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]