Future Reflections Convention 1999, Vol. 18 No. 4


Technology Temptations of 1999

by Nancy Coffman

Reprinted from News From Blind Nebraskans, 1999 – Issue 3, the newsletter of the NFB of Nebraska.

Editor’s Note: Nancy Coffman is the President of the Lincoln Chapter of the NFBN, and works with computers at Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired. She is always on the lookout for new technology. Here is her report of the technology she found of interest at the 1999 NFB convention in Atlanta.

This year’s convention was one of the best I have ever been to. The sessions were packed with good information and thought-provoking words of wisdom. The division meetings sometimes sounded like a computer users group with web addresses, e-mail addresses, and information about how people use the technology they have flowing freely.During some years, it seems like most of the technology in the exhibit hall consists of repeat vendors. This was one of those years. All of them had new versions to show. Some had fixed bugs and resolved minor inconveniences. Others had made major upgrades to their software products.


On the scanning front, Arkenstone and Kurzweil continue to dominate the field. Arkenstone has introduced their newest product, Open Book Ruby. This software not only reads what you scan but includes a spell checker. Arkenstone has also added a dictionary to its host of features. You can either use the Arkenstone traditional menus or the Windows menu interface. Some of us (myself included) will find that to be very helpful. A Braille translator called TurboBraille is provided for those who wish to scan and be able to read in hard-copy Braille. This makes it a close competitor to the Kurzweil 1000. Arkenstone also has a feature that allows you to view the document you have scanned in its original format, complete with lines and graphics. During my visit to that booth, I was not able to edit a document in that view, which means that at this time it may not be a fix for the formatting messes scanning makes. I talked to Kurzweil and Arkenstone about this problem and told them that there are many of us who scan forms into the computer where we need to be able to fill them out. TeleSensory’s Reading Advantage is also a viable option. All three of these products are in the same price range. If you want a stand-alone scanning system, the Reading Edge and VERA (Very Easy Reading Appliance) are options to be considered.


On the speech front, it seemed to me that fewer companies were represented this year. Henter-Joyce demonstrated JAWS for Windows and said that a new version will be available to anyone who was entitled to version 3.30.X soon. GW Micro, Alva, and SynthaVoice were also represented. WindowEyes, OutSpoken, and Slimware Window Bridge are good programs as well as JAWS. The main thing missing from WindowEyes, from my understanding, is Braille display support and the ability to write scripts or macros to make it work with programs that don’t speak well. Window Bridge has some macro-making ability and does support a number of Braille displays. Although it is a very powerful program, many have found it somewhat more difficult to learn than the other three programs. Nova is a new program being distributed by HumanWare. Nova provides Braille, speech, and large print access. I noticed that the speech has an English accent. It did seem to read fine in standard applications. It also was not as responsive as other programs. This may be less true when fewer access methods are in use.


Note-taking devices played quite a role in the exhibit hall this year. As well as the Braille ‘n Speak, Type ‘n Speak and Braille Lite, the Aria, Braille Companion, and Keynote Companion were demonstrated. The Aria has a Braille keyboard with several function keys above them. The function keys access the different parts of the system such as the word processor, calendar, and spell checker. I found it to have quite an accent. The companion products have optional screens, which may be helpful for parents, teachers, or others who are working on learning to write Braille. One nice feature of the companion products is that they will not allow you to double-schedule yourself in the schedule manager. The biggest disadvantage to the companion products, from my observation, is that they are quite a bit heavier than similar products. That would not be a major factor if that were all you typically carry with you. The Braille ‘n Speak has the advantage of being one of the lightest note-taking devices. Some of the features of this year’s update make the Braille ‘n Speak, Type ‘n Speak, and Braille Lite easier than ever to use. You can browse your date book without leaving the file you are in. You can also add events to your date book and have it sorted into correct order without ever leaving your current file. The phone book can also be alphabetized automatically and has some new features. The Braille Lite combines these features with a Braille display, and the Braille Lite 40 can be used quite effectively as a Braille Display with JAWS for Windows and other screen reading programs.


Low vision devices saw a year of progress. Many of the closed circuit televisions (CCTV’s) on the exhibit room floor this year had mechanisms for adjusting focus and magnification on the tray table. This made it very easy to change magnification and better focus your work on the fly. The disadvantage, however, is that it is easy to accidentally press buttons with your wrists and not realize it until your print has become difficult to read. Fortunately, these machines also have an automatic focus feature. There were even CCTV units with calculators and organizers attached which ran their displays on the TV screen. I personally would not want my organizer attached to a CCTV where I couldn’t move it and would be forced to remember things until I got back to my office.

I thought the MagniCam provided the best magnification for the price of any hand-held closed circuit television system there. It focused very well on round objects such as food cans and medicine bottles. Some closed circuit magnifying glasses were also displayed. I personally have difficulty reading with them, especially for any length of time, and find the standard closed circuit televisions to be more effective. It depends on a person’s visual condition and ability to focus. My limited focusing ability makes me require something that I can get closer to. Other people enjoy the small size and portability of the glasses. Keep in mind that any low vision device you decide to use will take a lot of hours of practice to become a truly useful tool. I personally like to use something that I can read with and write under. I also like something that allows me to change print size and attributes, including positive or negative image, brightness, contrast, and size. When considering magnification devices, I am always compelled to consider what I am going to use it for and if a less expensive alternative would work for me. Although I like a closed circuit television for some things, I also like the standard 3-lense magnifier that the NFB Materials Center sells for quick and dirty jobs, such as seeing a return address, checking out the headlines and short articles of a newsletter, or checking the due date on a bill.


Enabling Technologies, Sighted Electronics, and Blazie Engineering all carried a variety of Braille embossers. Enabling Technologies has improved their system, which allows Braille and print to be put onto the same page. That was by far the most dynamic change I saw in the Braille production category.


In the arena of Refreshable Braille Displays, the new kid on the block was a laptop with a Braille display built into it, the Braille Xcompact. It was a little bit thicker than a regular laptop and had a tiny screen that displays only a few characters at a time. I also noted that it was quite heavy. The price was not terrible, considering what a Braille display and a laptop cost with a screen reader if you buy everything separately.

The Myna has been vastly upgraded. The Myna is still a palmtop computer but has been upgraded to a Windows 95 system. This is an advantage when hooking to the Internet, communicating with peers, and being caught up technologically. It is a disadvantage as a note-taking device because the time required for the machine to come on is not instant enough to accommodate turning the unit on and off quickly in situations where notes must be taken on the fly.


For those of us who are looking for some lower-tech solutions, the NFB convention always has plenty in store. The Parrot still piques my interest. It is a small device, about the size of a cellular phone without the battery. This unit allows you to use voice input for input and output. It will make calculations, store an appointment, or keep a phone number. Its size and ease of use make it a real alternative for those who don’t want anything as complex as a note-taking device.

Technologies for the Visually Impaired has a product which allows you to scan in bar codes and name them with voice labels. They have seen some success with these products in vending stands, households, and other places where people need to keep an inventory. Labeling medicine bottles was one of the best ways I could see to use it since you could put the directions on as a part of the voice message about that card.

The NFB is now selling a stand-alone scientific calculator. This is a great option for someone who does not have a Braille ‘n Speak or other note taker that can perform the calculations necessary. Keep in mind that the NFB Materials Center has some things that will help you be able to do the things you want to do without spending a fortune to do them. We carry supplies for diabetes control, cooking aids, talking watches and clocks, Braille timepieces, slates, tape recorders, and even books for enjoyment and learning. Call our National Center at (410) 659-9314 between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time, ask for a descriptive order form (available in large print and Braille), and learn about the large variety of low-tech options available for making life easier and more enjoyable.

See you in the exhibit hall next year!



For a list of computer resources, please contact the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind,1800 Johnson Street Baltimore, Maryland 21230; phone: (410) 659-9314. The Computer Resource List is also available from the NFB Web Site: <www.nfb.org>.

For a list of CCTV resources contact Mrs. Maurer, National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230; phone: (410) 659-9314.