Braille Monitor June 2008
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From the Editor: I was only one of many folks who slapped down a credit card at last summerís convention in order to be one of the first to have the Victor Reader Stream when it shipped in late summer. It is safe to say that those sleek little boxes and the competitive equipment from other manufacturers that has have appeared in the months since have brought about a revolution in the day-to-day lives of many blind people in the United States. They have probably had a profound impact on people in other countries as well, but immediate personal access to the National Library Serviceís Talking Book collection and oneís NFB-NEWSLINE favorites list of newspapers at any hour of the day or night has given NLS borrowers our first chance to wander through a public library as well as our first chance to build a personal collection of books. It has also meant that with a few minutesí work one can grab the paper to read on a plane, train, or bus. All this experience has meant a heady few months for blind readers across the country.
Curtis Chong is president of the NFB in Computer Science. He is as excited about the increased access to books that the Victor Reader Stream represents, but he is also an experienced and knowledgeable user of technology generally. When he uses a piece of electronic equipment, he explores all of its features and pushes it to its limits. He has now written an article reporting on his experience as a user of the Victor Reader Stream. This is what he says:
The Victor Reader Stream (sometimes called the VR Stream or simply the Stream) is a handheld, highly versatile audio book reader, music player, and digital audio recorder. Developed and sold by HumanWare, a leader in technology for the blind, the VR Stream has, since its release in the summer of 2007, found its way into the hands of thousands of blind people throughout the country and around the world. There is something about the VR Stream that grabs your attention (if not your wallet), and its retail price of $329 is low enough for a lot of people to buy with their own money.
What you just read is what you would expect to get from a person who is writing a thorough review of a product or who is putting together a marketing presentation. That is not what I am trying to do here. What I am hoping to do through this article is to pass along my personal experience with the VR Stream, to tell you what I find exciting about it, and to suggest some improvements I would like to see in the product.
The VR Stream itself is a handheld unit approximately 4.5 inches long, 2.5 inches wide, and slightly over three quarters of an inch thick. It might fit in a suit coat pocket, but not comfortably in a jeans pocket. The VR Stream is powered by a rechargeable (and easily replaceable) battery that will run for about fifteen hours on a full charge. It has a small built-in speaker which I find helpful to check the status of the unit. However, for listening to books, music, etc., an external speaker or a pair of good headphones works much better. The VR Stream also has an SD (secure digital) card slot, a built-in microphone, and jacks to connect external speakers or microphones. Every book or song that you hear on the VR Stream is stored on an SD card, available at any local electronics store. The larger the SD card's capacity, the more information you can carry with you on your VR Stream.
A very important thing you should know about the VR Stream is that, if you do not have ready access to a computer and a fast connection to the Internet (DSL running at 1.5 megabits per second will do), the VR Stream will not be of any real value to you because it cannot connect directly to the Internet; without such a connection you will not be able to access the wealth of digital books and other material there. The computer is essential as the repository of digital books, music, and other audio material that you can copy to the VR Stream using the familiar Windows Explorer program.
My first acquaintance with the VR Stream began when I decided to use it as an MP3 music player. I was thrilled that I could simply copy my MP3 music files directly from my computer into the Stream without having to use any proprietary software. For me this was a vast improvement over the iPod Shuffle, which was my first attempt to get into the digital music world. While I could operate the physical iPod Shuffle just fine because it did not have a display, the software that I had to use to move my music from the computer (iTunes) simply did not work with my screen-reading program. The idea behind the VR Stream's music player is that each album is stored in a folder and each song is saved as an MP3 file. You copy each folder of songs from your computer to the VR Stream, and you tell the Stream which album you want to play. Folders and files are sorted alphabetically by name, and by default the VR Stream plays everything in file name order. Music can also be played randomly. You can move fairly quickly to specific albums or songs with a few simple commands, and, while the music is playing, it is easy to move back and forth between songs. The audio quality is decent--especially if you have a good set of headphones or speakers.
I have used the VR Stream's audio recorder for lectures and meetings, and I have found that the quality of the audio is quite acceptable. It does not matter to me that the recording is not in stereo; what matters is that I can hear everyone in the room, and the VR Stream does an excellent job in this regard. I also appreciate that during a meeting I can pause the recording during breaks without losing my place. Of course, if you want to listen to recordings on your computer, you will need to convert them into the standard wave file format using the freely- available and easily -installed Stream Companion software. The VR Stream provides a way to record quick messages: simply press and hold down the record button. However, every time a recording is started, it tells you that recording has started, and I find this verbal prompting somewhat excessive for my purposes. Consequently, I am more likely to use the VR Stream as a recorder for lectures and meetings as opposed to short messages. I tried using the VR Stream to read books stored as text files, including NEWSLINE files. I was not as happy with its performance in this area. I am apparently not as tolerant as other people of the words built-in speech synthesizer mispronounces. Here are a few examples:
The word "pPotatoes" is pronounced "podda toes." The apostrophe in the word "don't" is ignored, and the VR Stream says "don tee." "Movies" is pronounced "moe vees." In any event, I am not willing to tolerate these mispronunciations, so I simply do not use the VR Stream to read electronic books or newspapers that are stored as text files.
The most exciting aspect of the VR Stream is its ability to read digital audio books--books that have been narrated by a human being. The VR Stream provides a rich set of commands to jump around within a properly marked-up digital audio book. For example, in a magazine it is a simple matter to skip an article that you don't want to read. In a book from RFB&D you can go to a specific page or chapter. Everything that you can listen to with the VR Stream--even music--can be speeded up or slowed down, and unlike what you get with an audiocassette recorder with variable-speed capability, there is no change in the pitch of the audio presentation--that is, no more readers with high voices that sound like they have been breathing helium. The VR Stream does have a sleep timer that can be set for as long as an hour, but you have to remember to turn it on. If you don't, the VR Stream will read your audio book all night if you fall asleep, and it can be quite a job finding the place where you last remember reading. The VR Stream also has a bookmark feature, which allows you to save bookmarks in anything you are reading or hearing. Even if you remove the SD card, the bookmarks are saved on the VR Stream, and it is a simple matter to jump to a specific book mark.
I have used the VR Stream to read digital Talking Books and magazines from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress (NLS), Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), and Audible.com (a commercial supplier of downloadable audio books). With regard to NLS digital Talking Books, the VR Stream was, for a time, the only commercially available machine you could buy to read these books. I commend the decision by NLS to open up its digital Talking Book collection to eligible patrons at about the same time the VR Stream hit the market. Today well over ten thousand 10,000 digital Talking Books are in this collection. There is nothing like being able to download a book and have it available right when you want it. I no longer have to wait several days for the book I want to read to arrive in the mail.
In order to read digital Talking Books from the National Library Service, you need to obtain a user ID, a password, and a user authorization key for your VR Stream. These are fairly easy to get if you are an active patron of your state's library for the blind. However, you won't find the necessary Webpage by going to the NLS homepage. You have to direct your browser to http://www.nlstalkingbooks.org/dtb. From there simply select the Application Instructions link and follow the prompts.
In order to read the digital audio books available from RFB&D, you will need to purchase a user authorization key from that agency, which costs $20 plus $6.50 for shipping and handling. A key is most easily obtained by contacting RFB&D Member Services by phone. The number to call is (800) 221-4792. When I ordered my key from RFB&D, I was told that, although I could download my key through the RFB&D Website, RFB&D had to mail me a physical CD with the instructions on how to retrieve it. Preparing and shipping the CD are what cost $6.50.
If you buy audio books from Audible.com, it is easy to activate the VR Stream. Simply download and install the latest version of the Audible Manager software, and you can activate the VR Stream through the menus of the program. You will need to connect the VR Stream to your computer to do this. As far as I know, the VR Stream is the only system that allows books from Audible.com to be speeded up and slowed down in real time--that is, as you are reading them.
Here are some things I personally find quite exciting about the VR Stream:
1. I can carry and listen to lots of digital audio books in one small unit.
2. I can get digital audio books when I want them--no more waiting days for a book to arrive in the mail.
3. I can listen to my favorite songs anywhere I go, and, if I want to, I can play them in a random order.
4. I can record meetings and lectures, and I have hours and hours of recording time available to me--or at least as much time as I can get out of the battery.
5. The battery is both rechargeable and replaceable. If the battery dies, I can replace it with a fully-charged spare, available from HumanWare for approximately $30.
6. I can set book marks that will not disappear when I remove the SD card.
7. I can speed up anything that is being played--even books from Audible.com.
Here are some things that I wish could be improved:
1. It would be nice for the music player to be able to restrict randomization to individual albums. Today the entire collection of music is randomized.
2. The text-to-speech capability could be improved. I would like to be able to read text e-books using a better speech synthesizer than Nuance Vocalizer. I would be pleased with Eloquence--the synthesizer used with JAWS for Windows--but I recognize that the synthesizer one prefers is a highly personal and subjective decision.
3. The VR Stream should be able to read books coded as formatted Braille (BRF) files. This feature is currently not available.
4. The VR Stream should be able to play WMA- (Windows Media Audio) formatted files. It cannot play these files today.
5. Bass and treble controls should be available for all forms of playback.
Today these controls are available only with the music player.
As I said at the beginning of this article, there is something about the VR Stream that grabs your attention. I don't know what it is, but I do know that, despite the improvements I wish it had, I really do appreciate and enjoy the VR Stream as a versatile and highly useful device for reading audio books and playing music, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone.