It possessed entertainment value as well as some potential educational merit. In the view of the show's producers, it was worthy of the attention of a national television audience.
Braille is the written language of the blind. It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of Braille. It is a regrettable fact, often repeated nowadays, that 70 percent of all blind people are unemployed or under-employed. It is a fact, not repeated often enough, that ninety percent of blind people who read Braille are employed in decent jobs.
Braille is not much understood and little appreciated by the general public. Far too many educators share the public's indifference to the importance of Braille to those blind people who master it. After decades of neglect by trained teachers of the blind, many individuals in the blind community have been led to believe that there are viable alternatives to learning Braille. There is none. The same educated people who believe that there are viable substitutes for Braille will scoff at the notion that substitutes for print are available to the sighted.
Over the years there have been several studies to understand how blind people read Braille. Psychologists and other professionals who could not read Braille efficiently, if at all, undertook most of these research efforts. I have been unable to identify even one study of Braille reading and writing that included subjective insights from blind individuals who were participating in the investigation. One might expect that good Braille readers would be asked to explain how they read.
The blind community and society will greatly benefit from new, enlightened research that leads to better training in reading and writing Braille. We are in need of better knowledge of the physiology of touch. We need accurate measurement of transmission bandwidth through the sense of touch, that is, to ask: How many parallel channels can be simultaneously carrying tactile data to the brain? How many bits per second can flow through each tactile channel? What are the physiological limitations inherent in tactile communication?
More information is needed on haptic recognition of objects large and small and how tactual imagery is acquired and stored from the practical experience of blind individuals. How dependent is haptic interpretation on context? The list of opportunities for research could be extended indefinitely.
Please imagine this haptic experience, as I did a long time ago. I was asleep in the middle seat of an airplane. The aisle seat to my right was empty. That is to say that it was empty when I went to sleep. Upon waking, I shifted the position of my right hand from my lap and allowed it to drop onto the seat at my right. It came to rest on a nude knee. The time that my hand remained at rest on the knee could have been measured only in milliseconds. That was quite long enough for me to recognize that my hand should be moved, that there was a passenger in the seat that had previously been empty, that the passenger was wearing shorts or a miniskirt, that it was probably a young lady or a young boy. If I could but have returned my hand for a second peek, I could have determined the gender and age of the knee and a measure of unhappiness experienced by the knee's owner.
The wealth of information that passed through my hand in the instant of contact defies analysis. With all my insight I can offer only the lame observation that context played a major role in every aspect of the event.
Better understanding of haptic perception should be pursued through new research inspired by new insights into how real blind people interact with the physical world. Let's begin with Braille reading.
I posit that the cognitive processes involved in reading print and Braille are essentially the same. The image flowing through the specialized regions of the brain where they are stored and processed for their linguistic meaning are the same for all reading, whether done visually or through the sense of touch. Recent articles in scientific journals, as well as the popular press, report that the visual cortex in the brain of sighted and blind individuals is the site where imagery is stored. Thus the only difference between reading print and reading Braille is in the perceptual modality necessary to establish a train of imagery passing through the visual cortex--that is, the visual path to the brain on the one hand and the tactual path to the brain on the other hand.
I wish to emphasize this process: Print readers must establish a stream of images in the visual cortex, and Braille readers must likewise establish a flow of images through the visual cortex. Images passing through the visual cortex of the brain of sighted and blind readers are true images in both cases even though they are encoded in visual perceptions and tactual perceptions respectively.
Other researchers will have to repeat experiments that indicate that the same region of the brain is used for processing tactile and visual images before professionals in the field will accept it. Once the role of the visual cortex in reading has been established, the investigator into factors affecting Braille reading will be free to focus entirely on the mechanical interface through touch with the Braille page. This understanding will also reduce the importance of the role of comprehension as one measure of reading speed.
Grasping the meaning intended by the author of a written passage may play no more than a minor role in the transformation of the written words to their equivalents in natural speech. Sighted people who read well can do so without comprehending the information contained therein. This is common knowledge among blind students who have employed sighted individuals to read aloud from a textbook.
I cannot resist a brief digression to share with you one of my experiences with sighted readers. Back in my younger days, when I was enthralled with chemistry and could not find a book in Braille on the subject above the beginner's level, I hired a young lady to read an advanced book on chemistry. She read it with ease. She read it with as much speed as I could tolerate. At one point I asked her if she understood what she was reading. With exaggerated good humor she replied: "Oh, yes. I understand every word. But it's the sentences and paragraphs that give me problems."
Once we accept the premise that the focus of an inquiry into factors affecting Braille reading will be confined to those relating to touch alone, it will be necessary to identify the specific factors to be evaluated. Here is a brief starter list of factors affecting reading by touch:
* Compliance of the skin covering finger pads. The top layers of skin that contact Braille must be soft enough to be deformed by the pattern of the Braille characters as they pass beneath the reading fingers.
* The area of the skin brought in contact with the line of Braille being read has a critical relation to the efficiency with which the tactile information is passed to the brain. This is a variable of the reading strategy of each individual: one finger, two fingers, or more; one hand or two hands. The greater the skin contact with the Braille line, the larger the tactile view.
* Temperature of the reading fingers. Cold fingers do not make for good Braille reading.
* Alignment and tracking of hands and fingers with the lines of Braille being scanned. Misalignment and poor scanning may result in contact with Braille on an adjacent line. This may corrupt the tactile data flow. Engineers would refer to this extra tactual stimulation as signal noise. A maximum ratio of signal to noise will contribute to the reading process.
This partial list of largely mechanical factors affecting Braille reading omits any reference to reading strategy. Some researchers have attempted to analyze reading techniques of blind subjects by studying video recordings of their hands as they read in a laboratory setting. Other researchers have explored Braille reading by presenting Braille one character at a time using a contrivance called a tachistotactometer. I suspect that the use of video recordings and tachistotactometers tells us more about the sighted investigators' love of technology than the technique used by the reader of Braille.
Now here is my next posit; one sure to offend the establishment: The best information about effective Braille reading technique will come from analysis of subjective reports from skilled Braille readers themselves. I contend that no amount of observation by a sighted investigator can ever surpass the subjective reports of what is going on at the interface between the blind reader and the Braille page. I also believe that this assertion applies equally to continuous Braille reading and to searching for specific information in a Braille book.
As we harvest the fruits of our research into tactile reading and haptic perception, a clear set of principles for designing computer-controlled, tactile transducers should emerge. These should be of two types. The first tactile display may consist of a printer that produces layered deposition of solid material on paper with the fine detail required for representing objects in three dimensions. A human face would be a good choice to exemplify tactile image printing. The face could be built up as a bas relief with true X and Y dimensions and a Z axis scaled to meet minimum requirements to provoke immediate recognition of such features as nose, mouth, eyes, and so forth. With sufficient resolution and detail, a bas relief image formed in this way could take on the aspect of a tactile photograph. I should be excused for coining the term tactograph for this medium. In fact, I submit that tactographs of human faces could be produced in the very near future with minor modification of machines used in industry today in rapid prototyping applications.
It does not require a great leap of confidence to imagine the second transducer, which should be a computer-controlled, dynamically variable surface topography capable of producing refreshable bas-relief imagery. Very little in technology today appears suited to the manufacture of a display of this complexity. New materials must be found or designed to this end. None will be found or designed till the men and women in various branches of materials science are inspired to begin the quest with the same zeal with which they now pursue materials with desirable electro-optical properties.
The International Braille Research Center is eager to support fully or partner with any individual or group attending this conference who shares our feel for the future, who can imagine the instruments to augment tactile perception in order for the blind to feel that which they cannot now touch and find the path we must follow to build the tactile technologies of the future.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Joe Sullivan]
Duxbury in the Year 2000 and Beyond
by Joe Sullivan
From the Editor: Joe Sullivan is President of Duxbury Systems, Inc.
I am going to subtitle this, "Duxbury in the Year 2000 and Beyond," and I hasten to add that that doesn't mean that I'm saying that Duxbury and Braille translation are now the same things. Many other people throughout the world are involved in Braille translation and Braille-related software.
I am glad to say, though, having been invited to speak about where we are going to be in the year 2000 and beyond, with only two more months to go, I'm glad to say that I think we'll be here. If we can actually make it to July 4, to be exact, we'll be celebrating our twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the company. Maybe more remarkable is that we will still be very much specialized in software for Braille. That is what we do, and that is all we do. That is kind of remarkable, because, when I look back to those early plans that we laid in 1975, we considered that we could identify probably a total of ten customers world-wide that we might eventually serve, hopefully at the rate of acquiring one per year. We have actually kept track of that rate, and our estimate was about right for the first few years.
I'd rather say that nowadays we are busier than ever, and that customer count is exceeded by a factor of roughly a thousand, which we are naturally happy about, but it might cause you to wonder how good we are at prognosticating.
I'm not going to try to go too far out in what I'm talking about, not certainly through 2025 and beyond as we've been hearing. I did, by the way, read Ray Kurzweil's book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, and much enjoyed it, Ray. It was very thought-provoking. I was dismayed, though, at the end of it to realize that I don't recall any mention of Braille throughout the book. I wondered what that meant. Also in the speech you gave this morning, there was no mention of Braille, except for one oblique reference to other modes of display.
If I had to do a little thinking about that question: are we going to have Braille in the year 2025 and after. . . . I keep hearing, not that Braille would be supplanted, but that there seems to be an implicit expectation that, if somehow print is converted to speech--whispered in the ear or somehow made available--that is a method by which print can be made available to blind people. If that's all it is, it is still not quite enough. It's good, but it's not the same as Braille, and I think that's basically what we were hearing from Dr. Cranmer, and I have certainly found that over and over again in my work.
If we get to 2025 and print is gone, that information in some direct form that isn't print is coming to us through robots, or whatever it might be--the clothes we are wearing are smarter than we are, great, that's good, and somehow the information is presented. I'd love to see it, but if that happens, and either print is gone or if access to print for blind people is actually direct, not through speech, as it is for sighted people now, then we may see Braille gone. Otherwise, I'm going to bet that what we will see from technology is increased support for Braille, not a replacement for Braille in the coming years.
How about a few details about what we are doing? First an area that is kind of old-hat, but I'll go over some of the things that we've been working on for years and perhaps some new frontiers in those areas: languages and codes. We've been working with different natural languages since the first year after our incorporation. We did contracted Spanish in late 1976, the first non-English code we did. We've been adding one or two every year since that time to the point where I think it was about thirty or so the last I looked.
At this point it's explosive. I just can't keep up with the number of requests we are getting to do different languages. We are working on quite a few in parallel. As Dr. Herie said, "We are in the age of globalization." Everybody, even in countries and using languages that we might not have heard of a few years ago, wants access to technology and deserves it; and by gum we have to give it to them.
We are also working to make our software, not only do these languages in Braille, but be usable in those languages. We have a project with a partner in France, the Association Valentin Hauy to add more facilities including the ability to work with the program naturally in French. The way we do that will also make it easy to do other languages as well.
Moving on to other codes, many of you know that I'm deeply involved in the Unified Braille Code, our UBC. It's not the unified button code as we heard earlier today. Sometimes I wish it was; we have a lot of controversy there. As some of you may know also, there will be a meeting in this very building next week in which the International Council on English Braille (ICEB) will be taking another look at the UBC. ICEB is in fact the sponsoring agency under which the UBC project is being conducted. I doubt very much that it's going to result in instant adoption of UBC as the code, but we certainly feel we are likely to continue working in that direction, hopefully in a few years to make UBC the prevailing code.
I won't go into a lot of detail about what UBC is, but it is very much in line with the kind of things we've been hearing here. It is oriented toward making Braille more accessible, that is to say more easily produced from who knows what, whether it be the World Wide Web or different electronic files. The idea is to remove the interpretation process from the transcription end and present to the reader an unambiguous presentation of symbols in the same manner and parallel fashion as in the print itself. You can look at this as saying we are going to try to replace the current plethora of Braille rules. There are so many of them, it's so complex, and they so depend upon the transcriber interpreting and adding meaning to the material, which of course drives up the cost of Braille. The whole UBC philosophy is based upon the idea of reader rules--the reader does the reading from a clear and unambiguous presentation of the symbols. The reader does the interpretation.
If you want to know more about UBC, you will probably want to visit the Web site <www.ICEB.org> to see where that's going. Hopefully that will be updated as we go along in the near future as a result of next week's conference.
Music code: this is an area, by the way, in which we expect to cooperate with others who are already doing good work. I think primarily of Dancing Dots. In the early stages I have been working with Dancing Dots to allow our files to be pulled back and forth so that music can be presented in the middle of a document. It makes good sense for us to do that.
Similarly in graphics, as many of you know, we work with files already produced by the Reprotronics TTD program, which is a program that allows a blind person to create graphics independently. Again, we haven't gotten into the area of graphics, but we are able to import those files so that you can have graphics presented in the midst of a Braille document.
All of these areas have to do with languages and codes. None of them are terribly two-thousandish; they are ongoing right now. But where we find the future is most pressing in upon us has to do with sources and platforms under which all of these things take place--the environment in which the Braille translator functions. Braille is needed not only for books in standard paper format, but also from other kinds of sources and in devices that may be new and themselves rapidly evolving--Braille everywhere, in other words. The DAISY standard for Digital Talking Books would be one example of a type of format that we see as a natural source from which we can derive a nicely formatted Braille document. In a sense this is a continuation of work and philosophy that goes back a ways, especially the ability to import SGML and of course more recently the HTML (which is a type of SGML) into a Braille format. We have believed in that approach just about forever, and it is good to see that it continues to apply. In working with these kinds of sources, we concur with the comments that Mr. Chong made that what you need are well structured, well tagged documents, and from there we can do the Braille just fine. That's what we have in the Talking Book, thanks to George Kerscher and the DAISY people. We have a coming era in which digital books will be available that could just as well be put into Braille. It could be a full Braille document--or why not have a Braille display actually being used instead of speech, if you wish, to show you the different parts of the document? Technically that's what we see is involved.
It isn't that deep, but there are some business questions that I'm afraid are a little deeper, and I don't know the answers to those. One of them Bill Raeder raised. That is the question of whether the convenience of that kind of book is going to narrow the gap between the advantages that Braille has for random access visa vis speech-based methods. In other words, when you have a digital book and you can jump back and forth easily just as you can with a Braille document, will you in fact be as inclined to use the Braille? If I had to guess, sure, for a given individual there will probably be a bit more use of digital talking books and a little less use of Braille. But I'll bet that we are still going to see more use of Braille overall because, again, you still have this basic issue that speech is not a complete substitute for Braille.
What we have seen--and it's incredible--is that the use of Braille has just increased exponentially over the years, rather than decreased as everyone was predicting awhile back. I really don't expect that to change, but the percentage for a given individual might change in favor of the digital talking books. That's fine because they are certainly going to be very useful tools.
All of this is in line with what we consider our goal: Braille everywhere. That's the bottom line for us, Braille usable for any kind of information that may come your way by whatever means. Speaking of information, I can't resist including a quote from Bill Raeder at lunch today. He said, "You know, we are drowning in information before we have a chance to develop a thirst for it." I can only agree, but I suppose what we have to do is make sure that blind people have the same opportunities as the general population to get drowned in this information explosion and sort things out for themselves.
In this sources-and-platforms area one of the things we are doing is dealing with the need and desire to have Braille in such things as Word or in other common applications that you might be using. Of course we import Word documents, WordPerfect, and lots of others. That's not entirely what people want; people just want to be able to push a button when they are in a Word document and have it come out in Braille. Some of this dovetails with some of the developments we're seeing. We are just beginning to see Braille embossers that are Windows-oriented, so that instead of the old teletype model which you drove by sending ASCII characters, they are driven in the same way that laser printers are driven, so you have a field of dots that can be raised. Interestingly enough, common applications can in fact drive them at this point. So we have internally a development in which you can be in Word, press a button, and it turns to Braille before your eyes, something we call DuckWord. That name may not last; we'll see.
Then there is the person who isn't into Braille enough to have an application of any kind on his computer or who wants his document handled professionally. What about that person who is on the Web and wants to send a Braille document to a friend--maybe doesn't want the Braille himself? This all comes down to the whole issue of Web-based delivery; and, yes, there too you may have seen the announcement made at the APH [American Printing House for the Blind] meeting last week. I'll read it to you: "Duxbury, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and the American Printing House for the Blind have agreed to collaborate to develop E-Braille, an electronic Web-based system for the management, transcription, production, and delivery of Braille. We hope and believe this project and the resulting processes will revolutionize the ability to deliver Braille texts and Braille textbooks to students and individuals throughout North America. It is also our belief and intent that this project will facilitate access to Braille and Braille production around the world." So this is management and distribution primarily, but it also involves translation, potentially online translation, in some cases. We are just starting this project and are very enthused and very excited and feel very privileged to be involved.
I just have a few notes on a couple of hot-button items here: pricing. We've heard people say, "Now that you are a monopoly, the prices will go up." Well, we are not a monopoly for one thing, and we are just simply holding the line, but if there is any trend, it obviously ought to be downward. We do intend to bring our former competitor, Mega Dots, along in the sense of basic maintenance. We are not going to be advancing that program because it's DOS-based, but we do intend to bring its good facilities, and there are a number of them, over into DBT [Duxbury Braille Translator] as we advance DBT. Eventually there won't be a further need for the Mega Dots program as such, but in the meantime it will be maintained. We've also added a training division and are working on better training for all of our customers in how to use our products, which some people find complicated. The bottom line for us is Braille everywhere.
I just want to leave you with one thought as we approach 2000. It was actually, as Tim said, around 1829 that Braille was developed. Just think about how forward-looking it was that Louis Braille in 1829 produced a system that is already Y2K compliant!
[Picture/Caption: Judy Dixon]
Web-Braille: A New Distribution System for Braille Books
by Judy Dixon
From the Editor: Judy Dixon is the consumer relations officer for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress.
I'm very happy to have this opportunity to tell you about Web-Braille. Joe Sullivan posed the question, "Would Digital Talking Books in any way decrease the use of Braille?" I'm thinking that it won't because we are here to tell you about something like the digital Braille book. While these books won't necessarily have the rich markup that we'll enjoy from Digital Talking Books--and hopefully we'll have Braille from those as well--at least these books are in digital form right now, and we can enjoy some of the benefits of the digital form in that they can be searched and bookmarked and stored and things like that that can happen in a digital document.
Web-Braille is new. It's very exciting for us. It's the NLS's system to deliver Braille books on the Internet. Web-Braille offers immediate, twenty-four-hour access to thousands of Grade II Braille books. We had one user a few weeks ago who wrote very enthusiastically because he needed to help his ten-year-old child with his math homework and found a four-volume book on Web-Braille called Helping Your Child With His Math Homework. He downloaded it that evening and was actually able to be helpful in a way that he would not have been able to do had he needed to wait to get a physical book from his library.
NLS has been saving the diskettes with the files on them used to emboss Braille books since 1992. On Web-Braille we have virtually every Braille book produced by NLS in the last seven-and-a-half years, except for print-Braille books and Grade I Braille books. In October of 1997 we got the idea to create Web-Braille. We had all these books hanging around. We had good Internet ability. We had a server with a lot of storage. We had all the bits and pieces that we needed, we thought. We started by examining the disks and realized that the producers of the Braille books had put the books (we just said, "Give us the disks;" we didn't say how) well, they put the books on there in some very curious ways. For those of you who are familiar with how Braille books are structured, two of the producers had put the preliminary pages for each volume in a separate file from the main volume of the book. All five producers had used completely different file-naming conventions. It was quite interesting.
We established a file structure, with some suggestions from Joe Sullivan, suitable for embossing on a double-sided embosser, and we established a file-naming convention. We then decided to launch a pilot of Web-Braille. We decided to select fifty books that we thought might be very appealing, but there were a number of things that we needed to do before we could launch this pilot. We had to create a security system. No one at NLS was very knowledgeable about these kinds of things, so a couple of us quickly took a few UNIX courses so we could understand a little more about UNIX and directories and files and permissions and all that good fun UNIX stuff. We learned how to set it up with the advice of Library of Congress employees from downtown. We were able to set up a simple security system that requires a user ID and a password.
We selected the fifty books, manually stuck the preliminary pages and the main parts of the volumes together in a reasonable way, and created the HTML pages for how people would select these files and view them online. In March of 1998 we launched our Web browser pilot, and I think a number of you in this room were participants in that pilot. We had 174 people. We asked people to apply to us to participate in the pilot, but in reality we took anybody who came. It didn't matter to us. All we had to do was issue a user ID and a password. So as long as they were eligible, we let them into the pilot. We sent announcements to listservs and consumer organizations and so forth.
We had only one real glitch in the pilot. With the help of Curtis Chong we were able to determine that it was really better for Braille Lite users if we put these files on our server as binary files with a binary transfer rather than as an ASCII transfer. So any of you who have always regarded Braille files as ASCII files (they are), remember they're more usable if you help them preserve their carriage returns and line feeds. Transferring them in a binary way does that.
During the first month of the Web-Braille pilot we had 2,808 hits by the one hundred plus people. In the test we had fourteen public schools and nine schools for the blind. One of our other surprises--and I suppose it shouldn't have been much of a surprise--but we started hearing from schools. "We need Braille. We can't get enough Braille. Oh, this is so wonderful. We're going to be able to get Braille!" Something is wrong with this picture. Libraries are going, "Oh Braille, ho hum, it takes up lots of space."
Why are schools having trouble? We talked to several of the schools, and it turned out that in fact let's say a curriculum in Michigan required third graders to read Charlotte's Web. There might be twenty third graders in Michigan who were Braille readers. But in fact they couldn't afford to buy twenty hard-copy Braille versions of Charlotte's Web. The library didn't have twenty. If the library had scraped them up from all the other libraries around the country, they might have gotten twenty. It was very difficult for them, and they could not manage the process.
They said, "We can buy all the paper it would take," And they were delighted. They were happy and willing to print twenty copies of Charlotte's Web. The schools are really looking at Web-Braille as a very, very exciting thing for them to make Braille books for their students and also to provide Braille and Braille Lites and other kinds of refreshable Braille displays.
After three months we surveyed all the participants in the pilot and found that the results were overwhelmingly positive. We had about seventy-nine people respond to the survey, and only one person rated it as anything other than excellent. So we decided to go full-scale and begin the process of launching Web-Braille in all its glory. We had thousands of archived disks, and they had to be gone through manually. This process really involved over a dozen NLS staff doing quite a lot of things like sorting through disks and making lists and doing lots of yucky, tedious things like that.
Michael Moody, the NLS research and development officer, worked with a contractor to take all the disks and put those preliminary files back together with the main parts of the volume. They did that for 55,553 disks. It was quite an undertaking, and it took several months. The contractor wasn't very good at this, unfortunately, because Braille didn't make a lot of sense to them. We manually checked all the documents they did. This took quite a while, several more months.
We also had to set up a system whereby the libraries could register people for Web-Braille and all that involved. We had about 2,600 titles to put up at this point, and we had to create HTML lists. So we created nine HTML files that went on the main page of Web-Braille. We also now have a frequently asked question section--we don't have two questions, so we call it frequently asked question. If we ever get another question, we'll change its name.
As of July of 1999 we have nine HTML lists, and some of these files are great. They have over seven thousand links. We created an automatic link checker to check all the files and make sure that each file is one volume of Braille. When the files were ready, we had to get more storage, and interestingly enough, for those of you who are into this kind of stuff, right now we have over 2,758 books on Web-Braille. We're adding about ten books a week; 2,758 books is still less than a gigabyte. We have enough space for about six years of growth on our server.
At present 304 people have registered for Web-Braille. We have established a mechanism for the NLS quality assurance section to upload the files. For those of you who are Web-Braille users and who may be in a situation where you are going to help other people understand it, here's the only sort of confusing part of it. The files on the main Web-Braille pages are static. They will not be added to. We have no really easy way to do that. But starting with the July/August Braille Book Review, all the books are linked to the Web-Braille files. So if you select a link to a particular volume in Braille Book Review, you'll then be prompted for your user ID and password. So Braille Book Review will contain the newest books.
Here's a great Web-Braille trick. If we're near the end of the Braille Book Review cycle--and they are generally put up in the middle of the odd-numbered month (so November/December will go up around November 15), as we get closer to November 15, you know that the newest books are really there. You can actually access them by entering the whole URL with the book number. So you really can get them even though they're not on any list yet. They will be when Braille Book Review is put up in the middle of November. Our books are put up first, so they're really put up during the preceding two-month period.
We launched Web-Braille officially on September 10. As I mentioned, we had 304 users. It will be announced in the November/December Braille Book Review. It is also beginning to appear in other libraries' lists. There still has not been a work day that someone wasn't added, so it's still continuing to flow very nicely.
Planning for the future: what are we going to do now that we have launched Web-Braille so successfully, we hope, and it all seems to be going well? Our next step is Braille magazines. We will be starting a pilot on magazines. Magazines may actually prove to be a bit trickier, but we're going to look at magazines, make some decisions, and I welcome input from any of you who care about these things: whether we should put them up in their parts, whether we should put them up as one file, whether we should "article-ate" them, not to be confused with articulate--and just exactly how to do it in the least labor-intensive but most usable way possible. That's the balance here--labor against usability.
We will start with the pilot of a magazine from a producer, probably some time in December or January; then we will see where to go from there as far as how magazines on Web-Braille work. We need to make some decisions, so those of you who are good Braille users and Braille readers, let's talk about that.
[Picture/Caption: George Kerscher]
Implications of Digital Talking Books and Beyond
by George Kerscher
From the Editor: George Kerscher is a research fellow with Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic and the product manager for the DAISY Consortium.
Mr. Chong asked me to talk about the problems associated with using publisher files. He also asked me to go through what DAISY is and what it's about, and also tell you about the open-electronic-book technology that is evolving. He said to do this in twenty minutes. I'm going to move really rapidly, and I apologize for my machine-gun presentation, but there is a lot of content, and I think Michael [Gosse] is going to convey the kinds of information that you as leaders in your organizations need to know in order to make strategic decisions.
First of all, talking about the publishers and publisher files, which we have been using to some extent over the past dozen years or so: When you ask a publisher for the files, they usually have postscript available because their product is print. They're print publishers; that's what they do, that's what they know how to do. That's their area of expertise. In order to get something more useful, you have to go upstream in the publishing process to what created those postscript files. In the K-twelve arena, for example, it's Quark predominantly--70 percent--and in higher education it begins to diversify, and you get all kinds of different file types.
It's getting better, but the publishers may not even have those files to begin with. They may subcontract that composition out. They may give it to typesetters. They may not think that that is very important to them because they've got the postscript files, which are their bread and butter. So in many cases they don't have the files at all, but that's getting better because the publishers are beginning to wake up to the fact that these files may be important.
In general, the publishing field is not the computer and technology field. They're not necessarily on the cutting edge of technology every minute of the day and night. They established procedures that they use, and that's exactly what they do. So availability of the files is the problem.
Of course the file types vary even within a particular set. If we get Quark files, we have to keep what version of Quark was used to produce it, whether it was MAC or Windows, and the macros and other styles are different from publisher to publisher or even within the same publishing house, from department to department. So there's a wide variety in the files.
The types of files that we get are heavy with visual markup and visual presentation: all kinds of information about where things are positioned on the page, what font it is, whether it is bold--all that kind of information. Rarely is the information marked up with any kind of semantically important information. We don't know what things are. We don't know what's a paragraph. We don't know what's a heading. We know all kinds of visual things, but it's not marked up semantically with meaning. So when we get these files, we have to convert them, and it usually takes a fairly skilled person, a programmer, by and large, to have the first go at the files to do some of the analysis and try to figure out what to do. A lot of work is involved with technical people or trained technicians to convert these files into something useful.
That's the experience that we've had, and it is time-consuming. These are the same kinds of questions that the publishers have had to deal with when they make files available, for example, to the state of Texas.
I'm going to move on to the DAISY Consortium. The DAISY Consortium is made up of libraries and organizations that provide information to people who are blind and print-disabled throughout the world. The major organizations, the full members, include Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic in the United States and RNIB in the UK, and we have full members in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, O.N.C.E. in Spain, and in Japan the Japanese Society for Rehabilitation of Persons with Disabilities. In addition, we have associate members all over the world, on every continent, except Antarctica. We have about twenty-four associate members. In the United States and Canada they are CNIB, who's been very active in working on the development of the training materials and the guidelines, a very active group--love them; INLB in Montreal recently joined; also APH; the Hadley School for the Blind; Arkenstone; and at the beginning of the year Minnesota State Services for the Blind.
DAISY stands for Digital Audio-Based Information System. Originally it started to develop a replacement for the existing analog technology. But that's changed a bit, though the name has stayed the same. The mission of the DAISY Consortium is to develop the information technology for the next generation for people with disabilities. It also intends to develop ways of sharing the information with libraries around the world. Four-track has been dominant in North America, but in other countries six-track; two-track; half-speed, two-track: all kinds of different formats have been used, and that difference in format has prevented inter-library loans between the various organizations. So we're striking out to accomplish that mission.
What we've been developing is actually a multi-media presentation because audio by itself has no structure to it. So we use text to add the structure and navigation points to the information. What we've actually got is marked-up files, tagged files, using HTML. We are also using XML and developing all new technologies in XML. As you may know, HTML--the version 4.0 that we have right now--is the last HTML. From here on out it's going to be XML because it's much easier, much simpler to process. It's a much better system. Actually XML is a simplification of SGML, which has been around for a long time but just too bulky and cumbersome to use. So XML is it; XML is good.
It also uses DTD, document type definition, which identifies the components of the document. We have paragraphs and headings and list items, things like that. The other component, in addition to the text marked up in XML, is SMIL (synchronized multi-media integration language). This is a standard of the W3C [World Wide Web Consortium]. So throughout, what DAISY has been using is international standards based primarily on W3C recommendations in order to develop its own specifications.
We have come up with six categories of books. One is very simple with just a title. It is not what most of us would prefer. Probably one of the most common types of books will be a book that has a full table of contents, page numbers, and the full audio recording so that you can navigate through the digital Talking Book or go to any page, chapter, section, or subsection and move around very quickly to get to what you want.
The other types of books include full text. The ideal, of course, is to have full text and full audio, and that particular multi-media would provide everything that has been recommended by the work groups--Curtis Chong headed up a work group which identified the user requirements. It's the full-text and full-audio category that meets the user requirements laid out by that body and by a similar body in Europe established by the European Blind Union. That's the ideal.
Also, once you've got the full text, the Braille is possible, and Joe is salivating. Joe Sullivan is ready to go, and we're really excited about his efforts and work in taking input of these types of files and outputting great Braille.
The last type of book is just text. There is no audio associated with it. You would be using synthetic speech, refreshable Braille, large print, or a combination of those things to read that type of book.
The standards that DAISY has developed so far--2.0 was a recommendation in September of '98, and that provides for headings, page numbers, and audio; but that's the extent of it. Two point zero one, which was just passed a couple of weeks ago in September, adds additional functionality, including full text in XML, and it includes footnotes, sidebars, and figure descriptions that can be turned off as an option by the reader. Gilles [P`epin] is going to be doing a section later on the players and reading-devices side of things, so I will leave all that for him.
Of course one of the most important things that is going on right now in standards is the National-Information-Standards-Organization (NISO) work that NLS initiated with Digital Talking Books, bringing together the key players in North America who are involved with Digital Talking Books and developing the specifications. DAISY was invited to participate in this work, and there's been an absolutely fantastic hand-in-glove cooperation between all the organizations to make sure that the standards developed by NISO lead to a single world-wide standard. I would expect that the DAISY specifications that come out in the future will actually be NISO specifications and recommendations. So you can rest assured that all the players intend to come up with one worldwide standard and not a divergent group. It's been great working with everybody on that team. Michael Moody in particular has been a fabulous person to work with.
The DAISY Consortium is developing production tools. We will very soon be coming out with our first release. It's in final beta. We're about a month away from releasing something called LpStudio/Pro. It will be a full-fledged production tool, beginning to end, for digital talking books. It's been a year and a half in development and most of the money contributed by the members has gone toward that software development. We're also working on A to D conversions (analog to digital) in which we digitize existing tapes. The hard part of that is going back and adding the structure so that students have the kind of navigation they want in their textbooks.
The distribution mechanism that we're looking at right now is CD ROM. It's very common, and we think that's going to be around for I don't know how long, but CD ROM distribution is something that is here right now and that we're doing. We know that RFB & D, for example, will have to support the cassette for some time. So the CD ROM and the cassettes will be in parallel for a certain period of time. It's a real pain to have to do that. But it's something that's inevitable when you've got an infrastructure as strong as we've got in the four-track system in North America.
Of course long term the goal is to have Internet distribution either streaming this information or downloading it to solid-state devices. Everybody wants to get there as quickly as possible and as the band width improves, we'll move in that direction. Because we're using Internet-based standards and technology, that kind of transition is really built in. Some people are saying, "What are we going to do: are we going to distribute on CD ROM? or wait?" But the digital technology allows for the migration to any type of distribution mechanism that is right for a particular organization.
Moving on to Open Electronic Book: who are the players here? We've got Microsoft, who is very interested in electronic books; manufacturers of Rocket Book and Soft Book, which is just a hand-held book with a screen and some functions like page forward; Glass Book, who's very interested in security and digital-rights management. Many publishers are involved. About fifty to seventy-five organizations have been involved in writing the standard that was published on September 21. OEB (Open Electronic Book) 1.0, was published at that time. It was really designed for legacy documents.
They know that we've got this problem with the publishers having postscript files, some of them having Quark, but they don't have real good files that are marked up in XML. The specification really leans heavily toward making it easy for the publishers to convert to this format, 1.0. In this way books can become available. The devices can grow and prosper. At the meeting Microsoft said that it is going to have Microsoft Reader available in the first quarter of 2000 to support open electronic books. There's a lot of support. This is the first time we've really seen a large effort in the publishing arena to move forward with electronic books.
Open E-book is like an amoeba; there's no formal organization. I was involved with the 1.0 standards, trying to take this train which was moving forward at an incredible pace and make sure that some of the accessibility features get put into it. They worked from a base of HTML 4.0 and wrote a DTD in XML that is based on 4.0. We were able to carry with it all the accessibility features developed by the WAI [Web Access Initiative] by using that strategy. It was nip and tuck at times about being able to do that. But by and large the OEB folks see that the requirements the blind community has are really no different from the requirements that the sighted community has, in file specifications that is.
So OEB now needs to form a real organization that can move this forward. That's underway. There will be a meeting December 14, 15 in San Francisco.
A big issue with the publishers is digital-rights management. That's the protection; it's a wrapper around the information that prevents the data from being sent willy-nilly wherever anybody pleases. Before there is large-scale use of electronic books, the publishers are going to have to be convinced that their intellectual property is secure, and digital-rights management is the way to do it. That's something that will be evolving over the next two years.
The OEB folks know that 1.0 specification is really designed for legacy data, and they want to move toward a second specification that is much richer. That's where the work of the DAISY Consortium and NISO and Open E-Book in the 2.0 version have a possibility to converge their standards. With the DAISY-NISO work we've got objects identified like footnotes, note references, sidebars, notices, index, lists. These things are not defined in OEB. Only the very basics are part of OEB 1.0. They know they need that; They know they want it; and they plan to put it in 2.0. What I am suggesting is that it's strategically very important for our organizations to work toward convergence of standards with mainstream publishing. I think that's a very important point that we are going to be raising at the next NISO meeting next month in Louisville--a very important opportunity there.
Sooner or later publishers are going to start dual publishing, which means they won't just focus on print, but they'll also focus on the electronic book. They'll want to have both books available at the same time. At this point the use of XML and that technology becomes natural. You have the XML marked up with structure and content, and, through a style for print, you go ahead and print. For a style for the electronic book, you include those kinds of styles. It's also a matter of styling for large print. It's a matter of styling for Braille.
A different style can be applied to the same information; it's just a presentation difference. So the structure and content are all there. We're using the same information, but the way the information is presented is controlled by styles, and of course the reading device that one may use to present that information. We have a huge opportunity at this point, when publishers start dual publishing, to make books accessible essentially right out of the box. There will be a single source file for everything, the whole document in a variety of different types of presentation.
What can be done by libraries right now? We can start digital mastering at this point. We are ready to start doing that kind of thing pretty much full scale. We want to work on A to D collection conversion to convert what we've got that is worth moving forward into the future and turn that into the new format. We want to test that with consumers to assure that we're providing the kinds of structure that they need. We want to plan for the launch in the United States of Digital Talking Books right now.
What are the possible future outcomes? The single source file could become ubiquitous in publishing so that they use one single source file for mastering their information, and then they go to different formats at will. We could have access to information at the same time as everybody else. We could use the OEB source for producing full-text, full-audio books. The libraries could also add additional information to the OEB books with figure descriptions and other types of things, elaborations that need to be made on these types of books. We could eventually get to practically a full-audio and a full-text rendering of the information. And eventually the libraries can get down to trying to pay some serious attention to the very tough problems of math and science, which we know are sorely neglected at this point.
I didn't touch on any of the international copyright issues in this presentation, but they need to be resolved before we're going to be able to distribute outside borders. And I didn't touch on DAISY's efforts in developing countries to move this technology and bring this information to developing countries, but I want you to know that's a very important item on the strategic plan within the DAISY Consortium. If you want to know more about DAISY, I'm available to talk any time.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Michael Gosse]
Publishing Tools: Converting Obstacles to Opportunities
by Michael Gosse, Ph.D.
From the Editor: At the time of this conference Dr. Gosse was the Systems Engineer at the National Center for the Blind.
Good morning, and thank you for giving me this opportunity to address the U.S./Canada conference on Technology. It is a great privilege to have the opportunity to address you this morning and to begin a dialogue on what I believe is a very important topic that will have significant impact on the lives of blind people throughout the world. My presentation today will focus on issues surrounding the interface between desktop publishing software, publishers, and the Digital Talking Book standard file formats.
But this issue is really larger than the community assembled at this conference. The consumer market for electronic books encompasses the entire population of the earth. If the true capacity for electronic publishing is realized, people who can't read, speak the language, or physically turn a page will have access to books from across the world. The National Federation of the Blind, through its NEWSLINE® and Jobline initiatives has demonstrated that access to published information can be provided in a timely manner to the population through a simple telephone. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is leading an effort to develop standards that will provide the basis for electronic books to be available to the blind. This DTB standard will allow books for the blind to be produced more quickly and will provide features that give blind people access comparable to that enjoyed by the sighted.
There was a time when even print books were scarce because they were reproduced by hand. As a result only those who could afford books were able to read. This was dramatically changed with the advent of moveable-type printing. This invention allowed for mass production, greatly reducing the cost of books and other printed material. Since then, reading and writing have become essential for success in almost every facet of modern society. Now, in the information age, it is expected and mostly assumed that all people read. And yet, reading and writing are only a part of what the Information Age represents.
It is no wonder that in this high tech world software tools have been developed to assist people in all aspects of information generation and retrieval. Word processors correct our spelling and grammar, suggest that it knows we're writing a letter, offers assistance, and allows others to collaborate and edit our work. Most word processors these days even go so far as to offer templates for various tasks. Readers on the other hand can search huge volumes of information for key words and even concepts, but only if the data are published in electronic form and only if the document is properly prepared.
If you have done a search on the Internet lately, you probably have a clue about the effectiveness of the search process. You may find thousands of documents that match your search requirements, but few are relevant to your desired objective. This is not so much the fault of the search engine as of the electronic document. Search engines rely heavily on document structure to add significance to the words. Poorly marked-up documents result in poor search performance. As long as documents are produced with visual appeal as the central focus, the blind and sighted alike will be unable to take full advantage of the information revolution.
The National Information Standards Organization (NISO) is assisting the National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) with the development of a digital talking book standard. The DTB standard will consist of file specifications for the delivery of synchronized text and audio as well as other multimedia content. Rather than reinvent information systems for text and multimedia, the NISO DTB committee has wisely chosen to reuse standard technology. A rigorous set of end-user requirements has led to a file specification based on industry standard concepts.
Extensible Markup Language (XML) and a DTB Document Type Definition (DTD) are the core components of the standard. These technologies appear to be the central components of the future of Internet publishing. Most leading Internet publishing software supports both XML and DTD's. This means that Digital Talking Books can be marked-up and published using commercial, off-the-shelf products. Experience suggests that future versions of these standards will retain backward compatibility and therefore increase the useful life span of each generation of digital talking books.
In contrast most desktop publishing software, such as Quark Express, produces documents in proprietary file formats. Although many tools are available which translate between file formats, information is often lost during the translation process. Several de-facto standards have emerged for portability of files between software packages and computer platforms. Among these are Portable Document Format (PDF), supported by Adobe, and Rich Text Format (RTF), supported by Microsoft. The main objective of these formats is to produce the same appearance of the document across hardware and software packages, platforms, and versions.
In both these representations document structure is essentially ignored. For example, translation of table data into PDF from a desktop publishing tool may be accomplished by positioning the table cell data using tabs, spaces, or pixel coordinates on the page. Visually the document will look the same, but all information relating to the tabular nature of the data is discarded.
Transformations of this nature are called lossy. In situations like this, human intervention and visual inspection are often required to restore the meaning of the original document. Automating the process is nearly impossible, defeating a significant advantage of electronic information exchange. File exchange formats like PDF and RTF may be acceptable for works that will wind up in hard copy, but they are antiquated for electronic-information processing. There is more to a book than simply making it look appealing on the page.
In order for electronic information publishing to reach its full potential, data exchange must retain all structure, content, and related information. For document translation to be useful for the electronic publication formats such as Open E-Book, DAISY, or Digital Talking Books, developers must retain the visual presentation as well as the content and intent of the author and publisher. Furthermore, additional information can greatly enhance the value of the published document. Pictures, graphs, and charts can be enhanced with detailed text descriptions. The same is true for other multimedia data such as sound and video clips.
This is where the publisher's task begins. If the software vendors provide the tools to allow accurate electronic representation of published data, then the publishers must take the initiative to use the tools consistently and to their fullest extent. Styles, templates, and procedures must be developed to ensure consistent representation of text and multimedia data. It is essential to keep in mind that a little work up front will save significant effort down the road. Finally, publishers must take the initiative and insist that the software tools provide direct translation into standard electronic book formats including the NISO DTB.
Desktop publishing vendors have produced powerful tools to automate the publishing process. Now they need to enhance those tools to provide a mechanism that allows the author and publisher to do more than just position text and images on the page. Publishers need to be able to define content and structure and publish the result in standard file formats. These modifications to existing software tools will require significant thought, insight, and cooperation--not to mention a little modification to existing code.
The future of books, magazines, and newspapers lies in their reincarnation in electronic form. The blindness community has seen the potential for electronic publication. We have explored the possibility and taken significant steps to embrace it. The Internet has served as the great equalizer that will soon level the playing field for the blind. Without the cooperation and resources of the rest of the world, equal access to printed material for the blind may be delayed. But, in the not-too-distant future, blind and sighted alike will rely on our computers to retrieve, analyze, and read more than any one person can manage today. Publishers and software vendors can decide to make the changes now or later, but the changes will come. It is safe to say that the best products will make billions and the mediocre will be forgotten.
A View from the Publishers
by Carol Risher
From the Editor: Carol Risher is Vice President for Copyright and New Technology at the Association of American Publishers (AAP).
I recognize the importance of this conference, and I am very glad to present the views of the publishers. My remarks fit very well with those of the previous two speakers in this session. AAP publishers represent different markets. When you think of books, it is important to know that our members publish elementary and high school text books for a particular market; college text books; professional and scholarly books; and what we call trade, the consumer fiction and non-fiction. All of our members publish books in order to get information to the public, including those who have print-accessibility problems. We have been working with the NFB, the American Printing House for the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind, RFB&D, and the National Library Service for many years to improve accessibility.
We are now looking together at technology initiatives. Technology is an opportunity, but it's important that everyone realizes that for publishers it is also a threat. Right now, today, my office, which is copyright and new technology, gets reports that college students go into college book stores and buy text books; they then take them to self-service machines and copy the entire book and bring the book back to the book store for full credit. This is happening across the country. We also have won lawsuits about course packs, where people copy a chapter of this, a chapter of that, a chapter of the other thing. People are buying course packs and photocopying them.
Now, with the advent of scanning technology, it is possible with a hand-held scanner to take an entire text book and put it up on the Internet. So we are fighting the threat of technology, and those of you who don't follow the law may not realize that there is also now a provision in a recent Supreme Court decision that states are immune from cash damages for copyright infringement. So the publishing industry is aquiver with fear that state boards will start reproducing text books for all the students without paying any attention to copyright and payment until they are sued, and then the only thing that we can do is to stop the copying.
We're under threat, and the piracy is real to us. So we approach the challenge of accessibility on two levels: how can we use digitization and electronic files and technology to improve accessibility; but how can we insure that only the intended recipient obtains access to the content? Some of the areas that we look forward to working with all of the organizations represented in this room on are encryption, certification, software and hardware solutions, and access controls so that copies which are intended, which are distributed over the Internet or distributed in an unencrypted, digital format to blind people do not somehow find their way into commerce, not only in the United States, but around the world, totally destroying the market for books. We hope to work with our partners in this project on various approaches to achieve these goals.
Technology poses other challenges as George Kerscher mentioned very well--the different formats, the cost of conversion. There is also a question right now over who holds the rights to electronic editions, and when you talk about legacy materials, there are lawsuits now which have proven that, although a publisher may have published the print version, it is the author who holds the electronic rights. So one of the concerns that we are looking at is how to make sure that for older materials we can get the necessary rights to convert a book to electronic formats.
For creating electronic files there are two separate projects right now that AAP is working on. Maybe Tuck Tinsley can tell you more about the one at the El-High level to create a central repository of digital files. The school publishers are finding that each state has a different requirement for providing electronic files to provide versions for the blind. So an elementary-high school text book publisher is doing one thing for Texas, one thing for California, one thing for New York, one thing for Florida; and the hope is that, if there can be a central repository, you're not converting your book again and again and again in different formats at a tremendous expense. That is one project that we think is very important and AAP is working on.
The other is the one that George mentioned, the OEB [Open E-Book]. The pilot project that we are working on now is taking new books and putting them in the Open E-Book format. The theory is that publishers will want to do this for commercial reasons, as George mentioned, but no one has ever yet converted a book to OEB. And it isn't the publishers who do the conversion. Publishers have other people handle their output. So the folks from R. R. Donnelly and Son, one of the largest printers in the United States--I think they are a five-billion-dollar business--and they print catalogs, magazines, newspapers, and books. R.R. Donnelly has trained its staff to do conversions to OEB. They had three weeks of training. From the time the specification was adopted on September 21 until now, they've been training staff to convert to OEB. We have identified two books that have some complicated materials in them. Not math and science, but we do have some sidebars, some graphs, some tables, and a lot of text. We are taking Quark files--as George mentioned, 70 percent of the books are in Quark--taking Quark files and converting them to OEB. I called the folks at Donnelly and said, "How is it going?"
They said, "You know, in creating an electronic file for a book, what happens is that publishers and authors like to work in small, bite-sized pieces; so, if a book has ten chapters, they actually work on it as though it were ten separate books, ten separate files." So the Quark file is separate. In order to run a conversion, you'd like just to put it in a machine and say, "Now everything that looks like this, change to that." Unfortunately, they're finding that they have to convert each chapter as a separate project. They also found that for the tables and the charts and the graphs they need incredible manual operation because OEB is not easy to use to automate the process.
We think this is a very useful project because we are learning the difficulties. We're learning ways that we can recommend things be modified to make it easier in the first place, but understand, we're going first from the Quark to the OEB. Then we're taking the OEB files and, by file-transfer protocol (FTP), we are delivering them to the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped at the Library of Congress. They're going to take the OEB files and convert them to the DAISY-NISO standard. Then the DAISY-NISO files are going to be delivered to Duxbury to put them into Braille. Each step along the way will be a learning process.
What we think will come out of this pilot (and it's in a very tight time frame) is specific identification of things that should go into OEB Version 2 to make the files more compatible with DAISY-NISO and a rule set and a style sheet for how to prepare manuscripts. The concept that George mentioned about dual publishing is not yet there with publishers. As he said, "Book publishers are not on the cutting edge of technology." They are afraid of E-Books right now. There is a concern: will the E-Book cannibalize the market for the print book? How will the two work together? If you identify a wonderful author and, in order to promote the new book by the new author, do all the publicity and the marketing to get this author on the "Today Show" and the "Tonight Show," and every radio show and build a big market for it, we don't want somebody to undercut and totally take those print sales with some electronic format, where you're not even getting the proceeds.
The business models are not yet there in the E-Book area. It's something that's evolving. The relationship between E-Book and print books is evolving. The relationship between authors and publishers in the E-Book realm is evolving. The agents announced in some kind of broadside that they want separate advances for the E-Book version and the print version. The publishers are saying that this is an untested market; we don't know what's going to happen. The agents are saying on behalf of their authors, "We want a hundred thousand dollars for this and a hundred thousand dollars for that, and, if you sell more print than you thought, it doesn't weigh against the other. We are just at the beginning, and I think it's important for everyone to understand. I know my friend Jim Gashel loves to legislate, and he thinks that, if you just make it happen by law....
But making it happen by law doesn't make it happen, because the problem is the relationships, the markets, the technology, the rights--all of these very broad and complicated issues have to be addressed and they're better addressed not in the public forum of legislation, but with us working together, sitting around the table and saying, "We want to work with you," which the publishers do. "We want to provide you electronic files," which the publishers do. "But we want to do it in a way that works for all of us and doesn't destroy either the market or the incentive or the protection of the intellectual property product."
My closing remarks are that we're excited about the potential. I identified just some of the obvious concerns, but we think this opportunity to work together and work out the problems jointly will benefit everyone--book publishers and the blind community.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Gilles P`epin]
Access to Information:
The Next Step Forward
by Gilles P`epin
From the Editor: Gilles P`epin is President of VisuAide, Inc.
It is a great pleasure for me to be here today and have the opportunity to talk to you about a subject of great interest to me, a subject which has been discussed over and over, but about which there is still much to be said. I'm talking about access to information for blind people.
My presentation today will focus on the question: What is the next step toward better access to information for blind people? So I have entitled my presentation "Access to Information: The Next Step Forward."
The First Steps
One of the landmark technological achievements toward independent access to information, after the advent of Braille, was the introduction of the Talking Book on cassettes. The arrival of the Talking Book meant a major cultural breakthrough for the blind community. Over the years it became for many the key to accessing education, culture, and knowledge, but for quite some time the Talking Book has undergone very few technical improvements.
But, more generally, in the last two decades tremendous progress has been made in the quest for better access to information. First, at the beginning of the '80's access to personal computers offered great opportunities and high expectations. Computerized Braille production also greatly improved access to an ever-growing number of documents.
Then, at the end of the '80's OCR [optical character recognition] technology began a new era in the access-to-information field. As a result blind users have had increased access to the world of print. In this context, at the beginning of the '90's a worldwide struggle began, and the main efforts of this industry have centered on access to Graphical User Interface for the past eight years or so.
Then came the Internet, like a gift from heaven. And access to the Internet has been a great leap forward, with more and more documents now available in digital format.
The Next Step
But what is this next step in our quest for equal access to information? Sure, we all know that Braille production tools, reading systems, personal computer access, and access to the Internet will get better, faster, and cheaper in the next few years. And that is great.
But what else can make more documents accessible? What else can make production of alternate-format books more efficient and universally accessible?
The ideal access to information for blind users should be every bit as convenient, as dependable, as complete, and universal as it is in the sighted community. With the extraordinary technologies at our disposal, nothing less is acceptable.
So what is this next revolution toward access to information? I for one firmly believe the answer to this question is the Digital Talking Book. You will say that I am biased since I have been working developing this technology for the last few years, and you are certainly right--I am biased. Nevertheless, I believe the Digital Talking Book technology will be something very important for blind people in the near future.
Before I go into more detail about the Digital Talking Book, let me tell you a little about our efforts at VisuAide in this battle for equal access to information. For the last eleven years we have been involved in the development of innovative technologies for the blind. Our quest to develop information access led us at the end of the last decade to develop IRIS, one of the first reading systems on the market after the Kurzweil Reading Machine. We also developed Proverbe, a high-quality French software speech synthesizer, and Liber, a forty-cell Braille display.
In the field of digital speech compression, we developed a few years ago a product called Magnum--the first digital recorder for the blind and predecessor of Victor, our digital talking book player, which we'll talk about in a few minutes.
VisuAide is still actively involved in research and development projects, and I think we have an interesting approach to the development of new technologies for the blind. I would like to share it with you.
As you know, the design of new products for the blind community is often based on state-of-the-art technologies. This was certainly the case when refreshable Braille, speech synthesizers, and reading systems appeared. At the same time it is very difficult to justify such developments on the blindness market only. Our industry simply cannot afford such important development.
So at VisuAide we decided to look at the matter from a different angle. Here is how we have decided to do it. When we believe technology can provide solutions to some of the problems faced by the blind population, we simply find other markets such a technology can serve. Then we either create a new company focusing on this technology or find a partner interested in the new market.
So about three years ago we created a sister company known as Haptech Technologies. The focus of Haptech is to add a tactile dimension to computer use, what we call the haptic sense. Remember when Dr. Cranmer described yesterday his experience in a plane? That is the haptic sense.
Just a little anecdote here: when we started the Haptech company, we had an initial brainstorming meeting, and the first idea that was launched was to make Playboy accessible for the blind through the haptic feedback device. We think this technology will be highly useful for expanding information access in the blind community in the future. We are now developing a product called the PenCat and a software program called TouchWindows. In the future these tools will be used to virtually touch graphical objects displayed on a computer screen.
But the broader market that Haptech is focusing on is input/output devices for specialized CAD systems, for controlling music systems settings and for learning tools. If we had undertaken this research within VisuAide, we would never be where we are right now.
More recently, about eight months ago, we created a second spinoff company developing City Go, an electronic tourist guide based on a Global Positioning System (GPS) and a cleverly referenced information database to give tourists pertinent information about the places they are visiting.
I am sure you already know how useful a modified version of this tool can be to blind users. The product will be called Mira and will be a simple, hand-held orientation tool able to guide you to your destination. We believe that, because this development is for the general market, we will be able to make the product better, smaller, and cheaper.
Finally, as Deane Blazie explained without my permission, we are also researching new technologies for the Braille cell of the future.
What Is a Digital Talking Book?
So now lets come back to the main subject of this presentation, the Digital Talking Book or DTB. As George explained earlier, a DTB is simply a set of files which, put together, forms a multimedia document. One file contains the text of the book with all the indexing tags that describe the structure of the book. The indexing is done with the XML mark-up language.
A second file contains the audio that has been recorded the same way we've done with cassettes, except that now the recording is digitized and probably compressed later on in the production process. Finally you have a SMIL file, which contains the necessary data to synchronize the text and the audio.
We could also take some time to discuss in more detail the document type definition, the navigation control center, and the resource file associated with the DTB, but these are not necessary to understand the basic concept.
As George also described, these three basic files may include different levels of contents to form different types of books to answer different user needs. For example, the richest form of book will contain all the text with its entire structure heavily indexed, all the audio recorded in a high-quality mode, and a SMIL file linking every recorded audio clip to the corresponding structure element in the book. If we look more closely at this richest type of DTB, we see that it can be reproduced for the user in all the alternate formats presently in use and more.
First, since the audio is now in Digital format and linked to the structural elements of the book, the DTB is an improved Talking Book. Second, because the DTB includes all the text with the necessary tags for describing its structure, it can be made into a good Braille book using the future Duxbury software to translate it into Grade II Braille and format it properly. The text file of the DTB is also an improved version of the E-Text. And, finally, the same DTB without any changes can be used by low-vision users as well.
As you can see, the DTB is a very versatile book format that has been designed taking into account the needs of all these clienteles. This new concept, the DTB, was made possible because of an extraordinary combined effort by people around the world, including specialized libraries, producers of alternate-format books, manufacturers, and users within the DAISY Consortium and the NISO working group.
These efforts are leading to the establishment of a universal standard. From the manufacturers' point of view it is important that one, and only one, standard be adopted. Then we can relate to something concrete to design the best possible playback tools. I would like to add that our participation over the last three years in the DAISY Consortium and the NISO group has been very gratifying. This close relationship with all the stakeholders of this new technology enabled us to design a product that really meets the needs of all the interested groups involved. I believe that the DAISY and the NISO groups' working model is one we should reproduce in the development of other technologies.
DTB Playback Tools
Now that we know what this DTB is all about, let's take a look at which playback tools the user will have access to. As I described earlier, because of the fact that the indexed text is included in the richest type of DTB, blind users will have access to a large number of tools.
First, for Braille users: the DTB will be distributed on a CD or over the Internet and can be read simply by using Braille translation software on your PC to print in Braille directly or by using your Braille display to access it. You will also be able to use your portable Braille Reader, on which you have downloaded your favorite DTB. The best example of such a portable reader would be your Braille Lite equipped with the appropriate reading software. And we are working with Blazie Engineering on this.
Another interesting product in this category is the BookWorm from HandyTech in Germany, distributed in the U.S. by Arkenstone. It is an eight-cell Braille Reader designed for reading documents only. It has nice navigation and scrolling functions to review the document.
Again, because of the inclusion of the text in the ideal DTB, speech-synthesis technology can also be used. Just like their Braille counterparts, portable DTB speech players will also be available. The Braille 'n Speak can certainly be used for reading a DTB.
There is also a very neat little product called the Road Runner. It is a tiny device that you can hold in the palm of your hand. It's equipped with a good-quality speech synthesizer and two MB of memory to store the text file of the DTB. This is a dedicated speech reader, but it was not developed for the blind although it seems to be quite easy for blind persons to use. In fact, it was designed for professionals who would like to download Internet content and read it on the road.
It's worth noting that large-print users will also be able, when provided with the right software, to read the DTB using the enlargement they need. Portable devices will also be available in this category. In fact, I believe that the Open E-Book readers will offer such functions as enlargement as part of their basic functions. These Open E-Book readers include Rocket E-Book at $499 from Nuevo Media and the SoftBook, $599. I would like you to notice that our Victor is only $495, which makes it the cheapest E-Book player on the market today.
Audio DTB Players
Last but not least is the audio DTB player category. These players will use audio and the synchronization with the text to offer you all the efficiency and comfort you need while reading a book. In this category we find two types of players: software players for use with your computer and hardware players.
There are actually three software players on the market. The first is called Sigtuna. It was developed by a U.S. company, Productivity Works, under a contract with the Japanese Society of Rehabilitation for People with Disabilities. This software is distributed free of charge by the JSRPD.
The second software, PlayBack 2000, was developed by Labyrinten Data, a Swedish company, under a contract with TPB, a Swedish Library for the Blind. It will also be distributed for free. Finally, Productivity Works is also offering its own playback software called LpPlayer.
Although these software programs are free of charge or very cheap, they offer most of the basic functions blind persons would need to read a novel, a magazine, and the like. But there is still a big gap where more powerful software is needed to answer the needs of students and professionals reading heavily indexed documents.
Finally, Arkenstone would like to get involved in this next step toward better access to information. Arkenstone, together with other partners within the DAISY Consortium, is searching for grants to adapt its software to the DTB world to serve the needs of learning-disabled and dyslexic users, still using this same DTB we're discussing.
Now the Audio Hardware Players
There are two Digital Talking Book players on the market. These players are focused on playing back the audio file to the user, just as a tape recorder does. They don't use text files that much, but they offer a wide range of navigation functions as I will be demonstrating in a few minutes.
One of these players is called Plextalk. It is manufactured by Plextor, a well known Japanese company. Plextalk is a desktop model based on a caddie CD-ROM drive. The advantage of the caddie is that the user does not have to handle the CD directly. The caddie is a protective case that you insert directly into the player. My lawyers have warned me that this is all I am entitled to say about this competitor product, but, seriously, you are welcome to see it. I will have it with me for the rest of the day.
But there is another DTB player I can talk about for hours and hours. It is called Victor and is manufactured in Canada by VisuAide. The product is distributed in the United States by Blazie Engineering.
Victor, a Portable DTB Player
It is really a great product. But, before I present it to you in more detail, let me tell you about the design process we followed at VisuAide to develop this DTB player.
In 1996 the European Blind Union began a consultation process with users and libraries to set out the characteristics of the ideal digital Talking Book player. The result was a very useful document entitled "Reaching Forward to the Twenty-first Century: User Requirements for the Next Generation of Talking Books."
This document describes in great detail the needs of blind users. For example, it says that the DTB player should include sixty-five different navigation and search functions that are useful or highly desirable and also states that it should have no more than eight keys. Otherwise senior citizens would be intimidated by it. It also says that batteries should last for at least twelve hours; it must include a CD-ROM drive; and, of course, it should fit in your shirt pocket.
Then the NISO working group was formed. We were really enthusiastic because here was a chance to find the right design criteria. So at the first meeting we began a discussion about batteries. Should they be rechargeable; should they be standard batteries; should they be replaceable by users; should they be solar batteries; and so on. After three hours of discussion someone finally said, "Let the manufacturers decide the battery type." Then we moved to something more important, a snoring detector. Yes, we discussed for an hour the fact that a lot of people read in bed, and the player should stop reading when the user falls asleep.
But seriously, as I said before, our participation in the DAISY Consortium and in the NISO working group was extremely useful in the design of our Victor product. So at the end of these two processes we felt we knew all--and I really mean all--the needs of users. And we knew we had to make some compromises. But which?
So here are the choices we made while designing Victor. And by the way, we used smaller groups of users to help us to make the final choices.
First of all we wanted the machine to be as compact as possible. Since we wanted it to be portable, we had to choose a CD ROM drive as opposed to a caddie drive. We decided that blind people could manipulate CD's because they have been doing that with music CD's for quite a long time. Our product runs on rechargeable batteries for about six to eight hours and weighs less than one kilogram.
Victor is also a flexible digital Talking Book player. The fact is that, when we designed the product, we said that the technology will change quite a bit in the near future, so we needed to have a flexible design because in the future you are going to have new speech-compression algorithms coming out. You are going to have new DAISY, new NISO, and new Open E-Book formats to support. And you are going to have new functions that the users will ask for. So we designed Victor around a very flexible platform. It is based on the RISC processor, called a Strong Arm, and it operates with a Linux operating system. The Victor is also quite user-friendly. To see the features demonstrated, see me afterward.
Now that we know for sure that DTB is the next step toward better access to information, I would like to share with you my thoughts of what the near future will bring. First, we will see improvements on the players side, adding exciting new features like the possibility of adding your own voice notes to your document, more powerful search and navigation functions, the ability to have words spelled or their definitions given as you are reading.
The second generation of DTB players will be hand-held devices without any moving parts. You will be able to connect to the Internet, navigate a catalogue of available Digital Talking Books, and choose the one you like; it will be downloaded over the Internet and stored in the player's memory.
We may also see in a few years mainstream products become very good DTB Players. For example, another project going on in Japan consists of developing DTB playback software that will run on a Windows CE new gaming machine. The MPEG-3 music players may also be good DTB players in the future.
So in conclusion I would like to say that the DTB technology is a giant step forward toward equal access to information. I believe it is in the best interests of blind people to begin producing books in this new format as soon as possible.
New Regulations, New Opportunities: Meeting the Challenge of Access for the Blind
by Dale N. Hatfield
From the Editor: Dale Hatfield is Chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology of the Federal Communications Commission.
The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Bill Kennard, apologizes that his schedule did not permit him to participate in your conference this year. I will have more to say about Chairman Kennard's personal interest and leadership role in disabilities access in a few moments. But I want to mention at the outset that it was the Chairman's vision of inclusiveness--and commitment to community in the broadest sense--which attracted me back to government from the private sector. I also feel very passionately about these same issues, and I am very honored that you have asked me to speak to you today. However, since I am not the Chairman, I do need to offer the standard caveat that my remarks here this morning represent my own views and hence they do not necessarily reflect the views of any individual Commissioner, the Commission, or any other Commission staff member.
I will divide my remarks into three parts. First, since this conference deals with technology and since my responsibilities are in the engineering area at the Commission, I will offer some brief observations about the overall trends in telecommunications technology. I will also discuss the impact of these trends in ensuring that telecommunications services and equipment are accessible to, and usable by, persons with disabilities. Second, I will discuss where we stand in implementing Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In particular, I will describe the Report and Order and Further Notice of Inquiry in WT Docket No. 96-198 that the Commission released just a short while ago. Third and finally, I will talk about the Chairman's--and the Commission's--commitment to ensuring that access for all is included in the design of new telecommunications services and equipment.
Let me begin, then, with the technological developments. When I step back from all of the details, I see five major trends or developments in telecommunications technology:
(1) the conversion from analog to digital networks,
(2) the conversion from circuit switching to packet switching,
(3) the conversion from narrowband to broadband transmission,
(4) improvements--that is, reductions--in the transmission delay or latency exhibited by networks using packet switching, and
(5) the ability to deploy not only wired networks with these advanced capabilities but wireless networks as well.
Some of these developments may be familiar to you; others may not be. But rather than delve into the details of these developments, let me simply state the bottom line: these developments are producing high-performance networks--or, more properly, a network of networks--that promises to allow us to communicate virtually anytime, anyplace, and in any mode or combination of modes--voice, text, data, image, and video.
Even more important, perhaps, this network of networks--this powerful platform--is associated with another special characteristic. The characteristic is that, in contrast to most earlier voice and data networks, this platform uses common, open, non-proprietary standards and protocols--that is, the Internet suite of protocols. Unlike the telephone network of old, where the network is intelligent and the terminals are dumb, in the Internet the terminals are intelligent and the network is dumb. As someone once said, the Internet is the telephone network turned inside out. In the Internet the control of individual calls or sessions and the creation of new services is shifted from the interior of the network to computers and other intelligent devices at the edge of the network. In the telecommunications world we refer to these devices at the edge of the network as customer premises equipment or, simply, CPE. Because the service is created in software as an application running on equipment at the edge of the network outside the control of the carrier or other provider, the opportunity for innovation and the pace of change it allows are truly amazing, as we have seen demonstrated dramatically over the past few years.
These broadband, low-latency, all-digital, packet-switched networks--coupled with increasingly intelligent, programmable devices at the edge of the network--give engineers an extremely powerful set of tools with which to work. When engineers contemplate the range of human characteristics that may interact with the networks and devices they are designing, they can program in the capabilities to have alternative, flexible modes of communications and alternative interfaces for input and output. Modes of input can include tactile controls or voice. Modes of output can include graphical images, textual prose, speech synthesis, or electronic Braille displays.
And, of course, the expanding availability of wireless access means that the designer can deliver those capabilities directly to the end users--wherever they might be--rather than imposing on the end users the need to come to the network. Future examples of this might include portable wireless devices that (a) provide information to blind travelers using the Global Positioning System (GPS) or (b) scan universal product codes and retrieve descriptions of them from a database on the Internet. As Chairman Kennard said in a speech late last year, "Properly harnessed, these networks and devices create a potent platform upon which to serve the needs of all of our citizens, including those with disabilities."
However, I recognize that these developments present a threat as well as a promise to the blind and visually impaired. These higher bandwidth, multi-mode networks facilitate more dynamic multimedia applications, which tend to be highly graphics- or video-oriented. In this situation, if the same essential information carried by still and moving images is not conveyed by voice or text, a serious accessibility barrier results for the blind.
Greater bandwidth--the ability to transmit more information in a given amount of time--means that these networks are capable of supporting simultaneous, coordinated, alternate modes of access, but it does not necessarily mean that they will. Moreover, given the tendency for evolving technologies to communicate increasingly through visual metaphors because of the power of that human sense, there is a natural tendency for new applications to reduce non-visual access unless the problem is confronted at the design stage.
On the other hand, if non-visual access is included, greater bandwidth would benefit blind persons in some particular ways in addition to the general ways beneficial to all consumers. I understand that people who are blind continue to face an unemployment rate of about 70 percent. This can be reduced by participation in accessible electronic commerce either at the office or by telecommuting. Work tasks that previously required paperwork and reliance on sighted clerks for assistance in reading and writing may now be possible instead through interactive electronic forms processing. Other activities of independent living would also benefit from accessible broadband services, such as the ability to vote privately with an appropriate secure application or the ability to shop at stores not convenient to public transportation.
Another factor that we must consider is the faster pace of change that is enabled by this common, open, non-proprietary, high-performance platform. With product cycles of eighteen months or twelve months or even less, a new product will have appeared before we can fix or adapt the old one to make it more accessible. Thus I conclude that, because (1) the availability of broadband networks may increase the tendency for new applications to reduce non-visual access as I mentioned a moment ago, and (2) a faster pace of change is associated with these powerful platforms, new services and new devices must be designed, developed, and fabricated at the outset to be accessible to--and usable by--individuals with disabilities. More specifically, it is absolutely essential that the issue of non-visual access be confronted at the design stage.
The Commission's Recent Action
I will turn now to the rules that the Commission adopted on July 15, 1999, and formally released just a short time ago. These rules implement Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and Section 251(a)(2) of the Communications Act of 1934. They require manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and providers of telecommunications services to ensure that such equipment and services are accessible to and usable by persons with disabilities, if readily achievable. For example, the rules the Commission adopted:
(1) require manufacturers and service providers to develop a process to evaluate the accessibility, usability, and compatibility of covered services and equipment;
(2) require manufacturers and service providers to ensure that information and documentation provided to customers are accessible to customers with disabilities, if readily achievable;
(3) require manufacturers or service providers to review the accessibility of a product or service and incorporate accessibility features, where readily achievable, at every natural opportunity;
(4) require the universal deployment of accessibility features that can be incorporated into product design when readily achievable; where those features cannot be universally deployed, but are readily achievable to incorporate into some products and services, manufacturers and service providers have the flexibility to distribute those features across their products or services as long as they do all that is readily achievable;
(5) where meeting accessibility requirements is not readily achievable, require manufacturers and service providers to ensure compatibility with existing peripheral devices or specialized Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) commonly used by individuals with disabilities to achieve access, if readily achievable; and
(6) prohibit a telecommunications carrier from installing network features, functions, or capabilities that do not comply with the accessibility requirements of the rules.
At the same time the Commission also adopted an informal complaint procedure whereby consumer complaints are forwarded to the manufacturer or service provider, who then has thirty days to attempt to resolve the customer's concerns and respond to the agency. Formal complaints may also be brought. In addition, the Commission may, based upon complaints or on its own motion, launch an investigation to determine if manufacturers and service providers are complying with our rules.
In adopting these rules, the Commission felt it was taking a dramatic step toward bringing people with disabilities into the information age. However, it was also aware of the rapid changes in the telecommunications industry that I described earlier. More specifically, it recognized (a) that there was a vast array of communications-related equipment and services available that was not covered by the rules it was adopting, (b) that innovative, equipment and services were being developed and deployed at a rapid clip, and (c) that these existing and rapidly evolving services and communications-related equipment would undoubtedly affect access to communications by persons with disabilities.
Accordingly, at the same time it voted for the rules I described in outline form a moment ago, the Commission also initiated a formal Notice of Inquiry to aid in its understanding of the access issues presented by communications services and equipment not covered by the rules it adopted. I hope that some of the organizations represented here today will consider filing comments in response to the Notice.
The Chairman's and the Commission's
Commitment to Accessibility
To summarize, we are, first of all, benefiting from the development of a common, open, non-proprietary, high-performance telecommunications network platform that provides the technological basis for improving accessibility. Second, we now have the necessary legislative mandate and are putting into place the necessary rules and regulations to ensure that this possibility for improved accessibility is indeed realized.
We all recognize that improving accessibility inevitably provides benefits to the general public, not just to persons with disabilities. Therefore, in an increasingly competitive market, we would hope that telecommunications companies will compete on the basis of accessibility as well as other factors and, in so doing, raise the bar for everyone. Nevertheless, we all also recognize that the marketplace alone may not be enough to ensure accessibility everywhere it is readily achievable. Consequently, an important remaining ingredient to ensuring accessibility is the commitment on the part of our agency to enforce those regulations.
The best indication of that commitment is the priority that the Chairman of the Commission, Bill Kennard, has attached to accessibility. Through both his words and actions the Chairman has insisted that all Americans should be able to enjoy the benefits of the network revolution that I cited here today. Concrete evidence of that commitment lies in the steps the agency has taken to implement Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
But as the Chairman recently pointed out in his remarks at the White House in conjunction with Disability Awareness Month, if you write a rule, you have to muster the resources and the will to enforce it. And, under the leadership of the Chairman, the Commission is doing exactly that.
Just this week the Commission formally announced the formation of two new Bureaus in the agency: the Enforcement Bureau and the Consumer Information Bureau. In announcing the creation of these two new bureaus, the Chairman stated, "Our decision to establish bureaus devoted exclusively to enforcement and consumer information signals the enormous importance of these functions in our transition from an industry regulator to a market facilitator."
In addition to enforcing our rules dealing with accessibility issues, the Commission is committed to making its own content and processes accessible to people with disabilities as expected by various Federal laws. This includes content and navigation of our Web site, our universal licensing system, and our electronic comment-filing system. Our staff has been working in these and other areas to improve the usability of FCC services and processes for people with disabilities, including persons who are blind. I expect further progress on that front with the formation of the new Consumer Information Bureau.
I could point to other specific steps the agency has taken in the disability access area. However, my time is up, and rather than do that, I will close by mentioning one activity that may be of particular interest to you--video description.
The Commission issued its first Notice of Inquiry on video description in 1995 and issued a second Notice of Inquiry in 1997 in the context of its annual review of competition in markets for the delivery of video programming. The Commission has also issued two reports on the subject. Various parties have asked the Commission to take steps to enhance the availability of video description, and in the recent past we have received several concrete proposals in this regard.
Because of the pending status of our efforts in this area, it would not be proper for me to speculate on what the Commission's response to these proposals might be. However, I can assure you that the Commission staff is seriously reviewing and considering the proposals, and, given the high priority that the Chairman has placed on accessibility issues, it would not surprise me to see some progress in this area in the near future.
Thank you again for inviting me here today and for the kind attention that you have afforded me.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Marc Maurer]
Accessibility for the Blind: The Necessity for Coordination and Joint Action
by Marc Maurer
Technology for the blind has been the hope and the frustration of blind people for as long as technology has existed. Even Braille, which was invented more than a hundred and fifty years ago and which has provided literacy to many blind people, has often been more of a promise of hope than a reality of achievement. This is so because many blind people never had competent Braille instruction available to them, and sometimes administrators of programs for the blind failed to believe in their own clients and ignored the skills and techniques that are used by the blind.
In the 1960's the portable tape recorder became generally available, and a number of people said that this new technology would (at long last) make the world of literary works available to the blind for the first time. Braille (it was said), though effective for many, was difficult to learn, was bulky, and would forever be in short supply. The tape recorder--especially the cassette recorder--would open literacy for the blind.
In the 1970's a number of new products for the blind were being developed--many of which used the computer as the framework for managing information. As the '70's dissolved into the '80's, specialized technological adaptations of the computer proliferated. The Reading Machine developed by Dr. Kurzweil in the mid 1970's became less expensive and more efficient. Braille printers increased in speed and accuracy. The Port-a-Braille was invented by Dr. Cranmer, and this invention was modified, enhanced, and streamlined by Deane Blazie to become the Braille 'n Speak, which has altered learning methods for blind students and note-taking for blind adults.
In the 1980's, with the advent of access technology using the disk operating system, obtaining information from the computer began to be manageable. Then the graphical user interface became a part of the computer scene, and access by the blind to computer information deteriorated. There were those who said that making information on the computer screen into speech or Braille could never happen. Some blind people met this announcement with despair, and others greeted it with anger or a determination to make things different. A number of sighted technicians told the blind that presenting information visually was fundamentally different from presenting it in audio form or in Braille. They said that access to information from a computer would always be more limited and circumscribed for the blind than the same access for the sighted. What had been available to the blind in the DOS environment could not be replicated with the graphical user interface.
Blind people responded by telling the manufacturers that our lives are being crippled, that our jobs are being taken, that we are being prevented from participating in the eerie world of the Internet, and that with the increasing use of computers in the schools even our opportunities for education are being diminished. The systematic exclusion of the blind from the world of technology could not be permitted to continue.
We let it be known that we would fight for the right to be a part of the technological world. We would urge our cause on the public platforms, in the governmental offices of regulatory agencies, in the halls of Congress, in the academic arenas, and in the public mind. If necessary, we would take to the streets and make a public demonstration of the urgency that faced us in the information age. We would never be satisfied until the blind had the same opportunities for participation that were available to everybody else.
In the midst of the effort to bring public attention to the changing environment in the technological world, we asked the experts what had happened. What was there about the graphical user interface that made the information presented through it so difficult to interpret? It seemed particularly ironic that, as computers became more powerful, the blind had less access to the information that was in them. What appeared to have happened was that the increasing power of the computers offered more opportunities for visual presentation, and these became so numerous that interpretation for an alternate presentation in speech and Braille was difficult.
In the DOS environment the number of windows available was usually one, the screen of the computer. The number of characters used for presenting information was limited to two hundred and fifty-five. With the graphical user interface, the number of windows for presentation increased to whatever the eye could interpret, and the character set became essentially unlimited. In the DOS medium most things were presented using text. With Windows, text and other representations were used together. The DOS computer manipulated pages of print. Windows computers manipulated information that looks much more like what an individual might find along a street. There are storefront windows with displays, streetlights, signs on buildings or lampposts, and other images such as a raised hand in red light to indicate don't walk. Interpreting the jumble of text, icons, decorations, and other symbols requires a level of sophisticated knowledge unlike anything previously presented in the computer environment. The job of transforming this mixture into intelligible speech or readable Braille is daunting, but it must be done.
What began with the computer has in many respects occurred with other machines. Many devices have visual display panels and a set of operating symbols that demand interaction with them. Microwaves, bread machines, televisions, stereos, and a host of other devices have interactive visual displays. In an increasing number of cases even the knobs and buttons have disappeared. When I was a boy at the school for the blind, operating a radio was easy. One knob turned it on and set the volume. The other knob selected the frequency. Occasionally, radios like my old friend at the school for the blind can still be found. However, radios now often have arrow buttons and a mode selector. It is essential to see the screen to get the frequency you want, and independent operation for the blind is completely impractical.
The frustrations in achieving access to technology for the blind are well known to us all. We have tried individually to solve them, and sometimes we have had substantial success in doing so. However, we have frequently discovered that the talent and power we possess individually are insufficient to address the universe of needs.
To meet the objectives of full access to technology for the blind, we need coordinated action. I suggest that we establish a board to review technology for the blind. We might call it the National Information Access Board for the Blind. This board would pool resources from its participating members, and it would establish standards to determine whether products are accessible to the blind. Such a board would encourage manufacturers to submit products and programs for technology-access review. It would provide feedback regarding the characteristics essential for accessibility to the blind. Organizations of consumers should be a central part of such a review board because the users of the products are those who will be most dramatically affected. However, the manufacturers will also have much to provide in judging products produced by others.
The standards for accessibility should provide that no organization is permitted to determine whether its product meets the guidelines. Each organization that wants to be a part of the board must commit resources to make such an enterprise practical, and all organizations participating will have an equal voice in decision-making. Each organization should be prepared to contribute both funding to meet the ongoing expenses of the board and personnel who are technically competent. Each participating organization should contribute $25,000 a year for the initial costs of operating the board. If this sum is insufficient to meet the on-going expenses, each should share the expense of the shortfall. The National Federation of the Blind will pledge to put $25,000 aside for this purpose, and we urge others to join us in creating the National Information Access Board for the Blind.
Can a particular device be operated by a blind person? Can it be used by a blind person to get data from the Internet? Is it effective in assisting a blind person to retrieve information from a device that would ordinarily provide it only visually? These are fundamental questions to be answered by the board. Everybody is invited to be a part of it. Today many of the answers would necessarily be "no." We must combine our energies to open the doors for the blind to enter the information age. When the answers are "yes," our joint efforts to promote accessibility will have been a success, and I think we should do it.
I offer that suggestion for thought and discussion during the remainder of this conference. We have some other presentations this afternoon. We will take those up first thing after lunch, but it seems to me that joint effort and combined action to promote accessibility is as important as anything we can set our minds to doing. I urge that we set up a system to do exactly that.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: David Andrews]
Consumers and Vendors of Technology for the Blind: an Underserved Multi-Million-Dollar Market
by David Andrews
From the Editor: David Andrews served for several years as Director of the NFB's International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind. He is currently Director of the Communications Center at the Minnesota State Services for the Blind.
With the decrease in prices of computers and access technology, the growth of the Internet, the increased use of computers at work and at home, and other factors, we are seeing more and more blind and visually impaired persons becoming involved with computers. Further, many blind people still wish to get on the Internet. This represents a large, untapped, multi-million-dollar market for developers and vendors of assistive technology for the blind. However, in order to tap into this potential market, companies will have to do a better job of communication, product development, technical support, and training. It seems to me that, as things currently stand, some customers of assistive technology are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the products and support they are getting.
To explore this thesis, I first did what any good Net-savvy user would do, I went to the Internet itself. I posted a message seeking input to some two dozen listservs or Internet mailing lists. I also talked to many of my long-time contacts in the assistive-technology field.
While I received many thoughtful and useful messages, there were also quite a number of responses which either didn't say much that was useful or that weren't well thought out. This may be representative of part of the problem: it is easy just to dash off a response to something you read on an e-mail list without thinking it through or considering the consequences. People write things that they wouldn't say in person or over the telephone, make accusations, spread rumors, say silly things, jump to conclusions, call each other names, question motives, etc. All of this noise effectively widens the gap between consumers and vendors of technology. The Internet represents a vehicle for two-way communications flow, and we are still learning how to use it and integrate it into our lives.
One developer said that he thought that all the Internet ruckus might be a tempest in a teapot. I don't think that is true; I see a lot of pent-up frustration on the part of some users. Yes, there is some product- and company-bashing, and there are some people who need to get a life and not pick apart every statement made by every company, but the level of Internet noise also represents some genuine problems. Yet another developer of adaptive software products called for cooler heads, particularly on the Internet. He suggested, with some merit, that consumers need not engage in personal attacks or name-calling when disagreeing with a company. He further suggested that it would be constructive for people not to engage in rumors, speculate about motives, question people's lineage or intelligence, and the like, when discussing issues or problems.
After conducting my informal survey and talking to many people, I am convinced that there is a wide gap between consumer expectation and what is delivered to us by developers and vendors. It could well be that this gap has always existed; however, I think that improved communication offered by the Internet, increased media hype, elevated expectations on the part of employers and individual users, and the increased use of technology by everyone have inflated expectations and increased this gap.
First, vendor sales personnel have the most power to affect and change perceptions. There is a good deal of overselling, both in the general marketplace and in the adaptive-technology field. Many people now have the notion that technology will solve all the problems of blind and visually impaired people. Sales people anxious to close the sale may consciously or unconsciously feed those inflated expectations. The media have also created the impression that technology has knocked down many barriers to employment and personal independence.
A number of respondents said to me that adaptive computer software should work with all applications used by sighted persons, should be inexpensive, should have unlimited 24-hour-a-day technical support, should have free or cheap upgrades and more. Some people also stated that companies should reduce prices dramatically; offer unlimited toll-free support; buy back old hardware and software; offer grants, payment plans, and rentals; offer money-back guarantees, etc. While all of this would be desirable in an ideal world, it is not economically feasible in today's marketplace. Further, these inflated expectations came from somewhere; they did not emerge in a vacuum; they were fueled by something. That something, in part, comes from developers and vendors. You need to temper the marketing hype some of you generate in order to decrease people's frustration with you and your products when they don't work as expected.
Many rehab agencies, employers, and reporters seem to think that, if you give a blind person a computer, he or she can do anything, and there are any number of vendors who are willing to sell us that computer and software, whether or not it is appropriate for a given task. We have seen, time and time again, that mastery of basic skills, like the use of Braille and a long white cane, is the most important factor in coming to work competitively and living independently. People also need to understand that not all assistive technology works with all software applications and that, to use it optimally, a person is going to have to make an effort to learn about the technology he or she has obtained. Further users will have to keep updating their skills, knowledge, hardware, and software. Vendors can help by being more realistic about how they portray their products and their benefits.
While a majority of blind and visually impaired people don't want something for nothing, I think there is still a sizable minority that do. They seem to have a chip on their shoulders about being blind and expect to get reduced-cost or free products and services simply because they are blind. Ultimately we must pay for what we get, or we will get nothing.
In the beginning, or at least in the 1970's, adaptive technology companies tended to hire their own sales staffs. Many of them also tried to offer a range of products so that any customer could meet a variety of needs with that one company. With some exceptions this model held true until the mid 1980's. It is generally accepted in the adaptive-technology industry that the cost of selling and marketing a product is 15 percent of the retail price. This percentage includes the support of an internal sales staff. If a company finds itself spending more than this percentage, drastic action is usually taken.
In today's world we generally have fewer in-house sales staff; companies now use independent dealers. These dealers represent a wide variety of products, often competing product lines. The industry standard for dealer discounts is 25 percent for hardware and 30 percent for software. So you can see that, in theory at least, the current system has added 10 to 15 percent to the prices we pay.
In its favor, however, the system does allow a consumer to purchase a wide range of products from a single dealer, a convenient enticement for many. But what are we getting for this extra money? A number of consumers and vendors have raised the question: does this price difference represent a commission for sales or the cost of after-sales support? The developers of technology would hope the latter, but this is not always the case. We often go back to the developer for technical support because the dealer can't or won't offer it. This then drives up the price yet again. While some companies would like to have a two-tiered dealer system with larger discounts for those who offer good technical support, the effort and cost of setting up such a system and policing it make this an unlikely model.
Another disadvantage of the current system arises from the fact that a vendor may offer one or more products that compete with each other. For example, it is not unusual for a dealer to sell three or four different screen-review programs. How good will his or her support for all these products be? No one can be an expert in everything. Developers should consider being more selective about their dealers.
State rehab agencies and other large purchasers of adaptive technology often exacerbate the dealer technical support problem by buying from the low bidder to save a dollar or two. They often don't go with vendors local to their areas or vendors known to provide good after-sales support. This is short-sighted because their customers will turn to the agencies themselves when they cannot get adequate support from their dealers.
Rehab agencies and other funders of technology should also be willing to purchase training courses and materials for their customers. Lack of training and unwillingness to pay for it is a major problem in the assistive-technology field today. This lack of training is a major contributor to the expectations-versus-reality gap. People think it will be easy to use their new systems, and when it isn't, they get frustrated.
As consumers we should take some responsibility to minimize technical support costs and efforts. We should first seek support from our dealers and patronize those dealers who are able to help. We should be familiar with our products prior to calling for help and eliminate as many possible problems prior to calling. Is that computer really plugged in? We should not ask a company for help with another company's products.
Further, consumers will have to make some ongoing efforts with their technology. It is generally a good idea to upgrade software, both screen-review programs and general applications. The technology does improve, and developers can't support legacy systems forever; such support will drive up their costs. On the other hand, companies should respond to requests for assistance promptly and politely, should return phone calls within a reasonable amount of time, and shouldn't automatically point the finger at other companies.
The overselling of adaptive technology raises another issue. Simply put, all of this stuff is extremely complicated. Barbara Pierce, editor of the Braille Monitor, propounded a good analogy to me. In the early 1900's people who drove cars always took a tool kit with them, knew something about how their cars worked, dressed appropriately, and expected to have to do some work on their cars on occasion. Now things have progressed with cars to the point where a driver doesn't have to know anything about how the car works. As a friend once told me, "I just put gas in it, and it goes!" Computers will get to this point, but they are not there yet.
The overselling of technology has convinced us that computers will solve all our problems with little or no effort on our part. Unfortunately, this isn't true. It will take a good deal of effort on our part, and some knowledge of the computer and its software will also be useful. Few systems are automatic; things don't always work as expected or may not work at all. We should be prepared either to do some learning or to have a techie available to us on occasion. This stuff is quite complicated, and it is probably a miracle that it works as well as it does. Some day computers will be powerful enough that we can just concentrate on the task, not the process. However, until then we will have to become somewhat involved in the process.
It seems to me, and to many of you out there as well, that there are some basic things which consumers of technology should expect and which developers and vendors of this technology should provide as a matter of course. First, all representations of a product, whether in writing or orally, should be honest and truthful. The vendor should talk about what he or she can deliver now or in the next version--as long as that version is due in the near future. Promises shouldn't be made unless they can be delivered. If a vendor doesn't know whether his or her screen-review program works with a certain application, for example, he or she should say so and not assume that it will work.
Documentation should be provided in a number of formats, including Braille, regular or large-print, cassette tape, and computer disk. Vendors, you are serving the blind and visually impaired market; accessible documentation is part of the price of doing business with us. Clear, easy-to-follow instructions must be available in a variety of formats on how to get the software or device in question installed and working. The user shouldn't have to use the software or device in question to read the installation instructions or manual.
An easy-to-use installation program or routine must be available. A blind user shouldn't need sighted assistance to install software or devices on the computer, unless unaided installation just isn't technically feasible. Although installation routines are getting better, we still have a way to go in this area. Remember, provide instructions, don't require sighted assistance, and make it bulletproof.
Companies should offer reasonable warranties and a money-back guarantee when a product does not work as advertised or when it just doesn't work in a given situation for a specific user. If things go the way they have in the general computer market, we are likely to have to pay for technical support after an initial period. I hope this isn't so, but it probably is.
As computers become more powerful, they are likely to blur the line between assistive technology and the applications that others use. We are likely to talk to our computers, and they will talk back. In this case specialized developers and vendors who serve us now will have to do things to differentiate their products and services. This could include tutorials, training, and more substantial technical support.
Vendors and developers should get involved with the blindness community. If we are good enough to sell to, we are good enough to associate with. Quite a number of people who responded to my survey commented that developers should use blind persons when designing and testing their products. While this doesn't always happen, I believe that it does for the most part. However, the view that it doesn't happen seems to be fairly widespread. So developers need to be more public about seeking and using feedback from customers.
A couple of people commented that some vendors seem to attend professional conferences but not state and local conventions of organizations of and for the blind. I would urge you to become involved with us. Look at Deane Blazie and Blazie Engineering. He has publicly supported the National Federation of the Blind for many years, and it seems to have helped his business. Vendors have often told me that they don't want to become involved in politics. However, ultimately most things eventually boil down to politics and relationships, so get involved.
Developers don't always do a good job of testing their products with other assistive-technology products or with general-market products for that matter. While it has gotten much better recently, most of us have watched screen readers fight for control with self-voicing applications like PW Web Speak, An Open Book, or the Kurzweil K1000. In addition, people with multiple disabilities often have problems getting products such as speech-recognition packages and screen readers to work together.
Judged by many of the responses I received, a lot of consumers underestimate the work involved in developing and supporting adaptive technology. This is particularly true for screen-review programs. People glibly ask for these programs to work with all software on the market, to include more configurations or scripts, not to require configurations or scripts, to work on all possible platforms, and more. The days when one guy, working in his basement or garage, could write a screen reader are over. Today it takes lots of effort and a sizable staff. This means that we are starting to see a few strong products in the market, supported by companies that have the necessary resources, followed by a number of also-rans. I expect that we will see several products drop out of the race in the next couple of years.
Unfortunately, this diminished competition will not benefit consumers. Microsoft and other major companies can help out here. Now developers must do a lot of work to make their products work with standard operating systems and applications. Microsoft could, and is trying to, do some of this under-the-hood work to relieve developers of doing it. Why should every company have to develop its own off-screen model?
On the other hand, developers have to be willing to use the tools created by Microsoft and others. They haven't always been. They believe that their main advantage over their competition is their proprietary technology. Hopefully common sense and service to customers will prevail, and everyone will work together to improve products and increase competition.
From the people I talk to, I would say that very few developers and vendors of assistive technology are getting really rich, although some are making a good living. As consumers it is in our interest for everyone to make good money so that they can develop new products, improve the existing ones, and be around tomorrow to support us. If consumers, developers, and vendors of assistive technology will take some of the steps I have just outlined, it will improve the marketplace and general environment for all of us. These improvements will lead to stronger companies, better products, and happier, more productive customers.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Paul Mitten]
Nonvisual Access to Electronic Print Displays
by Paul Mitten
From the Editor: Paul Mitten is Vice President of Compusult Limited, of Canada.
Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me to this conference and for the opportunity to make a presentation regarding Compusult Limited's work in assistive technology, especially as it relates to nonvisual access to electronic print displays. I would also like to touch upon nonvisual access to electronic displays in general, especially with respect to workplace adaptation.
I would like to start with a little background overview, which, of course, must begin in the seventeenth century. Our company, Compusult Limited, is located in Newfoundland, and there is an interesting historical connection between Newfoundland and the state of Maryland, as well as the city of Baltimore, which I would like to relate to you.
In 1620 Sir George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, purchased a parcel of land called Ferryland in Newfoundland from Sir William Vaughan. The records do not state whether Mr. Vaughan was heard to laugh upon conclusion of his latest real estate deal.
In any event, in the following year--1621--Calvert's merry band of colonists set off from England for Ferryland. Calvert himself resided at Ferryland for less than two years, from the summer of 1627 until the winter of 1628-29. The diaries of Lady Baltimore include a comment essentially stating that she "could not spend another winter in this Godforsaken place." This excerpt, by the way, is proudly displayed in the Ferryland Museum.
Therefore, by 1629 George Calvert was determined to obtain lands in a friendlier climate. His petition for a large colonial grant located north of the Potomac River was agreed to by King Charles I, but Calvert died almost two months to the day before the charter for Maryland was officially granted, possibly from a cold acquired in Newfoundland. Cecil or Cecilius Calvert, the Second Lord Baltimore and the first son and heir of George Calvert, inherited the title and the 10 to 12 million acres of American land in what became Maryland from his father and served as the designer and first Lord Proprietor of that colony from 1632 to 1675. The first settlers landed on Saint Clement Island (Clement possibly being chosen in reference to the milder climate). Maryland became the fourth English colony and the second plantation colony. This colony, with the Second Lord Baltimore as proprietor, was the first enduring proprietorship in the New World.
If I might engage in some creative hindcasting, as opposed to the creative forecasting undertaken by some of the other presenters during these past two days, I would posit that, without the enduring influence of Newfoundland on Lady Baltimore and hence the First Lord Baltimore, the history of Maryland and this city would be radically different, leading to the distinct possibility that the NFB might not be located in Baltimore, nor would we be here today.
By the way, Ferryland is actually a pretty and friendly little place that holds the Ferryland-Maryland days each summer to celebrate the historic connection. There is also an interesting long-term archeological dig underway to document and recreate Lord Baltimore's Colony of Avalon in Ferryland.
But I digress. Hopefully, Newfoundland will continue to have an enduring influence, especially in the area of Assistive Technology. Compusult has been involved in assistive technology development since 1993, focusing primarily on workplace adaptation to meet the needs of blind and low-vision employees. Compusult's introduction into this world was prompted by the Assistive Devices Industry Office of Industry Canada, which is directed by Mary Frances Laughton. The ADIO previously coordinated a program that provided seed funding for the development of assistive technology intended for commercial use. This program helped build the AT industry in Canada and brought several new products and technologies to the AT marketplace.
The DigiCite Technology
In 1994 Compusult proposed to the ADIO development of a device that would speech-enable LED and LCD displays. We also proposed that this device would be a handheld, battery-powered, portable unit ready for market in less than twelve months. We later learned that our plans rapidly outpaced reality. Despite this concern, we successfully developed the base technology for reading LED displays using a fixed, dedicated system called DigiCite.
In 1997 the National Industries for the Blind (NIB) contacted us regarding our DigiCite technology, which they required to create and maintain jobs for blind and low-vision switchboard operators in VA medical centers and Air Force bases. We conducted feasibility studies at two VA's in 1998 with the assistance of the NIB and their associate agencies. We then began installation of the first systems at these facilities in late 1998 and have continued with new installations since that time. To date DigiCite systems have been used to read LED and VFD displays of various physical sizes and colors in lengths of four, eight, sixteen, and forty characters.
The DigiCite systems take a different approach to speech-enabling electronic equipment. In the past the NIB had sought solutions designed specifically for a given manufacturer's product or product line. However, few manufacturers or third parties offered speech-enabling solutions for much of the equipment concerned. Despite the ADA and other legislation and initiatives, this has not yet changed to a great degree. Many of the new systems, as well as legacy systems, still offer no straightforward means of providing nonvisual access to electronic displays and indicators.
Our approach incorporates an image-acquisition device, i.e., a digital CCD camera mounted on the electronic equipment which is interfaced to a small footprint computer system. Images of the electronic display are captured continuously. The image is analyzed to identify the presence of characters. If the displayed characters are deemed to have changed, a corresponding message is output using digitized speech. Character identification is achieved using custom Optical Character Recognition (OCR) techniques. A DigiCite system must be trained to work with the characters seen on a given display and must usually be trained across multiple units of the same type to ensure the highest level of accuracy.
All processing is carried out on a Corel NetWinder computer system, which is also manufactured in Canada. It uses the Linux operating system on a StrongARM processor, thus providing a very fast, cost-effective, reliable, and stable operating environment for our DigiCite software, which must run twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week at each location. The NetWinder also offers integrated video capture and audio output in its compact package, ideally suited to the DigiCite system requirements.
The DigiCite approach offers the following advantages:
*It has generic application and will work with practically any equipment with an electronic LED or VFD display.
*There are no liability concerns, since all DigiCite equipment is externally mounted and no access to the internals of the equipment is required. When a burly technical sergeant stomps up to you at an Air Force base and asks what you are going to do to his telecomm equipment (which is rather important to base operations and also handles the occasional call from the White House), it is reassuring to say "nothing at all; all of our equipment is external to the consoles and won't impact anything." With that the sergeant tends to leave us alone and let us complete the installation work.
*It accommodates all users; the image acquisition device is mounted to allow easy repositioning for non-blind users whenever required.
*It accommodates equipment replacement and transfer. For example, a switchboard console is replaced in its entirety when considered defective or problematic; the DigiCite arrangement allows for immediate transfer to another unit with relative ease. This transfer has been performed by switchboard staff.
*It allows for external technical support and updates. Remote dial-in access to the DigiCite computer systems allows Compusult to perform troubleshooting, software and configuration updates, etc. all via remote dial-up sessions.
The DigiCite approach currently has the following drawbacks:
*A system is relatively labor-intensive to deliver. All equipment has to be installed and configured by highly-trained personnel with experience and expertise in optics, electronics, digital camera technology, and the related computer systems and software. It is not end-user installable.
*External lighting has an adverse effect. When using a digital camera as the image-acquisition device, there are sometimes undesirable effects on the imagery imposed by the working environment, ambient lighting conditions (and variations thereof), lens and camera performance and occasional variation, variability between LED or VFD displays even on the same models of a manufacturer's equipment. However, we have often overcome these problems using a camera hood to block out external lighting effects.
*There is a short delay (typically one to two seconds) between when an LED display changes and when DigiCite begins speaking. For most situations this is acceptable. However, in an operational switchboard environment all operators are under pressure to respond to incoming calls and callbacks as quickly as possible. Hence, even a brief delay may cause some concern.
*The system will occasionally make mistakes in character recognition but will normally correct itself in subsequent image capture/analysis. This, however, degrades response time and can make for annoying repetition. We have incorporated various techniques in the software that can improve recognition accuracy and reliability, but these can slightly degrade performance.
We have been able to overcome these problems at all sites, although in some cases this has necessitated modifications to the software, mounting arrangements, cameras and lens systems, etc., to achieve consistent operations. Each new site presents a different set of conditions which have ultimately led to improvements in the DigiCite system and have reduced the implementation time and costs, while providing greater flexibility and performance.
Other Compusult Systems
While DigiCite provides nonvisual access to electronic print displays, this is not the only factor that must be considered in the typical working environment for a blind employee. Most electronic equipment, including telephone consoles, has electronic indicators (LED, VFD, and LCD) that provide on/off status information. Compusult's Vindicator system provides the means of speech-enabling these indicators and can work as a completely stand-alone device or with DigiCite to provide a complete solution for a given type of equipment.
In many VA medical centers the switchboard operators are also responsible for monitoring the status of alarms throughout the facility. These alarm panels are all installed in the switchboard rooms, and, although they provide audible output, they do not identify the exact nature of a given alarm. Since many of these alarms signal potential life or death situations, e.g., cardiac arrest, the operator must be able to react immediately to them and follow the correct procedures for each situation.
Compusult's Responder is a machine-vision-based system that provides a continuous watch on alarm panels and other electronic equipment. Whenever an event such as an alarm occurs, Responder acknowledges this and generates a corresponding synthetic- or digitized-speech message to notify the operators. We have been informed that a blind operator can, in fact, respond more quickly than a sighted operator when using Responder, since the sighted operator would normally have to identify the alarm panel and the specific alarm on that panel by sight before taking action. The blind operator can remain in position and wait for the verbal message.
Compusult continues to develop and enhance the DigiCite technology. The primary aims are to incorporate the ability to read LCD and other displays, improve generic applicability through improved image processing and OCR technology, reduce size and cost, and ultimately achieve our original 1996 goal of a handheld device. In this regard we have also been involved in collaborative proposals to expedite development and broaden the reach of the system. We are part of a proposal to the European Commission, in cooperation with organizations from Germany, France, and the U.K., to develop a portable, handheld device that reads electronic displays as well as printed text, including labels on three-dimensional packaging such as retail goods. We expect to hear a decision on this proposal possibly in November of 1999. This would be a three-year development project, with a ready-to-manufacture product upon its conclusion.
We recently completed a grant funding proposal with the NIB to make the current technology more generic in its applicability to various types of displays including LCD and to reduce the overall implementation costs, especially the labor-intensive installation and configuration process. The ultimate goal is to achieve portability for use with various types of equipment at a work site, and ideally, when we deliver a DigiCite system to clients, they will be able to install it themselves.
The NIB also continues to support us in working with a variety of agencies and companies that want to use DigiCite to make legacy and even new telecommunications equipment accessible to blind workers. Each new contract helps to advance the technology.
I must also note that the NFB, which has a demonstration version of DigiCite in its technology center, has passed along information on our systems to other prospective clients.
And, to conclude, coming full circle to Lady Baltimore, I don't think she gave Newfoundland enough of a chance. My wife took a mere twelve years to get used to the weather and appears to enjoy it now. However, she does find an excuse to leave for two to three weeks each February, I have noticed.
Final Discussion Summary
Jim Fruchterman: Our field tends to follow trends in the larger technology field with a lag of a few years. The general technology field is shifting to purchase over the Internet rather than through dealers. How will we deal with that change and with training and other things that are hard to do over the Internet? Some users are moving their software off the PC and onto a server. The local PC becomes a simple device that doesn't break as often, and an expert takes responsibility for running all software at serverside. This could be a solution or lead to a whole new set of problems.
The issue of open source code available over the Internet is increasingly important. In the next year or two this will become common in our field; open-source projects already exist in text-to-speech code. Ray Kurzweil talked very well about what will happen ten to twenty years out, but we will see some wild times between here and there.
Marc Maurer: There's been lots of conversation about MSAM (Microsoft Screen Access Model). Microsoft worked with O.N.C.E., EuroBraille, and Baum to develop MSAM, and there was talk about making it open source. The NFB was approached about setting up a company to manage this code in the open-source market, stipulating that anyone who updated the code must provide it to the company for general use. It now appears that MSAM is not being released for general use, so that particular project does not have a future, but the concept does, providing that everyone plays by the rules of the game and gives updates to the managing company to incorporate for general use and that the market is open enough to stimulate new products and enhancements to be managed. Who knows what proprietary or nonproprietary products may be developed that should be handled in this way, but it is an intriguing idea. The notion that, if we work together, we will all have more than we would if we do not is tempting to think about.
Brian Buhrow: This model is close to the Linux system, in which the operating system and most of the software are free, and companies find their niche in providing technical support and packaging. The question for us is whether consumers in our field are willing to pay for technical support. Now support is mostly free, at least for a period of time. Will users and rehabilitation agencies begin paying for support, and do vendors think there is money to be made developing training and support packages for systems they have not created?
Richard Ring: I don't know if consumers would pay for support; I think some would. But if they do buy it, it had better improve drastically from what is often now provided. Calling a customer back the next day or giving unsatisfactory answers will not do when people are paying. I can talk to two technical support people from the same company and be given two completely different answers, neither of which is right.
David Andrews: An example of a successful release of source code and development of it in the public domain is NFBTrans, which we released in 1992. Originally written in Pascal, it was converted to C by a blind person who continued to upgrade it and add features and capabilities. Then two years ago Kurzweil made it a 32-bit program and incorporated it into the K1000. Just last week Larry Skutchan talked with me about incorporating it into an APH product. It seems clear that this approach has some merit for this field.
Oscar Fern`andez: [He spoke briefly about O.N.C.E.'s efforts to make Microsoft Windows more accessible.]
Larry Skutchan: The open-source model is certainly useful in many situations. Microsoft may not be happy with this statement, but it is absolutely essential for the operating system to support the screen-access model directly because MSAM, and all the work done by O.N.C.E. and the others, will be worthless to us in two years when a 64- or 128-bit version of NT comes out. We will have to start over from the ground up. If the operating system supported this natively, blind computer users would be able to use the technology as soon as it hits the street, and every vendor wouldn't have to start over every time there was a change in the operating system.
After a break the group gathered for some discussion of ways in which the group might engage in cooperative activities between conferences.
Marc Maurer: A technology review board to assess the accessibility of products might be a place to begin. It would be educational at first since no one would know what it was. But the models of Underwriters Laboratory and Consumers Union show the way. Already a group is assessing the quality of access to Web sites for disabled users. This board could be something like that.
David Andrews: There is a crying need for such a board to set standards and apply them. We could establish a private e-mail discussion group to continue this discussion if that would be helpful.
Marc Maurer: This is an idea worth pursuing though some who are not present today might be part of such a listserv as well.
Michelle Brul`e: I would like to see any forum or board serve both the U.S. and Canada.
Marc Maurer: If we limit it to one country, we won't get the broadest result we could hope to achieve.
Jim Fruchterman: Is this board concept aimed primarily at adaptive technology or mainstream organizations and products? We are entering an era when mainstream products are having to meet a higher standard of accessibility, and I would rather see them paying this kind of money and meeting the standards set. For small companies in the adaptive corner of the market, $25,000 is a lot of money.
Marc Maurer: Twenty-five thousand is a lot of money, but we want people who are genuinely interested in this idea and are willing to commit to it. Participating will be important enough to pay this kind of money only for those who are really committed. The figure would keep those who are peripheral to the process out of it.
Curtis Chong: Such a board is a good idea, but not for assistive technology developed specifically for the blind. More than ever before blind people face application programs, set-top boxes, small appliances with flat control panels, and so on, and nobody is dealing with these access problems. We have to find a way to expose the fact that these things don't work for blind people and publicize the fact. If this board works, after a while producers will feel some shame and eventually will look to the board for indication that their products are accessible.
David Andrews: I think the blindness organizations like the NFB, ACB, and AFB might put up their contributions as seed money to hire staff and whatever is needed to begin because our constituencies give us a vested interest. The group would establish standards for the products Curtis was talking about to be usable by blind people. Then producers would pay a fee to have products--software or appliances--tested. With state laws about nonvisual access being passed and Section 508 requiring genuine accessibility, we might get laws changed to say that a seal from this board would demonstrate accessibility. The fees paid by the producers would then make the system self-supporting.
David Pillisher: The Underwriters Laboratory (UL) seal stays with a product even when it undergoes changes that perhaps make it less safe than the original one that was tested. Computer products are changed even more frequently and could lose their accessibility without losing the seal.
David Andrews: The board would approve major version changes.
Marc Maurer: These are logistical details that can be worked out. But you get what you pay for, so we wouldn't give away the seal.
George Kerscher: We want to encourage universal design, and I am always the first one to point out that the blind have been left out. Would this system include multi-media educational tools entering schools?
Marc Maurer: It would if we can find a way conveniently to make it do so. We still have to write the standards. Does anybody now know what a company has to do to make its products accessible? We have ideas, but they may not be consistent. Even those who have thought a lot about the problem don't have all the ideas. We will have to pool our ideas, but there should be a place people can go to find out what they have to do to make their products accessible.
Paul Schroeder: I like the direction we are going in trying to bring us together to focus on access to mainstream products and setting standards. Money is going to be the rub, and I would like to begin the process and avoid the money question for a while. Deciding the scope of products to be evaluated by such a board and beginning to develop the standards for doing so could be done by the organizations in this field before worrying about the financial structure and who controls it.
Jim Fruchterman: There are places to begin: Section 508, Section 255 of the Telecom Act, the Web Accessibility Initiative. What's missing is someone to interpret those who know something about the needs of blind people. The organizations of and for the blind have a significant stake in that, and the technology producers can make a significant contribution because of our expertise. The most valuable thing we producers could contribute would be our time and knowledge.
Deane Blazie: In the early eighties the Assistive Technology Division of the Electronic Industries Association was started by some of us vendors. It provided a little seal to say how accessible a product was for people with disabilities. If you went to the Electronic Industries Association, and particularly to CEMA (Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association), they would be very interested in supporting such an organization and working with you to set standards. They could let member organizations come to the board with cell phones and learn how to make them accessible. They have a lot of money. If you go to them with the idea that you will help them if they will just support your organization, I think you will get a lot of cooperation. We did when we had this Assistive Device Division.