Braille Monitor                                                                                                            January 2005

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An Overview of Accessible Technology:
Where Are We Now, and What Does the Future Hold?

by Danika Taylor

Danika Taylor
Danika Taylor

From the Editor: Have you ever considered how many new words have entered the vocabularies of even the least tech-savvy among us? The electronic revolution has radically altered everything from advertising to zoo management. Those using access technology have to understand an entire additional layer of terms and concepts--the ones that make our participation in this brave new world possible.

The following article provides a broad survey of the field of access technology as it is seen by the men and women who are shaping it. Danika Taylor, NFB copy editor, has conducted exhaustive interviews and research into the current and future state of this field. Here is her report:

Access to technology for the blind, particularly access to the Internet and the World Wide Web, has been a subject of extensive interest both in the media and among blind consumers. Curtis Chong, internationally recognized expert in access technology for the blind and president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science, has written extensively on the subject of accessibility, and one recommendation he has given to Web site developers is to keep in touch with nonvisual access technology developers and the National Federation of the Blind to ensure that they maintain a "keen awareness of the continually improving capability of nonvisual access technology." Certainly it is important that developers--not only developers of Web sites, but also developers of screen access software, refreshable Braille displays, notetakers, Braille embossers, and optical character recognition (OCR) software--make this contact a priority as well so that we can keep them informed about what blind consumers need in technology access.

The constant involvement of the National Federation of the Blind has been a pivotal factor in improving the accessibility of technology, and because of improvements in Web-browsing and screen access software, the problem of inaccessible Web sites has decreased in recent years. In addition, the 1998 amendment to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that federal agencies' electronic and information technology be accessible to people with disabilities, including the blind (this law applies to all federal and federally funded Web sites--not private sector sites). Obviously we have come a long way in having access to the World Wide Web, but have we really come far enough in accessible technology in general? Further, where is accessible technology destined to go in the future? Are developers keeping up with new trends in the field of technology to make sure that blind consumers have access to the most up-to-date technology available?

I interviewed the CEOs of several companies that specialize in nonvisual access technology. These are some of the principal companies that develop products such as refreshable Braille displays, screen access software, notetakers, Braille embossers, and OCR software. We must remain vigilant in our efforts not only to ensure that the products developed, manufactured, and marketed by these companies remain up-to-date with current technology but also to make certain that these products are able to keep up with technology as it evolves.

For example, Microsoft will tentatively release a new operating system--codename, Longhorn--in 2006. We must make sure that the companies that develop access technology are updating their products as needed so that we will be able to use them to run the new Longhorn operating system and other systems that have yet to be developed. Will Jaws, Window-Eyes, and Super Nova, for instance, be compatible with Longhorn? In other words, if we use one or more of these screen access software products, will we be able to run them with Longhorn? The question of compatibility with Microsoft's new Longhorn operating system is not the primary focus of this article, but it is an important question that needs to be answered when we consider the fact that, according to Microsoft, around 95 percent of PCs run a Microsoft operating system.

Because it is important that consumers be knowledgeable about current and potential future technology, I asked the CEOs of some of the major players in the field of nonvisual access technology about their products, their future plans, and their notions about how to make nonvisual technology even better for their blind consumers. Here is what they said:

 

Dolphin Computer Access

Steve Palmer
Steve Palmer

The Dolphin Group has headquarters in the U.K., Sweden, and San Mateo, California. Dolphin is primarily a software development company that markets its products and services internationally and employs more than sixty people throughout the U.K., U.S.A., and Sweden. Dolphin, whose products include a selection of screen access software, started in 1986, and the Dolphin Group took over the Swedish company Labyrinten in 1999. At the time Labyrinten was the leading developer for the DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) consortium.

Steve Palmer, CEO of the Dolphin Group, says that future accessibility is a priority and that the company is "continually speaking with other software development companies and has very good links with the operating system development teams to ensure that requirements to enable accessibility to new systems are always considered and included in the products."

Mr. Palmer understands that technology is constantly evolving and developing, and he believes that the rapid pace of technology is often "at the expense of the blind and low vision markets." Although he does not mention specific dollar figures, Mr. Palmer says that Dolphin spends about "30 to 35 percent of the company's global annual turnover" on product development and support in order to stay up-to-date with developments in technology and user needs.

Mr. Palmer says that Dolphin has considered the release of Longhorn and plans to make Dolphin products compatible not only with new technology from Microsoft but also with any new operating system, system upgrade, or application from other companies as well. Mr. Palmer considers compatibility to be a priority because "it is very important for our customers that we keep pace with changes in technology. We want to make sure our products are both compatible and function robustly with any new products, if not at, then as close to their release as is reasonably possible." He says that developers at Dolphin work closely with the Microsoft development and accessibility teams, and Dolphin is a member of Microsoft's Assistive Technology Vendor Program. Members of this program must have a proven track record in designing, building, and supporting assistive technology products to meet the needs of their customers.

Mr. Palmer says that Dolphin has "invested continuously over the years to redesign and re-engineer the company's products, both to take account of and to incorporate the latest advances in technology." He says that he views this continuing development "not as a cost but rather as an investment for the future." He confidently states that Dolphin's investment in technology means that the company is "in a great position to move ahead." Furthermore, he claims that another advantage of this investment is that it "enables Dolphin to offer free technical support to all users of Dolphin products," because the company's support request rates "continue to be low throughout the world."

Mr. Palmer assures us that "Dolphin will continue to keep pace with advances in technology and maintain its position at the forefront of accessibility." "Supernova," he explains, "continues to be Dolphin's flagship product around the world." He notes that Supernova is "the only product available that integrates a full screen reader with a full screen magnifier and also provides Braille support."

Mr. Palmer claims that he makes this distinction only to point out that "there is no need to buy a separate screen reader and screen magnifier because Supernova has everything needed for screen access, whatever your level of sight or whatever needs you have to support in the workplace."

Mr. Palmer says that he and the R & D team at Dolphin are "always looking for ways to improve" the company's products. Compatibility, stability, and ease of use are all considered when new products are developed and current products are improved. "We are continually updating our products and developing new products to keep ahead in the market and provide solutions for our users to ensure that they have access to the same system as non visually impaired users," He says, "We are continually looking to bring innovative products to the market."

Mr. Palmer is willing to give us a glimpse into some of Dolphin's most confidential plans for the future of the company's upcoming products. "No doubt my marketing department will be surprised that I am willing to tell you at this stage that right now we are close to going into beta testing for our access products for the Pocket PC environment." He says that the company's vision is to have a product that will enable customers to "buy an off-the-shelf PDA, load our software, and have a fully accessible portable device in their pockets."

Mr. Palmer says that a goal at Dolphin is to "try to make our products easy to use" to lessen the need for extensive training. To assist users, though, Dolphin products include self-voiced installation and comprehensive online documentation and tutorials. In addition, he notes that Dolphin products contain training guides to get the programs started and a full user manual with exercises which are available as hardcopy, online, or in Braille if requested. Further, all product training is available for all Dolphin products either directly from the company or outsourced to the company's dealers, who have all been trained in the use of Dolphin products.

Mr. Palmer projects that in the future "portability and access to information will become king." He believes that there will be a "greater migration to the mainstream in the blind and low-vision arena, especially for portable devices and PDAs." He is optimistic that full accessibility will become the norm, and developers will have to find a way to deliver equal accessibility.

If he could change anything in the field of access technology, Mr. Palmer says he would introduce the technology and expertise that reside in access technology companies like Dolphin into the mainstream because "there is a lot of technology which comes from our industry which could be of huge benefit for everyone." "If we could do that," he says, "and open up into a larger market, accessibility costs would become almost negligible."

 

Enabling Technologies

Tony Schenk
Tony Schenk

Located in Jensen Beach, Florida, Enabling Technologies has been manufacturing Braille-production equipment for over thirty-three years, which makes the company one of the oldest in the access technology industry. Company President Tony Schenk says that throughout these years Enabling has "continually improved and updated product lines to meet the demands of an ever-changing marketplace." To keep up with changing technology, Enabling has "always invested approximately 8 percent of its annual revenues on R & D projects and new-product development."

Mr. Schenk believes that his company "offers the broadest product line of any manufacturer of Braille production equipment." With more than sixteen models available, Mr. Schenk says that "customers can select a model of embosser that is directly suited to their specific production requirements. No one model of Braille embosser could possibly address the wide variety of applications that exist worldwide."

While Enabling manufactures many models of Braille embossers, Mr. Schenk says that the company's most popular products are its Romeo and Juliet series embossers. "We currently have thousands of these machines in service," says Mr. Schenk. "In fact, many of the original Romeo embossers produced in the 1980's are still in service today, producing hard-copy Braille for schools, libraries, and individuals around the world."

Like his colleagues Mr. Schenk takes very seriously the release of new programs and operating systems, and the upcoming release of Longhorn is no exception. "Every manufacturer of adaptive devices must consider the release of Longhorn and precisely how it will affect our industry," He insists, "I am not aware of any company in our industry that is not making preparations for the release of Longhorn."

Enabling Technologies seems to be on track with the release of Longhorn. Mr. Schenk says that his company is "in the process of incorporating a USB serial port on all of our existing product lines to ensure compatibility with Longhorn." In fact, Enabling appears to be a step ahead, because the company's newest product, the Romeo Attaché, already has this technology installed.

Mr. Schenk says that it would be irresponsible to discuss the company's future plans in detail before new products are ready to be introduced to the market, but he assures us that Enabling is "continually developing new products to address the changing needs of our customer base."

Mr. Schenk is optimistic about the future of accessible technology. He "expects technology for the blind to continue to improve and become more widely available." He notes that in the more than twenty years he has been involved in this field, "the cost of adaptive devices has dropped dramatically, while the quality, reliability, and total features available have improved tremendously." He asserts "twenty years ago consumers could not purchase a Braille embosser for less than $15,000, and the product was the size of a small refrigerator and required frequent maintenance."

Today personal embossers are available for less than $2,000, and maintenance requirements are usually minimal. If these trends in technology continue, we have good reason to be optimistic about the future.

Freedom Scientific

Lee Hamilton
Lee Hamilton

Freedom Scientific, based in St. Petersburg, Florida, is a familiar name in the field of access technology. Dr. Lee Hamilton, CEO of the company, claims that Freedom Scientific "invests more in new product development than any other company in the industry"; however, for business reasons Dr. Hamilton could not disclose information such as financials or product plans. Since the April 2000 merger from which Freedom Scientific emerged--a move that combined three of the best-known companies in the field of assistive technology, including Arkenstone, Blazie Engineering, and Henter-Joyce--Freedom Scientific "has grown to over a hundred fifty employees, more than one-third of whom are visually impaired."

Freedom Scientific's JAWS screen reader software is one of the best-known products associated with the company. According to Dr. Hamilton, "keeping JAWS in sync with the industry is critical to our consumers." This means that compatibility with new technology is definitely a priority for Freedom Scientific. Like the Dolphin Group and Enabling Technologies, Freedom Scientific is a member of the Microsoft Assistive Technology Vendor Program. Dr. Hamilton says that participation in this program "gives us insight into the progress of future applications and operating system innovations, including development-stage releases like Longhorn." He also claims that his company works closely with Microsoft's developers, and "Freedom Scientific is committed to having a Longhorn-compatible version of JAWS as close to Longhorn's release date as possible."

"JAWS supports more software platforms, more applications, and more languages," says Dr. Hamilton, "than any other screen reader in the world." Two free updates for JAWS have been released in 2004, and another major upgrade is scheduled to ship before the end of the year.

The PAC Mate, "the world's first accessible Pocket PC device," is another important product for Freedom Scientific. Three free updates have been added this year, and Dr. Hamilton tells us that more are in development.

"Training and customer support," according to Dr. Hamilton, "play increasingly imperative roles as products become more complex." Freedom Scientific has a training group that "provides self-paced user training, worldwide Train-the-Trainer programs, and Web site training tools, in addition to the extensive built-in help that comes with our products." Freedom Scientific is taking other steps to improve product technical support. The company is making it possible to hire support technicians to work remotely, rather than having them work strictly from the St. Petersburg support center. This means that customers from other areas will be able to receive better technical support for their Freedom Scientific products.

Dr. Hamilton realizes that technology has become an essential part of everyday life and that companies that specialize in assistive technology must keep up with the pace of this changing technology in order to provide the best services possible and to remain competitive in the industry. To accomplish this, Dr. Hamilton believes that "companies will be forced to abandon proprietary software that is custom-built for the blindness/low-vision market and focus on making mainstream software accessible." He also believes that products based on "Closed proprietary software and that are not compatible with mainstream technology will fall further and further behind the mainstream because assistive technology companies simply do not have the resources to keep up with the mainstream features that customers want and need." This can, however, cause other problems.

Cost is one factor. The growing power and complexity of mainstream technology causes assistive technology product development to cost more. The example Dr. Hamilton gives is the expense of the PAC Mate, which cost more than one hundred times as much to develop as the original Braille 'n Speak. This cost increase is a result of the complexity of the technology involved in developing the PAC Mate and keeping it competitive. The rapidity with which technology changes and advances only compounds the problem of cost. To put this into perspective, Dr. Hamilton notes that the PAC Mate has "forty-four times more software, twenty-three times more memory, and twenty-six times more processing power than Freedom Scientific's Braille Lite Millennium," even though the Millennium is only four years old.

Dr. Hamilton projects that, as development costs continue to increase, fewer companies will be able to make the investment required. To illustrate this idea, he notes, "at one time, more than ten companies were in the screen-reader business. Now only a few are left, and one, JAWS, has by far the largest market share." He predicts that the release of Longhorn and the transition required to implement it will narrow the field even more.

GW Micro

Dan Weirich
Dan Weirich

Dan Weirich is CEO of GW Micro, a Fort Wayne, Indiana, company that specializes in access technology. Mr. Weirich would not disclose a percentage or dollar figure for the company's R & D costs, but he says it is a six-figure sum.

GW Micro, manufacturer of Window-Eyes screen access software, is a member of Microsoft's Assistive Technology Vendor Program, and Mr. Weirich says that GW Micro is "always considering operating system changes and works as closely as possible with Microsoft."

As for compatibility, Mr. Weirich says that "it is extremely important that GW Micro products work with new operating systems before they are released to the public." The R & D team at GW Micro "always tries to think of future developments and build them into Window-Eyes as soon as it is feasible."

Mr. Weirich believes that when it comes to technology, "there is always room for improvement, and this is especially true of screen reading software.” He says that "a screen reader, more than any other software, must be compatible with all application programs and also change as the operating systems change." This means that development is never really finished but is an ongoing process.

Mr. Weirich could not divulge plans for future products, but he assures us that GW Micro has many plans for future R & D projects. As for product training, he says that "GW Micro began formal training classes two years ago, and the classes have been very successful." The company does not have current plans to outsource product training, but Mr. Weirich says he is always thinking of improvements. In fact, he says that the R & D team at GW Micro "never stops trying to improve Window-Eyes." These improvements include supporting new operating systems and applications and adding new features.

Mr. Weirich believes new products should be as simple and user-friendly as possible. "I challenge all assistive technology developers to emphasize working well right out of the box instead of relying on complex and version-specific add-ons. At GW Micro we work hard to make Window-Eyes work right out of the box as much as possible." If products are user-friendly, then more people are likely to benefit from them, and that is the real reason why assistive technology exists.

Kurzweil Technologies, Inc.

Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Kurzweil Technologies, Inc. He is also the founder of about nine other companies that deal with everything from nutritional supplements to cyber art. Mr. Kurzweil collaborated with then NFB President Kenneth Jernigan and the National Federation of the Blind to develop the first print-to-speech reading machine. Mr. Kurzweil believes firmly that the organized blind must play a significant role in the development of effective access technology. "That project [development of the first reading machine] would not have met the success that it did had we not had this close collaboration on all aspects of its development. I'm excited to be working closely again with the National Federation of the Blind on a portable reader under President Maurer's leadership."

Mr. Kurzweil is confident that technologies such as reading machines and screen readers will continue to improve rapidly in their effectiveness over time. "The key," he says, "is providing the right technology and the right training to develop alternative ways of accomplishing tasks. For both of those reasons the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute plays a vital role."

The Jernigan Institute provides the means by which developers and blind users can have the close collaboration necessary to provide the best technology possible. Mr. Kurzweil believes that the need for this alliance is more important now than ever before. "This needs to go beyond including a few blind people as beta testers," he says. "It requires a sophisticated effort by the organized blind with expertise in all facets of accessibility technology and all facets of technology development. That was Dr. Jernigan's insight when he committed the National Federation of the Blind to build what is now the Jernigan Institute."

"It's a lot easier to build accessibility into products before they are designed rather than afterwards," he says. "Very simple accommodation can make products accessible, but this can become extremely difficult if it's attempted as an afterthought."

He also believes that these efforts should not be ad hoc, because then we have a "bewildering array of inconsistent standards. That was another of Dr. Jernigan's insights in building the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute."

Mr. Kurzweil recognizes that the rapidly moving world of technology creates many challenges in providing accessible technology. "Screen readers provided equal access to text-based computers, but then along came the graphical user interface, and it was years before screen readers were again adequate," he says.

Portable reading machines are important because they provide access to print information that would not normally be accessible to the blind. "Although we do have--thanks to the National Federation of the Blind's efforts--accessible ATMs and voting machines, many other types of displays are not yet accessible. Screen readers have been important in providing access to the screen of your own computer, but printed information surrounds us as one goes through the day. The goal of the portable reader is to provide access to print on cereal boxes, menus, handouts at meetings, signs on the wall, electronic displays, and so on."

Mr. Kurzweil projects that "around the end of this decade we'll have systems that continually provide important information about the visual world to a blind user, identifying and locating people and objects in the surrounding area, assisting with mobility, of course providing access to the world of print in the real world, and even translating it from one language to another."

Mr. Kurzweil is also optimistic about the possibility of a car designed for blind drivers. "A car has already been demonstrated that drove itself across the [open] country with no sighted driver. It was just given directions on what routes to take, so cars that a blind person can drive are not that far away."

"Where we need to be," says Mr. Kurzweil, "is at a place where we can provide inexpensive, rapid access to every kind of information. We're close enough already so that with the right training, a blind person can be fully competitive today in essentially every type of job, except, well, for driving a taxi. But we'll get to that too."

Optelec

Annette Fasnacht
Annette Fasnacht

Annette Fasnacht is president of this Netherlands-based company, a newcomer to the field of blindness-related technology. Optelec entered this market in 2004, and Ms. Fasnacht projects that by 2005 the company will have invested more than 1.2 million dollars in blindness-product development alone. "The goal of this development," according to Ms. Fasnacht, "is the launch of a portable product portfolio to serve the ever-changing needs of blind consumers in the classroom, workplace, and home."

Optelec has considered the launch of Microsoft's Longhorn, and the company is constructing product lines so they will be compatible with the new operating system. Ms. Fasnacht claims that the company is "working closely with Microsoft and will strive to keep all applicable drivers [and other applicable products] compatible with Longhorn." She assures us that she is quite confident that Optelec's approach will be successful and will keep the company's products on the cutting edge of mainstream development for years to come.

Currently Optelec's top-selling product intended specifically for the blind is the Braille Voyager, a refreshable Braille display device. The Mountbatten Pro products, which are distributed by Optelec for Quantum, are the second-biggest-selling products for Optelec. These products are designed to assist with Braille instruction, which is very important to Ms. Fasnacht, who "fully supports" increasing Braille literacy among blind youth. "Still," she stresses, "Optelec monitors product quality continuously and is always open to suggestions for improvement."

Concerning new-product development, Optelec purportedly has big plans for the future. Recently Ms. Fasnacht told us that Optelec was going to be "doing things in an exciting way." I asked her to elaborate on this statement, and this is what she said:

Optelec will be releasing an accessible speech-driven PDA later this year and has begun to import and distribute the Mobile Speak cellular phone screen reader. The year 2005 will be filled with a revolutionary launch of the most innovative wireless refreshable Braille solution to hit the market in quite some time. For more detail on that, I can only say, "stay tuned."

Ms. Fasnacht would not reveal any specifics of future development efforts, but she guarantees that large-scale development plans are underway that will make access to technology even better. She says that Optelec is working with "a few key suppliers and Microsoft to strive for the best access humanly possible."

Optelec has assembled an international team that is led in the U.S. by Larry Lewis, formerly of Pulse Data and now vice president of blindness sales at Optelec. As reported in the April 2004 Braille Monitor, "Lewis has an extensive background in assessing, training, and recommending systems for those who require adaptive speech or Braille solutions." Optelec assembled this team so that the company could have experienced blind consultants to give the developers accurate advice about what the blind need for more accessible technology.

In the future Ms. Fasnacht hopes "to see a day when technological advances are equally accessible to sighted and blind individuals in generally the same time frame." Also she hopes to see "a stronger commitment to Braille literacy in schools because Braille is the key to technology and therefore to a successful future." She acknowledges the problem we have recognized for years: "We shortchange our children when we don't make them Braille literate." She also believes that technology plays an important role in Braille literacy: "Technology can help teachers integrate Braille into the mainstream classroom, and technology can allow Braille to be taught more easily. That's a win-win situation for everyone, especially blind children."

Pulse Data

Russell Smith
Russell Smith

Dr. Russell Smith, Pulse Data International CEO, says that his New Zealand-based company currently spends approximately 2.3 million U.S. dollars on R & D for products for the blind and visually impaired and that this amount is spread about equally between blindness and low vision technology.

Pulse Data is currently a leading provider of speech and Braille notetakers in the English-speaking market. Dr. Smith claims that his company has achieved that market position by "monitoring the views of blind individuals on how their needs for access to information can best be met, by keeping abreast of new technological developments which may have application in products for the blind, and by funding and operating a team of highly skilled R & D engineers to create new products."

He says that Pulse Data monitors market needs by "gathering opinions through its very active listservs, conducting formal market research studies to identify needs, extensively beta-testing new products with representative users, discussing user needs with leading organizations serving the blind, and seeking the views of its numerous blind employees." Pulse Data is also working to monitor developments in technology so that their products are current with the latest trends, and the company is a member of the Microsoft Assistive Technology Vendor Program.

According to Dr. Smith the staff at Pulse Data is closely monitoring the development of the Longhorn operating system "to capitalize on any new opportunities which may be created by the significantly different approach taken by Microsoft with this product." Compatibility is a priority as well. "It is essential that our products be compatible with Longhorn from the time of its initial release," he says, "and we are committed to ensuring that happens."

To remain current with the latest developments in technology, Pulse Data maintains an active program to enable users to update the products they have purchased from the company in the past to the latest versions of operating systems and applications. For example, later this year a new upgrade of software for Pulse Data's BrailleNote will enable customers who purchased BrailleNotes as far back as 2000 to upgrade to the most current operating systems as well as the latest versions of all of Pulse Data's applications.

The BrailleNote and VoiceNote speech and Braille notetakers are the company's most successful products. In addition to the availability of a product upgrade for current BrailleNote users, the company launched a new model of the BrailleNote in the U.S.A. this year.

Dr. Smith projects that equal access for the blind to the latest technology will play a major role in improving the lives of users in many aspects of daily life: "I expect that the growing use of digital information will increasingly enable blind people to become fully competitive in the workplace, to have easier access to education at all levels, and to achieve greater access to information of all sorts in their leisure time." He is confident that Pulse Data will be in the forefront of these developments and will continue to build on its established reputation as a provider of products which are both powerful and friendly to blind users.

Sighted Electronics

David Pillischer
David Pillischer

David Pillischer is president of New Jersey-based Sighted Electronics, a company teamed with Index Braille and F.H. Papenmeier. He tells us that the engineers and programmers at Index Braille have been working assiduously to create Braille embosser drivers that produce contracted-Braille-translated documents from nearly any Windows application. "We call the program `WinBraille,'" says Mr. Pillischer.

The new WinBraille product is a major investment for Sighted Electronics, adding up to more than $200,000 in 2004 alone. "The idea behind WinBraille came because of complaints from people in third-world countries." Apparently some people who had purchased Braille embossers were later told that they must also purchase a software package to make the embossers work properly. WinBraille was created to eliminate this problem. It started as a simple driver, but over the years it has been improved and refined to include graphics, better formatting, many languages, and better American contracted-Braille translation.

Mr. Pillischer and his team at Sighted Electronics are confident that their products will be compatible with Longhorn, which will require new drivers for the company's Braille embossers. They are already working on this project and will have the embosser drivers in place and the macros necessary to work with new applications when the time comes.

Sighted Electronics' partner company Papenmeier has developed a new thin Braille display powered through the USB port found on today's computers. The Braillex EL 40s (“the 40 Slim”) weighs less than two pounds and uses a smaller, thinner Braille cell. According to Pillischer this new Braille cell requires less power and is more reliable. "We are so confident in the improvements in the Braille cell technology," says Mr. Pillischer, "that we extended the warranty for the Braille displays from one to three years in 2003."

One goal at Sighted Electronics is to make Braille text produced on a Braille embosser as easy to create as printing a document on a laser printer. Reliability is also a priority through the use of the most modern components with the latest technology to make the units lighter, faster, and more dependable, according to Mr. Pillischer.

"We are consistently working to improve on our successes and continue to refine our products so they will not become stagnant," says Mr. Pillischer. "Sighted Electronics and our partners are striving to make Braille available to anyone who needs it. We are working to make Braille devices lighter, easier to carry, and easier to use."

ViewPlus

Dr. John Gardner
Dr. John Gardner

ViewPlus Technologies, based in Corvallis, Oregon, is responsible for the development, manufacture, and marketing of Tiger embossers. According to Robert Jaquiss, executive director of VIEW International Foundation and a former access technology specialist in the National Federation of the Blind's International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC), Tiger embossers "are unique in that they produce the finest dotted-line graphics of any embosser." The IBTC at the NFB Jernigan Institute has three of the four available models.

Dr. John Gardner, CEO of ViewPlus, claims that because of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, his company "spends far more than any other U.S.-based access technology company on product research and development." Like other companies in access technology, ViewPlus is thinking of the future in relation to Microsoft's Longhorn operating system. He agrees that it is important that current technology be compatible with future operating systems, and he says his company is taking the necessary steps to make this possible: "We expect most other current software will be Longhorn-compatible.... We maintain a good working relationship with Microsoft and are keeping up with their Longhorn development. Thus far it has not been a major fraction of our R & D costs, but the final push will certainly call for a major ViewPlus investment."

The majority of ViewPlus sales is in tactile graphics and Braille embossers. The Pro (agency workhorse embosser), Max (wide-carriage desktop embosser), and Cub and Cub Jr. (narrow-carriage desktop embossers) have comparable sales figures. So far the ViewPlus Accessible Graphing Calculator is the company's only stand-alone software product, but Dr. Gardner says ViewPlus will have others soon.

ViewPlus has shown prototypes of a new ink attachment for its Pro embosser, which will overprint Braille and tactile graphics with a variety of user options. The company is introducing a new formatter software application for MS Office applications that will translate text into Braille in a variety of languages. In addition, the user will have the option of printing the original text along with the Braille.

ViewPlus requires its dealers and distributors to be fully trained on all ViewPlus products they carry and to provide training for their customers. Dr. Gardner would like to change attitudes among both sighted and blind people about exchanging information. He says he would like sighted people to "understand that it is worth using computer methods that are universally accessible even if this means they would need to learn something new."

In addition he wants to "encourage blind people to insist on direct access and not to accept information that requires another human being to act as a translator." In other words he believes the blind should have equal access to technology without having to rely on another person to access the technology for them. Like Freedom Scientific and Pulse Data, ViewPlus is a member of Microsoft's Assistive Technology Vendor Program.

VisuAide

Gilles Pepin
Gilles Pepin

VisuAide, which is based in Canada, reportedly has the largest development team of all assistive technology companies. According to VisuAide President Gilles Pepin, the company employs around thirty designers, developers, quality assurance representatives, and technicians. These employees work exclusively on the development of new products and the evolution of existing ones, so it is not surprising that VisuAide spends about 3.5 million dollars each year on R & D.

Mr. Pepin tries not to view the market for the blind as highly competitive. He maintains that his company and others in the field tend to cooperate with each other, and VisuAide distributes some Freedom Scientific and Tieman (Optelec) products in Canada. He also says that it is important for all companies to offer a wide variety of technical solutions to serve the needs of the community better. "We do not believe in building a product identical to or in direct competition with one produced by another company."

A goal at VisuAide is to revolutionize the field of accessible technology. They are moving toward this goal. The Victor Reader and Trekker products are the first in their respective categories--portable reader/CD player and GPS system. Also, VisuAide's new Maestro is going to be the first off-the-shelf PDA designed specifically for the blind.

The concept for Maestro, VisuAide's latest product, was presented at the National Federation of the Blind convention in Atlanta this year. The first shipments of this product began in October 2004. Mr. Pepin and his team at VisuAide hope that Maestro will revolutionize the existing notetaker business in cost and portability. This is why they are pricing this new device at half the cost of the competition, and they claim that the Maestro will be much more portable than other PDAs or notetakers. So is there a hint of competitiveness with the release of Maestro?

"If there is an objective to beat the competition," insists Mr. Pepin, "it is to be more innovative and offer solutions for the needs of the visually impaired that were not served before."

Like other companies VisuAide has considered the importance of compatibility among their products and other more widely used products, such as computer operating systems. This company is also a member of Microsoft's Assistive Technology Vendor Program. VisuAide now has a PC version of its DAISY talking book players that will be able to run on Microsoft's upcoming Longhorn operating system. Mr. Pepin assures us that his company is closely following the development of Longhorn and that they will ensure that all VisuAide products will interact properly with Longhorn. However, only a small portion of the company's resources is being devoted to this particular compatibility issue, since most VisuAide products do not use the Windows system.

VisuAide's Victor Reader players (the VR Vibe, VR Classic, VR Classic +, and VRSoft) are the company's most popular products, but Mr. Pepin says that all VisuAide products are being improved regularly to add new functions and to make them easier to use. For DAISY book reading software, VisuAide is adding NISO (DAISY 3) capability and better handling of MP3 files and folders to those players that do not already have that capability. For Trekker GPS systems, VisuAide is adding better map handling, increasing the resolution of sensors, and simplifying the design of packaging "to make it more flexible and allow visually impaired users to integrate their own peripherals."

VisuAide will have tutorials available to train users, and the company also has partnerships with various organizations for training customers in the use of VisuAide products. VisuAide also works with the Jernigan Institute to develop training programs for their products.

VisuAide seems to be looking toward the future to see what possibilities exist. Mr. Pepin admits that there are still many areas to explore, including smart phones, flexible displays, broadband Internet, voice recognition, object detection, pocket reading systems, automated automobiles, and many other technological advancements that will offer exciting opportunities over the next five to ten years.

The products that are developed, manufactured, and marketed by Dolphin Computer Access, Enabling Technologies, Freedom Scientific, Optelec, Pulse Data, ViewPlus, VisuAide, and others have the potential to improve the lives of the blind, especially if these companies keep up with the pace of the evolution and development of technology as they promise.

In just three decades technology has changed the way people live. It has altered the way we perform our jobs; the way we participate in leisure activities; and, perhaps most important, the way we communicate. Technology is intended to help, not hinder; to facilitate, not obstruct. Technology can truly either enhance or frustrate the lives of blind people, but which will it do? The answer is simple: as more and more software and hardware developers become aware of the benefits of and the need for more accessible technology, the future looks exciting indeed.

The future seems promising as larger corporations recognize the need for accessible technology, and we hope this recognition will trickle down to smaller companies as well. According to Microsoft, which claims to be striving "to build products that are accessible to everyone--including people with disabilities and impairments," having more accessible technology is important because most computer users can benefit from it. Microsoft cited a 2003 study commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Forrester Research to measure the current and potential market of accessible technology in the United States and to understand how accessible technology is being used today. According to this study approximately 25 percent--that's about thirty-three million computer users--have some form of visual impairment, and virtually all of these users could benefit from more accessible technology. But the users in this 25 percent bracket are not the only ones who could profit from more accessible technology. This same study showed that 57 percent of computer users are likely or very likely to benefit from accessible technology--that's 74.2 million people, and it is a compelling figure. We hope that studies such as this one will convince more people in the technology field to strive to make technology equally accessible to everyone.

At the convention of the National Federation of the Blind in July 2002, the following prediction about accessibility was made: "In the future no competent Web site designer will design a Web site without its being accessible to blind users." That prediction has not been wholly fulfilled yet, but it will be. Likewise we are on the right track in making technology in general more accessible to the blind. Our goal is to have 100 percent of technology accessible to anyone who wants to use it, and we are definitely on our way to making that happen.

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