Future Reflections Spring/ Summer1989, Vol. 8 No. 2

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by Tim Cranmer

[PICTURE] Dr. Tim Cranmer is internationally recognized for his preeminence in technology for the blind.

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the April, 1988, issue of the Braille Monitor. Four years ago Dr. Kenneth Jernigan (then President of the National Federation of the Blind) initiated a program of research and development by appointing a committee with the responsibility of finding new applications of technologies and influencing emerging technologies aimed at solving problems resulting from blindness. The Research and Development Committee is the result of that decision. Selecting members for the R & D Committee was easy. Federationists had already distinguished themselves in the field of technology through their participation in the Committee for the Evaluation of Technology and the Division of NFB in Computer Science. The present R & D Committee came largely from these training grounds. Our very active committee meets two or three times a year and maintains continual contact by phone between meetings. Our last meeting in February of 1988 at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore was typical.

We studied and examined firsthand the newest tools available to engineers--tools like programmable logic arrays that enable an engineer to design special purpose circuits that meet specific design requirements. These PLA's, as they are called, may contain hundreds of logic gates (and, or --not gates and latches) that can be interconnected and changed at will to build circuits needed in such things as future versions of the Speaqualizer.

Another state-of-the-art technology studied at our meeting is "surface-mounted components," which allows integrated circuits to be mounted onto printed circuit boards without using wire leads. These tiny parts sit directly on copper pads etched on the circuit boards, where they are soldered by heating the entire assembly. The Braille 'n Speak uses surface mount technology to achieve its small size while retaining a large memory and other sophisticated features.

Our Committee experienced firsthand the potentially useful material variously called Nitinal, Biometal, Memory metal, etc. This fascinating material possesses the property of remembering any shape that it is forced to assume. For example, if you bend a piece of nitinal metal into the shape of a print letter S while it is heated a little above room temperature, you can then cool the wire to room temperature and bend it into a complete circle. It will keep its new shape until it is warmed a bit and then it will forcibly snap back into the shape of an S. This is more than a parlor trick. This property of Nitinal is being applied to the design of a full page Braille display that really looks promising.

All of our meetings include exploration of current concepts, tools, and materials that enable us to maintain our position of leadership in the application of science and technology to products useful to all of us.

A committee is an excellent mechanism for exploring questions like what is needed and what are the best methods to achieve a goal. But when it comes time to implement the committee's ideas, you need one person to take charge. Once the project leader is identified, other committee members'direct their input to him or her. That's how we usually work.

In the short life of the committee we have pursued a fair number of projects. Some have been outstanding successes while others must be accepted as learning experiences. Here are samples of both:

The Speaqualizer exemplifies the R & D Committee's design skills. This powerful tool enables blind computer users to read IBM and compatible personal computer screens. The Speaqualizer is discussed elsewhere in this issue of the Monitor. Suffice it to say here that for those entering the IBM personal computer world, the Speaqualizer is the screen reading tool to start with. It will prove to be all you will ever want or need.

It should be noted here that the availability of the Speaqualizer should significantly improve by the time this appears in the Monitor. We have just learned that the American Printing House for the Blind (which we have named as our distributor) is now producing 200 Speaqualizers and plans to stay ahead of future demand.

The R & D Committee continues to improve the NFB synthetic speech. Our "voice" is heard in the PocketBraille machine produced by the Kentucky Department for the Blind and manufactured and sold by Southland Manufacturing Company of Lexington, Kentucky. The committee is currently developing a unique standalone speech synthesizer using the NFB speech algorithm and circuit design. This unit features small size battery or a.c. operation, a nonvolatile user dictionary of pronunciation, and a low price. Negotiations look promising for acquiring synthetic speech in other languages (French, Spanish, and German) for our synthesizer. This product is not now available. It's just one of several things our committee is working on.

Also under developing is the NFB scientific calculator, which could be added to many speech or Braille devices, including the Speaqualizer or the products based on the Kentucky PortaBraillePocketBraille technologies. The Braille 'n Speak is perhaps the best known member of this family. The NFB scientific calculator will be available --we don't know just when or in what form.

The R & D Committee did the work of translating the typesetter codes used to produce the ink print edition of the Random House Concise Dictionary into Grade II Braille. This work was done in cooperation with the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille (NAPUB). The dictionary may be obtained from NAPUB by contacting President Betty Niceley, 3618 Dayton Avenue, Louisville, Kentucky 40207. A talking edition of the dictionary has been prepared for the Apple II Computer. It should be available later this year. A version for MS/DOS is planned.

Did I promise to cite "a learning experience?" It once seemed like a good idea to read a computer screen by moving a "mouse" (not the cat kind but the kind used with computers) on the desk top. As the mouse is moved horizontally across the desk, the computer's cursor moves across the screen and a speech synthesizer reads aloud the contents of the line. Or, by moving the mouse vertically, the synthesizer could be made to speak the contents of columns. We made it work. We fine- tuned it and debugged it and concluded that it was not a good idea after all. We decided to throw no money down the rat hole. As a matter of fact, we learned a great deal from the mouse experiment pertaining to how we blind computer users can relate gross manual movements to spatial relations on visual screens. It sounds like a good subject for a master's thesis in psychology. I'll leave it there.

The National Federation of the Blind is a recognized leader in research for the blind. Scientists and engineers are coming to us in increasing numbers. They ask for our endorsement of their proposals to funding sources. They seek our professional guidance. Most of all they seek our knowledge and skill as technically competent blind men and women.

The Research and Development Committee is composed of the following members: Tim Cranmer, Chairman; Curtis Chong, President of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science and Systems Programming Specialist, IDS Financial Services, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Charles Cook, owner of his own computer consulting company and developer of the NFB Braille translator and the other computer systems at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore; Emerson Foulke, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Perceptual Alternatives Laboratory at the University of Louisville; Mike Freeman, Computer Systems Programmer, Bonneville Power Administration, Vancouver, Washington; Abraham Nemeth, eminent mathematician and inventor of the Nemeth Mathematical Code; Mary Ellen Reihing, Assistant Director, Job Opportunities for the Blind, Baltimore, Maryland; Harold Snider, Director, Access for the Handicapped, Washington, D.C.; Curtis Willoughby, Systems Design Engineer, Northwestern Bell Telephone, Des Moines, Iowa; James Willows, Electronic Engineer, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, Livermore, California.

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