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Photo of Richard Ring

Richard Ring

The Road Runner(R), A Review

by Richard Ring

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From the Editor: One of the door prizes at this summer's convention was a Road Runner(R). Close readers of the Monitor Miniatures column and those who stay abreast of access technology began drooling the minute the prize was announced. After reading the following review, those who were under the impression that the prize was a little cartoon character who runs along the road saying "Beep beep," can begin being envious of the winner after the fact. Richard Ring is the supervisor of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind at the National Center for the Blind. This is what he says about the Road Runner:

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The International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind is constantly receiving and evaluating new products. One of the more interesting devices we have acquired in the past several months is the Road Runner from Ostrich Software in Danville, California.

Why is the Road Runner interesting? Computers, electronic documents, and the Internet have opened up undreamed-of vistas of information to the blind. With computers at our desktops, laptops with speech or refreshable Braille displays, or electronic note takers like the Braille 'n Speak, we can read anything that can be turned into electronic ASCII text. The Road Runner allows us to read the same kind of information without a computer. However, in two respects it represents a new dimension of reading. First, the Road Runner is the smallest and most compact text-reading device for the blind available today. Second, since the Road Runner serves only one function, reading and speaking electronic text, its price is significantly less than the cheapest electronic note taker, about $349. Compare this to the price of the Braille 'n Speak (approximately $1,300) or a laptop with speech (more than $2,000).

The Road Runner is a hand-held device about the size of an audio cassette. It comes with a built-in speech synthesizer and firmware that allows it to read any ASCII (plain text) file. The unit operates using a twelve-key telephone-style keypad on the front. On the top of the unit are a headphone jack and another plug for a nine-pin serial cable that connects to a computer. On the back of the unit are a belt clip and the battery compartment cover. The unit is powered by two AA batteries, which are included.

When you receive your Road Runner, you also get computer software on diskette (required to transfer files from your computer), headphones, and a custom serial cable. You will also find that the unit is "locked," meaning that none of the keys will function. Although it is a simple matter to unlock the Road Runner (press the one and three keys down simultaneously), the procedure for doing so can be found only in the printed documentation accompanying the unit or on the software diskette. Fortunately, once the Road Runner has been unlocked, you can read the Audio User's Guide (press the two key), which is pre-loaded into memory at the factory.

Other than the Audio User's Guide, any files you wish to read must be downloaded or transferred to the unit from a personal computer, using the software (called Downlink), shipped with Road Runner. If it hasn't become obvious already, in order to use the Road Runner you must be comfortable with a PC running either the MS-DOS or Windows operating system and screen-access technology for either of these environments.

The Downlink software is available in a Windows 95/98/NT version or an MS-DOS version. When using the Microsoft Windows version of the software, the Road Runner can store up to three megabytes of text. Because the MS-DOS version of the software doesn't process files in the same manner as the Windows version, when using the DOS software, only 1.5 megabytes of text can be stored.

What kinds of files might you read using the Road Runner?--Scanned books, electronic mail, software documentation, and text files you might obtain from the Internet.

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Operating the Road Runner

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The Road Runner is controlled using a twelve-key keypad on the front of the unit. The keys are laid out exactly like a touch-tone telephone. The five key is marked with a raised dot to facilitate easy location.

The Road Runner has the ability to move through a text file in a number of ways. While text is being read, you can move through a file one sentence, paragraph, or page at a time. A power-search capability also allows you to move large distances in a text file (more on this later). When the Road Runner is not playing, you can move back and forth a word at a time, and you can also spell the current word. These movement units are referred to as "navigation steps."

Most of the keys on the Road Runner have multiple functions. These functions are executed by holding the keys down for different lengths of time. You can determine what function is being started by listening to the number of beeps. For example, holding the forward (3) key down for a brief time will move you forward in the file one navigation step; holding the same key down until you hear one beep will move you to the next bookmark set in the file; and holding the key down until you hear two beeps will move you to the furthest read position in the file. If you hold any key down until you hear three beeps, you will hear a brief help message pertaining to the use of that key.

The amount of movement achieved within a file when pressing the forward (3) key or the back (1) key is determined by the current navigation step setting. The default is "sentence." Even if you have changed the navigation step to paragraph, page, or power search, when you stop the playing of a file, the navigation step will automatically revert to sentence. This is annoying. It would be better if the user could preserve the navigation step setting permanently rather than having to reset it every time the unit is stopped.

In the Road Runner you can set as many bookmarks in a file as you wish. Do this by pressing the mark key. When this key is depressed, you will hear a beep advising you that a mark has been set at your current position in a file. Deleting a bookmark is simply a matter of navigating to the location of the mark and pressing the mark key. A beep with a different tone from the one heard when placing a bookmark will sound, advising you that the bookmark has now been deleted. Although it is quite easy to set and delete bookmarks, they may often prove unnecessary because the Road Runner automatically remembers your last position in all of the files you are reading.

Finding your place in a given file is one of the more interesting problems to consider when using a device such as the Road Runner. The unit does not feature a traditional typewriter-style keyboard. Accordingly, searching for strings of text within a file is obviously a problem. The power-search feature is one way to get around this problem. Power search allows you to move through a file in large increments. If power search is the selected navigation step, pressing the forward (three) key will move you halfway between your current position and the end of the file. If you press the back (one) key, the Road Runner will move halfway between the current position and the beginning of the file. Subsequent presses of the forward or back key will result in the Road Runner's moving half the distance it moved previously.

For example, if you were positioned at the beginning of the file, and the navigation step was set to "power search," the first press of the forward key would result in a move to a point halfway between the beginning and end of the file. The Road Runner would announce, "50 per cent." The next time you pressed the forward key, you would move approximately 25 per cent further into the file, and the next press of the forward key would move you about 13 per cent. Each press of either the forward key or the back key would result in a file move of half the previous distance. Finally there would be no movement at all, and you would have to begin a new power search. We have found this feature extremely useful for finding a spot in a large file.

Another useful feature of the Road Runner is the ability to obtain status information. Status information consists of the name of the file being read, your current position in that file, the currently active navigation step, and the number of bookmarks that have been set, if any. You can have status information spoken at any time, whether or not you are reading a file. If a file is playing, it will be interrupted long enough for Road Runner to speak the status information.

The Road Runner produces speech using the DoubleTalk synthesizer, which is built into the unit. This is one of the least expensive speech synthesizers that can be connected to a computer. You can change the rate, pitch, and volume of the speech generated. You can also select from one of five voices. Each voice has a name. You get to choose Perfect Paul; Big Bob; Precise Pete; Bif, and, believe it or not, Vader. The bottom row of keys on the keypad (star, zero, and pound) are used to change all voice and system settings. You can change the speed or volume of the voice at any time--whether the unit is playing a file or stopped. Pitch or voice selections must be made when the unit is stopped.

There are other systems settings that are noteworthy. These can be changed only while the unit is stopped. Two levels of punctuation can be set by the user: "Some" and "All." It is not clear from the documentation what symbols will be spoken when the unit is set to some punctuation. You can adjust the sensitivity of Road Runner's keys. This will determine how long a key needs to be held down before its alternative function takes effect. The Road Runner comes with a sleep timer, which can be set in increments from ten to sixty minutes. When the sleep timer is enabled, the unit will automatically shut down if no keys are pressed during the prescribed period of time. This is a useful feature because it prevents the Road Runner from playing indefinitely, thus needlessly draining the batteries and losing your place in the file being read.

The final two system settings are "File Advancement" and "Search Feedback." The file advancement setting has two settings: "Manual" and "Automatic." Assume multiple files are loaded in memory. With the Manual setting in force, the Road Runner will stop upon reaching the end of a file being read. With the Automatic setting in effect, Road Runner proceeds automatically to the next file and continues reading. Finally there is the Search-Feedback setting. This setting determines the kind of feedback you receive when you press the status key. The Road Runner can announce your current position in a file as either a percentage or a page number or can provide no feedback at all.

The Road Runner can keep track of the current time and date. However, until you set the clock--which requires that the Road Runner be connected to your personal computer while running the Downlink software--you will receive the message "Clock not set."

By default the Road Runner has several system folders to assist it in keeping track of files and their current status. The home folder is much like the root directory of a PC. Within the home folder is the read folder, where files that have been read are stored; the marked folder, where files that contain bookmarks are stored; the unread folder, where files you haven't yet read are stored; and the trash folder, where deleted files are stored. You cannot actually delete a file from the Road Runner. When you choose to delete a file, it is simply placed in the trash folder, from which it can be restored. In fact, using the folder and file navigation keys, you can go to the trash folder and read any files that were marked as deleted. Regardless of other folders you choose to create in the Road Runner, any file can always be found in the read, unread, marked, or trash folders.

When you think of what the Road Runner does--that is, read ASCII text files--it is easy to understand why the Downlink software is absolutely essential to its operation. For without that software, it would not be possible to transfer data from the computer to the Road Runner's memory. As we said earlier, Downlink is available in either a Windows or an MS-DOS version. Whichever version you select, you will be happy to know that the software is compatible with screen-access technology for the blind. We found Downlink fairly simple to install and use.

Before running Downlink for the first time, you must connect the Road Runner to your computer with the supplied connector cable. You need to tell Downlink which serial port is connected to the Road Runner. Once the Road Runner is found by the Downlink software, you can set its clock and transfer files.

Whenever you download a new set of files to your Road Runner, all of the previously downloaded data is lost. Therefore the only way to download new files into the Road Runner while keeping your old ones is to transfer both the old and the new files from your computer.

In conclusion, the Road Runner is a device aimed at a specific group, people who use computers, read lots of text files, and want the ability to read them anytime and anywhere. The Road Runner is small enough to fit in a pocket or purse. It provides excellent battery life. We have gotten approximately forty hours of use on one set of AA batteries, which can be found almost anywhere in the world.

As we said earlier, the price is approximately $349. This is by far the least expensive ASCII-text-reading device on the market today. We emphasize, however, that you must have access to a computer in order to put data into the Road Runner's memory.

During the short history of the Road Runner we reported some problems to Ostrich Software and suggested improvements that could be made. All of the problems that we reported have been successfully addressed, and the firmware is constantly being improved. Ostrich Software listens to its customers, and we believe the company is sincerely interested in creating a better product.

If you have access to a computer, read a lot of text files, and want to do so while traveling, the Road Runner can be an excellent tool.

For further information about the Road Runner contact Ostrich Software, 287 Cameo Drive, Danville, California 94526, Phone: (925) 552-0750, E-mail: <sales@ostrichsoftware.com>, World Wide Web: <http://www.ostrichsoftware.com>.

You may also call the International Braille and Technology Center from 12:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., Eastern Time, at (410) 659-9314.

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[PHOTO/CAPTION: Sheila Koenig]

A Teacher's Perspective