Braille Monitor                                                 March 2011

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Blio: A Formative Technology of the Twenty-First Century

by Marc Maurer

Marc MaurerAs members of the National Federation of the Blind know, I serve as president of the organization and as a member of the board of directors of K-NFB Reading Technology, Inc., an organization created by Ray Kurzweil and his associates and the National Federation of the Blind. Their original purpose was to build a portable reading machine for the blind. The first version appeared in 2006, and the technology is now software that operates on a cell phone.

The K-NFB Reading Technology company subsequently developed an e-book reader which it calls Blio. This is an innovative technology used to find, acquire, and read books in print and audio.

I began hearing about Blio some time ago. Electronic books may well become the primary method for distributing publishable work, so the Blio became for me a matter of fascination. I wanted to know what this new technology would do, how it worked, what books I could read with it, what machines (computers, cell phones, and the like) would let me run the program, how much it would cost, and how soon I could get it. In discussing Blio with K-NFB Reading Technology board members and staff, I learned that what I had suspected about digital books was accurate. In the 1990s we in the National Federation of the Blind had been working on documents produced in PDF (Portable Document Format) or prepared through a publishing program called Quark. Transforming these documents into forms that could be read nonvisually was either difficult or impossible. The print form of the book could be made readable through optical character recognition programs such as those created by Ray Kurzweil, but a simple and easily usable program to give access to these documents didn't exist.

Eventually the programs were modified so that a number of PDF documents today are accessible, but the inaccessible kind still exist. Blio was being created so that books read with this eReader could be viewed visually or presented nonvisually. In designing this technology, a mechanism had to be created that would make it practical to alter books automatically and quickly for presentation. The task of converting inaccessible digital information into accessible form was tremendously demanding.

During its development I was able to experiment with Blio from time to time. Visual presentation of digital books and nonvisual were being constructed simultaneously. Occasionally developments in the visual presentation interfered with the operation of the nonvisual. Occasionally the nonvisual portions appeared to exceed the visual presentation in simplicity and ease of use.

In September of 2010 the company announced the debut of the Blio. Apparently an early release date had been selected for the first public, widespread distribution even though the Blio did not yet work nonvisually, which caused disappointment and substantial negative comment from people in the blind community.

The second public release of Blio occurred on January 31, 2011. Jim Gashel, vice president of K-NFB Reading Technology and a longtime leader of the National Federation of the Blind, now serving as secretary of the corporation, demonstrated Blio at the NFB’s 2011 Washington Seminar. He said that this new reading technology, available without charge, would give the blind access to sixty-three-thousand books for sale, along with a library of free books estimated at three million titles. The number of books offered through the bookstore and the online library increases by about a thousand books every day.

I loaded Blio on my computer and bought a book called The Informant that had been recommended to me by Dan Goldstein, a lawyer often used by the National Federation of the Blind. I also bought a second book, Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James. I had wanted to read this book for some time, and I had not found it in an accessible form on the Internet before installing Blio.

Shortly after the public release of Blio in January, I traveled to New York on a train with Jim Gashel. I recommended a book to him that I had previously found in recorded form on While riding on the train, he looked for the book in the Blio bookstore, and, when he found it, he bought it and began to read. He, a blind person, now has instant access to books.

The original, inaccessible release of Blio caused negative comment and doubt among the blind. However, I am now impressed with the current release, so I thought I would learn what my colleagues thought about it. I have asked Jim Gashel and Anne Taylor, director of access technology for the National Federation of the Blind, for their comments. Much of what follows is what they told me. Jim Gashel describes how to use the Blio in more detail than I could offer. However, when my own experience gives illustrative detail, I have added that.

  Several e-book readers are currently on the market. Amazon makes the Kindle; Barnes and Noble makes the Nook; and Sony offers the eReader. Blio is accessible to the blind, but the others are not. Amazon has made a halfhearted attempt to build accessibility into the Kindle, but, if this is the best that Amazon's engineers can do, they are in need of serious help. Apple has an accessible e-book reader on a number of its products. So far I have been most impressed with Blio.

According to the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 275,232 new books were published in the U.S. in 2008, the most recent information available. A survey of major audio and Braille book producers indicates that only about 16 percent (or an estimated 45,000) new books are made accessible for the blind annually. The remaining 84 percent of books, about 230,000, are not accessible.

How do you find a particular book that might be interesting or useful? If you can find the book, is it available in a format that meets your needs? The books from the library for the blind are generally accessible to blind people, though some blind people cannot read Braille well enough to make this medium useful, and some blind people have sufficiently limited vision that large print titles are of no use. Then too deaf-blind people can easily use only the Braille versions. Even with adequate funding and the best efforts of the professional staff at the libraries for the blind, only a small number of books are available to us. Because the libraries have done such yeoman service, because they have often been the only substantial source of reading matter, and because they respond to our needs and welcome our thoughts, they have been the most vital source of reading matter for the blind for the past eighty years.

Now comes Blio, which brings to one place the processes of finding, browsing, choosing, obtaining, and reading books. All that is required is a personal computer or other device able to work with Blio. More about platforms, present and future, in a moment.

Blio is much more than software; it is software and access to well over three million books and growing each day. Blio can make more books immediately and conveniently available than may be had at even a very large bookstore or public library. Although Blio is still quite new in the emerging e-book industry, its growing popularity and public use as a mainstream e-book reader assure that books are likely to be promptly available. The price for the blind and the sighted is identical. When Blio makes books available for the sighted, they are available for the blind, and the blind have the same content. This is the access standard we have dreamed would come true--same book, same time, same price.

Notice the use of the term "mainstream." In the past all books prepared for the blind were special, hence rare. Manufacturing techniques for books for the blind did not take advantage of mainstream technology. With Blio this has changed.

Once published only in print, a growing number of popular books are now being published in one or more digital formats. In 2010 it is estimated that 10 percent of all books published were produced in electronic editions. This number is expected to grow to 50 percent by as early as 2014. Meanwhile the capacity of personal computers and other portable handheld devices is growing to meet the expected demand.

While the demand for conventional printed books will almost certainly remain, both publishers and book sellers also have strong incentives to go digital. Printing, binding, shipping, and warehousing costs can be saved with digital publishing--not to mention the costs from copies not sold. Digital books, consisting of bits and bytes, can be updated easily and at low cost--saving much of the expense of producing new editions and discarding the old. Digital editions can include direct links to references, resources, and supplemental content.

Enter Blio, an e-book technology designed to be both flexible and accessible--attractive to the sighted and the blind. For readers who want electronic books to look like the printed version, Blio offers a double-page view and a 3-D view, incorporating pictures, graphics, and other visual characteristics such as pages that flip and curve inward at the spine to separate the page on the left from the page on the right. Blio offers large print, very large print, or exceedingly large print. The two-page layout can be changed to show just one.

Blio is mainstream technology designed for everyone to use, and the software itself is absolutely free. Those using JAWS as a screen reader have instant access to every book available with Blio. Blind people who use other screen readers such as Window-Eyes, System Access, and NVDA will soon have the same access. Braille access for users of refreshable Braille displays can also be expected, making it possible for every book to be a Braille book.

Same book, same time, same price--that's been our dream, and the dream is coming true. Bookstores connected with Blio are accessible from the largest urban area to the smallest rural community. Buying a book using Blio is an experience available to everybody, because with this technology being blind is not a limitation.

What about books for free? Coming soon, the local public library will have the opportunity to purchase and offer books for time-limited use with Blio. The free books section, which is part of Blio itself, provides the opportunity to find and read a vast collection of free books, estimated to consist of more than three million, assembled by Google through a partnership with the world's largest academic and research libraries.

Those who need to know more about robotics for a science class project can check out the Blio bookstore. Robotic Micro-assembly by Michael Gauthier and Stephane Regnier, Killer Robots by Armin Krishman, Wired for War by P.W. Singer, or perhaps Gearheads, by Brad Stone are all available. Here are just a few of the books offered in Blio's free books section dealing with the founding of the United States: Readings In American History by David Seville Muzzey, Original Narratives of Early American History by John Franklin Jameson, The Critical Period of American History, 1783-1789, by John Fiske, or Great Debates in American History: Civil Rights, Part 1 or Foreign Relations, Part 2, both by Marion Mills Miller.

Sounds good, you say, but how does Blio work? No problem. Access to Blio is available right now by using a desktop, laptop, notebook, or Netbook, running with Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7. Coming soon Blio is expected to be available on even smaller, more portable devices starting with the iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4, iPod Touch, and the Apple iPad as well. New computers from Toshiba, Dell, and HP are even being sold with the free Blio software installed, along with a convenient desktop icon. Otherwise, to use Blio on your Windows-based computer, just visit and download the software free. The installation options are presented with the standard Windows interface and use standard keyboard commands such as Tab, Shift-Tab, Space, or Enter to complete the process quickly.

After installation you can launch Blio from the icon on your desktop and wait a few seconds as the program opens. A customary software licensing agreement, including options to read, accept, or decline, appears the first time you start Blio. Other options, including read, buy books, account setup, or sign-in are offered on the next screen presented. Note that this second screen, called the welcome screen, also includes an accessibility checkbox so Blio will work optimally with the JAWS screen reader, along with another checkbox telling Blio to bypass the welcome screen and open directly in your library in the future.

Aside from getting started as described, the actual Blio experience begins with your library. This is where the names of books you have chosen will always appear, whether the book was purchased in the Blio bookstore or downloaded from the free books section. While your library is empty the first time you start Blio, a few sample books provided free immediately appear in your library books list as soon as you establish your Blio user account by entering an email address and selecting a password. Billing information needed to purchase books is filled in at the time of your first purchase only and is not required for your user account to be active.

A menu available by pressing the alt key anywhere within Blio provides options to go immediately to any of the major views—library, free books, reading view (provided a book is open), and store view, which shows books available for sale. An application submenu includes options to enter or change account information, change your password, or review and modify other settings like page layout, speaking rate, sources used for reference lookup, etc. All options and controls can be accessed with simple-to-learn keyboard commands, and a list of keystroke shortcuts is available.

The names of all books you can read are listed in your library and can be sorted alphabetically by author or title. The option "press enter to download" will be offered for any book just purchased or chosen from the free books section. Otherwise, the option will change to "press enter to read" once any book has been downloaded to your computer. While the length of time for downloading varies according to the size of the book, an average book of about four-hundred pages takes only a few seconds. Free books take somewhat longer since the text is converted to the Blio format during the download process.

Press Enter on the name of any downloaded book in your library and within a few seconds the name of the book will be spoken by your screen reader as the open book displays on your computer screen. Press Page Down and notice that the page advances forward through the book. Press Insert plus Page Down to hear the page number. Page Up moves page by page toward the front of the book. Press Control plus t to get the table of contents, Down Arrow and Up Arrow to locate the chapters or sections presented, and Enter to jump to the chapter or section you want. Arrow keys have their traditional functions and allow reading by character and word in either direction, adding the Control key to read by word, using the Alt key and the up- or down-arrow keys to read by sentence, and the Control with Up- or Down-Arrow to move and read by paragraph. Use Control plus c to jump forward to the next chapter or Control plus Shift plus c to jump to the previous chapter. Press Control plus j followed by a specific page number and press Enter to go to the beginning of the page chosen. If you use JAWS and press Insert plus Down Arrow, the text will be read continuously from the cursor; it is stopped by pressing the Control key.

Although many books can be read aloud with an internal read-aloud function available within Blio, use of this feature may be restricted by the publisher. However, the speech provided by your screen reader will always work on any book you choose without restriction. Done reading? Just press Alt with the F4 key to close Blio altogether or press Alt followed by Right or Left Arrow to cycle through the options on the menu, including close the book and go back to your library or just go directly back to the library, the free books, or the bookstore, while the book you have been reading still remains open in the background.

Regardless of what you do, you can be certain that Blio will remember your most recent reading position in any book you have opened, and your reading can begin from that point the next time you return. Need to use a different computer? No problem. The books remain in your personal book vault and are always yours to keep. Your books can be used on up to five separate devices at any time. Just run Blio on any other computer you need to use and sign in with your email address and password. Then any book in your personal book vault can be downloaded again because the book belongs to you.

For blind people Blio means having the opportunity to join the mainstream of book consumers with libraries of our own, not to be simply beneficiaries of specialty services. This is the power of the Blio experience, and the power can be yours right now on a computer near you.

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