Future Reflections Convention Report 1997, Vol. 16 No. 3


It Isn't All So Technical

by Nancy Coffman

[PICTURE] The NFB Convention exhibit hall is a busy and fascinating place for young and old alike.

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from a recent issue of News From Blind Nebraskans, the newsletter of the NFB of Nebraska. Ms. Coffman describes a mixture of low-tech, high-tech, low-vision, and Braille devices she found interesting as she browsed through the exhibit hall of the 1997 NFB. Here's what she has to say:

Our National Convention always has a wide variety of exhibits. The beauty of the exhibit hall is that there is something for everybody. One of the things people learn when they stroll through it is that sometimes the most modern, high-tech device is not the best solution to a problem, or the best method for performing a given task.

One of the places that a lot of people start is the NFB Store. This store is operated by our Materials Center and carries the simple low-tech stuff that we all need to get along in the world. We carry the neat writing tools that don't require batteries or a plug-in. Most of the goodies we carry don't have cords. We carry those silent watches with hands and no speaker. Those of us who use low-tech Braille watches feel no shame when we check the time twenty times in a boring meeting. After all, we know that everyone else is doing it too. They are probably no more aware of our obsession with what time it is than we are of their clock-watching.

Other booths around the exhibit hall also had relatively low-tech items. Ann Morris Enterprises was there this year with a wide variety of watches, tape recorders, kitchen gadgets, and convenience items. Independent Living Aids also had a variety of low-tech, relatively low-cost items.

Whether we like it or not, however, sometimes high-tech stuff is needed by blind people living in a high-tech world. Our technology needs only vary slightly from those of our sighted peers who use and enjoy the gadgets we long to use and enjoy on an equal basis. The biggest gap between what the technology sighted people use and that which we use is price. Unfortunately, we need extra hardware and software to benefit from the computer technology available to the sighted. Much of the high-tech stuff in the exhibit area was what we need to add-on to our sighted peers' computers. I'll start there.

One of the programs that caught my attention this year was Zoomtext Extra. This program is a large print program with a very basic speech component built in. The speech uses the sound card that comes in most computers. The speech is fairly good. It must be kept in mind that the speech reads what is enlarged. This program is meant for those who prefer large print and want speech as a back-up. It is not meant to be a speech screen reader with large print added. The case is quite the opposite.

Another development that made me happy was from Enabling Technologies. All of their Braille embossers (printers) are now able to do 3 sizes of Braille. Jumbo is available for those who need their letters somewhat bigger, normal size is available, and a small size, commonly used by the Japanese, is also available. Graphics is also available. In order to change the size of the Braille you produce, you simply use a software switch from the keypad on the machine. No bars to flip over and replace.

An intriguing speech feature I saw was available when using IBM Web Explorer with the IBM Screen Reader. I am hoping it will take hold with other screen reading software. The feature changed the voice so that you could tell what would move to another part of the World Wide Web, and what was just text for information. JAWS for Windows is coming out very soon with a software synthesizer that will use the sound card in your computer effectively. It will be interesting to see what the price will be on those packages. The sound they produce is quite good, and we are hoping that they will be an inexpensive alternative to a premium synthesizer such as a DECtalk. JAWS for Windows also was demonstrated with refreshable Braille displays. Window-Eyes by GW Micro, Automatic Screen Access for Windows by MicroTalk, Window Bridge by SynthaVoice and Outspoken for Windows were also shown. They all are competitively priced products with a cadre of loyal users.

In regard to scanning—or Optical Character Recognition— items, Arkenstone, Telesensory, and Kurzweil Educational Systems all had products to show. The Omni 1000 by Kurzweil Education Systems uses a software synthesizer with your computer's sound card. Demo disks were available so people can give it a try with any Hewlett-Packard compatible scanner. Telesensory Systems has a very nice portable unit that does a good job and does not require a separate computer. All of the systems read with reasonable accuracy.

The Thermal Pen was a neat gadget. It is a battery-operated or electric pen that heats at the tip. When used with special paper, it makes a raised line as you write. This might be especially good for teaching people to sign their name, print letters, and draw. I had fun with it. Tactual graphics were a popular feature this year with two or three companies demonstrating ways to produce them.

Dancing Dots was there for the first year. It is a program for translating music into Braille. A MIDI file (a form of computer data file for music performances) is produced and then used to perform the translation. Dancing Dots can sell the program or take music that needs to be translated and translate it.

Low vision aides were abundant this year. Several closed circuit televisions were demonstrated including some portable units. One of the portable units was of particular interest to me. The viewing was done through a lens-size screen over each eye. The print was quite clear, and the camera was hand-held. The screens were mounted on a frame like a visor which went around the head and had a strap in the back. The one limitation I found was that I was unable to get the screens close enough to my eyes to read for significant amounts of time without strain. For those needing transportability, this system might be an option. Standard magnifiers and monoculars were also available.

One of my least popular exhibits was the Talking Signs and the Marco. These devices allow you to hear signs which have transmitters on them sending a message to your infrared receiver. If you are not pointed directly at the sign, you will not get an accurate signal. I used one at Access Midwest and found them to be frustrating and of little use.

Finally, the travel aids were, for me, a convention exhibit bonus. My personal favorite was the Atlas Speaks program by Arkenstone. It is virtually a talking map. One of the things you can do is to tell it where you are within a city and where you want to go. It will then show you the most direct route. It even tells you how far it is. It tells you if there are "T" intersections and streets that cross at odd angles. Strider was also shown at some point although I was not able to attend that demonstration. Strider allows you to know where you are at any given time by satellite.