November 19, 2017

The Second-Generation iBill®

On September 18, 2012, Orbit Research announced a second-generation version of the iBill® Talking Money Identifier. When the original iBill® was released in late 2009, it was truly a very competitive product. Other currency identifiers were priced over $300, and they were too large–so large, in fact, that they could not fit in your pocket. The original iBill®, on the other hand, was light, small, and priced at $99. Moreover, it could be set to speak, beep, or vibrate; and people who were deaf and blind could use it.

I am not one who automatically accepts the claims made by companies extoling the virtues of their products. I prefer to rely on personal experience or to solicit the informed views of people whose judgment I trust. In the case of the iBill®, Orbit Research claimed that it was able to identify paper currency in less than a second and that it was better than 99.9% accurate. My personal experience has proven this to be true. The iBill® has never misidentified paper currency; the worst thing that happens is that you get a message which says “error,” which means that you should try reading the currency again; and this happens so rarely that I can’t remember the last time it happened to me. For the hundreds of times I have asked the iBill® to read paper currency, it has always come through in less than a second.

Good as the iBill® was back in late 2009, there were two issues that seemed to come up over and over again. First, there were those who thought that the iBill® needed an earphone jack to support private listening to the announcements about currency denominations (this was not a view that I shared). Secondly (confirmed by my own personal experience), while it was very easy to insert newer currency into the reading slot, older paper money would often not slide in quite so easily, making the reading experience more than a little frustrating. Both of these problems have been quite handily solved with the second generation of the iBill®. Moreover, the new iBill® comes with other improvements as well. So, if you buy the second-generation iBill® today, you will notice these improvements:

  • The buttons on the second-generation iBill® are recessed so that they are not pressed inadvertently when it is placed in a purse or pocket.
  • The second-generation iBill® has corners that are more rounded, giving it a more compact feel.
  • The new iBill® has an earphone jack; you can now have your currency read out loud without other people listening (an earphone can be obtained from Orbit Research).
  • A new and improved reading slot makes it easier to insert older currency into the iBill®. You can now use a finger to push older currency further into the slot.
  • The volume has been enhanced so that the iBill® can speak even louder than ever.

The bottom line for me is that even though the price of the new iBill® is $20 more (it is now priced at $119) than the original, it is still well worth the price–that is, if you are looking for a reliable, long-lasting, and durable currency identifier. Smart phone users will be quick to point out that some very good currency identification apps exist for the iPhone and Android smart phones, and they are certainly far less expensive than the iBill®. For those of you who do not want or need a smart phone, the iBill® is there for you–and at an affordable price.

The iBill® can be purchased directly from Orbit Research through its Website: http://www.orbitresearch.com. For more information, contact:
Orbit Research
3422 Old Capitol Trail
Suite 585
Wilmington, Delaware 19808
Phone: 888-606-7248
Email: information@orbitresearch.com
Website: http://www.orbitresearch.com

What has 44 legs, 22 iPhones and 16 cameras?

Soccer player no-vision headgear flashing two thumbs upWhat has 44 legs, 22 iPhones and 16 cameras? A no-vision soccer match. The Pepsi Refresh Project teamed up with Åkestam Holst and Society 46 to create a system using sound and camera technology to allow players to navigate the field and each other, as well as locate the ball and the goal. Using the same Tracab tracking system that was used during the World Cup, information from 16 cameras is converted into a surround-sound landscape and sent to iPhones integrated into headgear on each player. The test match consisted of one team of sighted pro soccer players and one team of visually-impaired amateurs. Similar to beep baseball, every player wore occluders.

This video demonstrates the sounds the players used to navigate. The first sound, a warble, indicates the boundary line. The second sound, something quite like the Jaws theme, indicates proximity to an opposing player. A chiming sound is the ball. A whacking noise, like a drumstick on a rim, is the goal. The sounds increase in intensity and frequency as a player nears each specific item or another player.

There are five videos available at The Sound of Football, though unfortunately, none of them have video description. The first one, The Sound of Football Story, begins with an interview with one of the visually-impaired team members, 23-year-old Daniel Göransson. He speaks in Swedish and subtitles are shown on the screen. The subtitles read, “I lost most of my sight about 4-5 years ago. Before that I played a lot of football, and did pretty much everything that everyone else does. But recently I have not done much sports at all.”  White letters on a black screen read, “We wanted to refresh blind football and help Daniel play again.” Ellen Sundh, Creative Technologist from Society 46, talks about the concept and how it came about while a montage shows Daniel and other players getting fitted with gear, computer screens with many lines of code, a technician setting up cameras, Daniel dribbling a soccer ball back and forth between his feet, and the sighted players passing a ball back forth amongst themselves. White letters on a black screen proclaim “Match Day.” Another short montage shows more camera preparation, connections being checked, players being outfitted and then finally, a player in a red jersey is given a final check and gives the camera a big smile and two thumbs up. A graphic shows a three-dimensional representation of how the system is supposed to work and then the teams are coming out onto the field.

The teams line up for the anthem and then take their places. Momentarily, red targets are shown under each player’s feet. All the players wear headsets with vision occluders and headphones. The pro team wears red, the amateurs wear blue. The whistle is blown and we have kick off.  A redshirt searches for the ball and Daniel gets it and takes a shot, which is fielded. The red team shoots and misses. Daniel has the ball again and there is some physical contact as his team mates run interference. Daniel shoots and again the ball is fielded. The goalie pitches the ball back into play, Daniel and another blue player collide. Red team takes a shot and scores! The red team huddle up and bounce with joy. Now the blue team takes back control, moving the ball back down the field. Daniel takes a shot and it is fielded. He takes another shot, it bounces off the side of the goal, comes down right in the middle and Daniel comes in with a beautiful knee-sliding, leg-sweeping shot and powers the ball in past the keeper. GOOOOAAAALLL!!! A slow motion replay shows Daniel’s goal again.

The match ends in a one to one tie and a nice photo of both teams posed with the ref. Daniel is in front, holding up an iPhone. Daniel is interviewed again and he says, “With these sounds, it felt a bit like science fiction, actually.”

Per Fahlström, former professional goalkeeper, says, “It was fun, but very hard being a goalie without seeing. You simply have to trust other senses. Something one is not used to–listening.”

Daniel is shown reenacting his goal and he says, “It was fun-bloody-tastic! I will remember this for a long time. That’s for sure.”

The Pepsi Refresh Project is responsible for the funding of Sound of Football. In a quote from their follow up site, they make this claim: “In the future, we want to create new aides that enable visually impaired people to “see” with sound. We have thought about skiing, athletics or creating soundscapes in public places.”

Ellen Sundh of Society 46 said, “I think in the future this technology can be used in other arenas than in sports arenas, as people who can’t see can actually get information about the environment around them.”

CDC Accessible Zombie Preparedness Manual

If you’ve been hanging around here at Blindgadget for any length of time, you might get the idea that we like comics. And you would be right. We love comics and so, apparently, does the National Center for Disease Control. In a rather brilliant move, the CDC has published an accessible graphic novella that illustrates the importance of emergency preparedness. Because you never know when you might find a zombie at your door (especially at this time of year!).

The graphic novella, Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic is available for download in either graphical PDF  or accessible text PDF. And it’s free! The art is well done, setting a suitably eerie tone and the accessible text is nicely descriptive without unnecessary details. The story centers on a young couple and their dog settling in for a nice, normal night at home. Little do they know they have entered…the CDC Zone.

Zombies, Zombie Apocalypse, and Zombie Preparedness are all part of the CDC’s tongue in cheek campaign to engage new audiences with preparedness messages. CDC director, Dr. Ali Khan, notes, “If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse, you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake, or terrorist attack.” While we at Blindgadget have yet to see a hurricane or an earthquake that can be quelled with a shotgun, we are willing to accept the general validity of the metaphor.

On a fright scale of one to ten, with one being “I heard a noise in the basement” and ten being an ice cold hand gripping your ankle as you get out of bed, Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic gets a solid five from Blindgadget.

Source: CDC website

Stevie Wonder Remembers Positive Impact Steve Jobs Had on Our Lives

Stevie Wonder had plenty of praise recently for Jobs and Apple. During a recent stage appearance,  Stevie Wonder stopped for a moment to call attention the accessibility breakthroughs they have made available. “His company took the challenge in making his technology accessible to everyone,” Wonder said. “In the spirit of caring and moving the world forward: Steve Jobs. Because there’s nothing on the iPhone or the iPad that you can do that I can’t do. As a matter of fact, I can be talking to you, you can be looking at me, and I can be doing whatever I need to do and you don’t even know what I’m doing. Yeah!”

In a later interview with the Los Angeles Times, Stevie Wonder expounded on the subject of accessibility and Steve Jobs’ contributions.

“The one thing people aren’t talking about is how he has made his technology accessible to the blind and the deaf and people who are quadriplegics and paraplegics,” Wonder said.  “He has affected not just my world, but the world of millions of people who without that technology would not be able to discover the world.”

Wonder asked his recording engineer, Femi Jiya, to talk specifically about how the various Apple products Jobs introduced over the last few decades had revolutionized the recording process.

“Because of what Apple has done with their technology, everything we’re using in the high-end recording situation is now accessible to everybody,” Jiya said. “A lot of that is through Steve Jobs and his love of music, and him wanting to get that technology to everybody at a reasonable cost.

“He developed Garage Band [recording and music editing software], so now a 15-year-old kid can be in his bedroom with his iPad playing around with Garage Band and come up with unbelievable ideas, which can then be taken to the next level… He has leveled the playing field; nobody else had done that.”

Wonder came back to add, “His company was the first to come up with technology that made it accessible without screaming out loud, ‘This is for the blind, this is for the deaf.’ He made it part of the actual unit itself; there were applications inside the technology that allowed you to use it or not use it. The iPhone, iPad touch, iPod touch, all these things, even now the computer, are accessible to those who are with a physical disability.

“In another sense, he has given the blind eyes to see the world, the deaf ears to hear the world,” Wonder continued. “I had wanted to meet him for a long time, and I’m just happy that before he passed away, I was able to meet him and say to him, ‘Look, you’ve changed the lives of millions and millions of people you may never ever meet. Truly you’ve been a blessing for those of us who’ve needed that kind of technology to do more things, to be part of this world, to be in this millennium.’

“I’m just hoping that his life and what he did in his life will encourage those who are living still and those who will be born, that it will encourage them and challenge them to do what he has done,” Wonder said, “and not making the whole concept so complicated that people can’t use it — you just make it one of your applications, it’s in your technology. That will then create a world that will be accessible to anyone with any physical disability, and anyone can buy it, even if that person doesn’t have lots of money.”

 

Source: Los Angeles Times NBC Bay Area

Jaws 13 Convenient OCR Hands-On

Freedom Scientific has released the public beta of version 13 of their popular Jaws screen reader into the wild. The 32 bit and 64 bit versions are now available for download at the Jaws HQ site. We had no problem installing the 32 bit version on our old Windows test system and we were up and running in no time without a hitch.

As we wrote last week, the most ground breaking new feature of Jaws 13 is “Convenient OCR”. Convenient OCR provides a simple means to read text on the screen contained in graphical images. It has not been possible to accomplish this feat using any other screen reader before Jaws 13. We believe that Convenient OCR represents a significant advancement in screen reader technology and it will quickly become an indispensable daily productivity tool.

We tested Convenient OCR on two of the most annoying accessibility problems we regularly encounter. The first is an HP printer driver installation program with unlabeled buttons and other inaccessible text. Although it is sometimes fun to just start clicking on stuff to see what will happen, it is unacceptable that common system programs like this are still inaccessible when a simple fix would make them available to everyone. Using Convenient OCR, we were able to easily read the screen text and, for the first time, click on the buttons with confidence.

The other problem we often encounter is PDF files we get from professors and other sources that contain scanned images of text. These images are not readable by the screen reader which reports them as blank pages. (Sometimes it seems as though the screen reader has a little bit too much attitude about this.) While we can always save the PDF and convert it with a stand alone OCR package, what we really want is for the screen reader to read it. We are pleased to report that Convenient OCR does it, and does it well.

We have also been told that Convenient OCR can be used to overcome the shortcomings of Narrator when installing the new Windows 8 beta. It can read buttons and text which would otherwise require sighted assistance. Even though it is essential that Microsoft correct these problems and make Windows 8 accessible, it is good to report that the new Convenient OCR feature of Jaws 13 got the job done.

Finally, we do not want to leave the impression that we think Convenient OCR is perfect and Freedom Scientific got it one hundred percent right the first time. The ability to virtualize the text generated by Convenient OCR into the results viewer so it can be cut and pasted into other documents or read using regular navigation commands is a glaring omission. Freedom Scientific has said that they could not get this feature ready in time for the release. We think the omission probably goes more to protecting sales of their Open Book product, since virtualizing text is at the core of the Jaws system functionality. We hope Freedom Scientific will see the light and provide this functionality right away.

Heathkit is Bringing Back the Magic

Heathkit SB100, front viewHeathkit has announced they will be getting back into the electronic kit business. The Heathkit Educational Systems was famous for opening the door to the magic world of electronics for countless hobbyists through their broad line of electronic kits. They are best known for their ham radio kits–many still in use today. Heathkit also sold kits for televisions, hi-fi audio, and a variety of kits for building test equipment and other gadgets. You could even get the EC-1 Computer kit long before PCs hit the market.

The thought of Heathkit brings back a lot of good memories for many of us gadgeteers. There was one family in our neighborhood that held out on buying a television because the parents believed it would corrupt the minds of their children. Even though they were clearly right about that, one day an incredible thing happened. The dad came home with a TV kit from the Heathkit store. The kit was amazing. It unlocked the secrets of television into what seemed like millions of little parts and multiple volumes of documentation. It took several months for him to assemble the kit and the anticipation was high when the switch was finally thrown. The set flickered on! (Although it worked perfectly, the set never found a home in their living room and is probably still on that workbench.)

Heathkits were not at all accessible, but that did not stop us from poring over the catalogs with our sighted friends and riding the bus across town to have a look at the latest electronic wonder. The first new kits Heathkit will be releasing this year are the Parking Garage Attendant and the Wireless Swimming Pool Monitor. They are also planning to have a ham radio kit available by the end of the year. We will get back to you with a full accessibility and gadgeteer worthiness report.

Source: Heathkit Educational Systems

Jaws 13 Will Include Integrated OCR

Freedom Scientific announced that version 13 of the popular Jaws screen reader will be available as a public beta next week. According to Eric Damery of Freedom Scientific, anyone will be able to download and install the beta during this period. A response form will be provided on the Jaws HQ web site for reporting bugs and other problems. The official release is expected in late October or early November.

The most exciting new feature in Jaws 13 is built-in OCR (optical character recognition). This feature, called convenient OCR, is designed to read text contained in graphical images not normally readable by Jaws. It will help solve the common problem encountered when the bank or utility company presents account information online in graphical form. The text hidden in the image can be read using regular Jaws navigation commands. Convenient OCR will also read those annoying PDF files that contain scanned images instead of text.

Jaws 13 will include a number of other useful enhancements including simplified commands for reading tables and a redesigned user configuration facility called quick settings. There is also expanded Aria support for Internet Explorer 9 and Firefox. Another very nice addition to the Internet Explorer support is web site specific search history. Search keywords previously entered for a particular web site can be quickly retrieved and recycled in new searches.

We are looking forward to the new features and performance enhancements coming in Jaws 13 and we think that Convenient OCR is a giant step forward in screen reader functionality. It is important to note that although Convenient OCR provides groundbreaking support for reading text contained in graphical images, it will not allow the text to be copied or saved. Freedom Scientific stated that they could not get this feature ready in time for the release. It seems to us, as outside observers, that it would be just as easy to display the translated text in the new results viewer as it is to output it to the voice synthesizer. It is our hope that Freedom Scientific will be able to include this functionality in the future.

Source: FSCast Episode 58

Build Your Own Sonar Navigation System

DIY-Tacit-Haptic-GloveThere has been a lot of buzz about the Tacit Project, A.K.A. “Sonar for the Blind,”  recently.  According to the inventor, Steve Hoefer, Tacit is the shorter and less descriptive name he has given his design for the “Hand Mounted Haptic Feedback Sonar Obstacle Avoidance Asstance Device”.  In brief, what Tacit does is measure the distance to objects and then translate that measurement into pressure on the user’s wrist.  The pressure increases as the distance decreases. Hoefer says that the device is very fast and accurate from just about one inch to ten feet.

Hoefer designed Tacit to help visually impaired persons navigate complex environments.  Some of the original designs were headband-based, but were scrapped for three very good reasons:

  1.  The most dangerous obstacles are not at head level. Furniture and most of the other things that can be tripped over and stubbed on are waist level or lower.
  2.  Vibrating motors stuck on your skull will drive you insane quickly.
  3. You would also look like a crazy person.

While we are not ready to jump on the “throw away your cane and leave your guide dog at home” bandwagon, we were hooked by the do-it-yourself aspect of this project. Tacit consists of two small Parallax Ping Ultrasonic sensors connected through a controller to two padded servo motors. The electronics are mounted on a custom neoprene wrist strap and powered by a 9-volt battery. The parts list, schematics, and source code are freely available and the whole project can be built for about $65 under the Creative Commons license. This may just be enough to get us to dust off our old soldering iron and talking multi-meter (yes, we really have one. Don’t you?) and get started. We probably need to clear away the Lego Mindstorm NXT robot debris from the workbench first.

What kinds of home brew projects have you been building in your basement?

Blind Physician Develops Audio System for Describing Protein Molecules

Computer screen with green "spider web" globe, red and white dots depicting protein moleculeThere’s a new molecular modeling system in town. TIMMol’s the name and modeling atomic coordinates of protein structures with sound is the game. Developed by Dr. Tim Cordes (M.D., Ph.D.) as a method to allow himself to study the structure of protein atoms, TIMMol (Tonal Interface to MacroMolecules) uses the notes of a MIDI keyboard to aurally sculpt graphs.

Blind since sixteen due to Leber’s, a degenerative disease of the retina, Cordes earned his medical doctorate by the time he was twenty-eight. He immediately began working on a Ph.D. based in biomolecular chemistry and the makeup of proteins. One of the difficulties he wrestled with during his studies was interpreting the data he needed to study biochemistry. Most of the traditional methods involved two-dimensional pictures, not the most accessible medium for the visually impaired. To help decipher the information imparted by the X-ray crystallography, he wrote short scripts, laboriously detailing how the atoms were positioned, then using the scripts to control graphical presentations for his lab mates.

This process, while certainly better than nothing, was extremely slow and frustrating. After hearing of a system that turns the two-dimensional line graphs of infrared spectra into audible tones, Cordes decided to play to his strengths, used a MIDI keyboard to model a graph in three-dimensions. He assigned tonal balance to indicate left or right position along the x-axis, pitch to indicate up or down motion on the y-axis, and changes in volume to indicate depth on the z-axis.

Testing has shown that TIMMol is accessible to both sighted and visually impaired users, though those who have had less exposure to the traditional method tend to adapt to TIMMol more readily. TIMMol also gives an alternative to those who simply have difficulty interpreting a three-dimensional concept from a two-dimensional graphic. Students who are not necessarily blind but are not naturally visual learners are given an opportunity to use other strengths, such as aural or musical abilities.

TIMMol doesn’t cut out the visual learner either. Cordes wanted to be able to show what he was listening to, so he teamed up with a fellow grad student in biochemistry, Britt Carlson, and together they whipped up a graphical display that is described as a “webbed sphere.” The graphical display has the ability to zoom in and to rotate to allow different viewing angles.

With guide dog Bella leading the way, Tim Cordes talks with physician Michael Peterson, left, and medical student Dhaval Desai, behind, as they do a morning round of patient consultations at UW Hospital.

Michael Peterson, Dhaval Desai, Tim Cordes, Bella

Cordes says, “Because the source code can be easily modified, the framework of TIMMol could be used to convert almost any three-dimensional data into sound. Uses for this system could range from helping blind people learn the layout of a multilevel airport to letting them inspect MRI scans. Beyond that, TIMMol shows that, when given the chance, a person can meet a challenge by mobilizing tools from his or her life experience. The solution may come in a surprising form, one that can be shared for the benefit of others.”

Dr. Cordes completed his M.D. in 2004 from the Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. He completed his Ph.D in 2007 and is now a psychiatric physician at the University of Wisconsin.

 

 

Vocalyze Text-to-Speech Gets Your News and Twitter Feeds Talking

Vocalyze logo-Gray parrot with orange beak and face on orange backgroundVocalyze is a mobile audio news and entertainment service that turns news, tweets, and other web content into a real-time podcast stream using high quality text-to-speech. Vocalyze can read news from a wide range of sources including blogs, news, weather, and other information sites and even read tweets from any twitter user. It is easy to create a custom audio program featuring the news from or about the people, companies, newspapers, teams, or magazines you care about most.

Instead of actively reading content with a screen reader, Vocalyze streams audio of news stories, tweets, or other text posted online in a continuous, customizable app, like a personal news radio station. No synchronization or downloading is required. “Vocalyze helps people to be more productive,” says Frank Qiu, Vocalyze Media CEO. “During our beta period we have seen the average user spend 37 minutes per visit listening to content they wouldn’t otherwise have read or known about.”

Vocalyze reads your selected content aloud using text-to-speech voices that will be familiar to most screen reader users. You can listen on the web or via free iPhone, iPad, or Android apps. The iPhone and iPad apps are completely accessible using VoiceOver. All of the buttons and controls which operate the app are properly voiced. The Android app is also accessible depending on your specific configuration. Although both apps lack the speed and navigational controls that most screen reader users are accustomed to, the ability to stream content from a wide variety of sources is well worth the free download.

Vocalyze also provides a plug-in which can be used to bring streaming audio text-to-speech to WordPress and other web sites. You can give this a try on BlindGadget.com by clicking on the “Listen to BlindGadget” link at the top of the page. Give Vocalyze a try, then leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Portable OCR: Will the iPhone 5 Save the day?

iPhone screen with large numeral 5 and Apple logoThe KNFB reader, developed by the National Federation of the Blind and Kurzweil Technologies, Inc., is the first truly portable OCR device. It can easily snap a picture of a page of text and read it aloud. The KNFB reader runs on a Nokia N86 Symbian-based phone and, when combined with a screen reader, provides a complete package for portable OCR and communication applications. It can be used to read just about anything: a utility bill, magazine article, library book, and even labels at the grocery store.

So, the KNFB reader is very portable, the character recognition is excellent, and it can also be used as a cell phone, what could be wrong with that? Not much really, except that the whole package sells for about $1800, including the KNFB software, n86 phone, and screen reader. The other catch is that many blind and visually impaired people have moved on from Nokia because of the lack of built-in accessibility in favor of the Apple iPhone, which includes a screen reader at no extra charge.

The iPhone also makes sense given the uncertain future of the Symbian platform. Nokia has laid off nearly all of their Symbian development team and contracted with Microsoft to ship Windows Mobile 7 on their products. While Windows Mobile 6 was very accessible, in a giant step backward, Windows Mobile 7 does not provide for accessibility. The choice for an accessible mobile platform for communication and applications such as OCR comes down to companies such as Microsoft, Nokia, and Google Android, who provide little or no built-in accessibility, or Apple, which includes accessibility in every product as a matter of company policy.

What about the KNFB Reader? It is still the best and most accurate OCR application available for blind and visually impaired users. It is much better than even the best OCR applications currently running on the iPhone. Surprisingly, Kurzweil Technology has said they have no plans to release a version for the iPhone.

There are, however, several good OCR applications available for the iPhone today. The best of these is probably Prizmo which sells for $10 in the iTunes store. Aroga Technologies has posted an excellent review that compares Prizmo with the KNFB Reader. While Prizmo performs well, it does not stand up to the KNFB Reader, which reads a selection of documents with little or no errors. The reviewer believes that the problem is not the application but rather the limited resolution of the current generation of iPhones and that a higher resolution camera on the upcoming iPhone 5 could
provide a proper solution for a low cost portable OCR reader.

 

VizWhiz–Take a Picture, Speak a Question, and Get an Answer

Question: What color is this pillow? First Answer: Can't tell. Second Answer: Multiple shades of soft green, blue and gold.If ever a wiz there was, the VizWhiz is.

VizWiz is an iPhone app that allows blind users to receive quick answers to questions about their surroundings. VizWiz combines automatic image processing, anonymous web workers, and members of the user’s social network in order to collect fast and accurate answers to their questions. In their words–Take a Picture, Speak a Question, and Get an Answer.

VizWiz Social was developed by the Human Computer Interaction group at the University of Rochester and is available as a free iPhone app. It allows blind users to receive quick answers to questions about their surroundings. A user takes a picture and records a question on their mobile phone, then sends their question to anonymous workers, object recognition software, Twitter, or an email contact. Once an answer is received from any of those services, it is sent back to the users’ phone. Each answering service provides a unique benefit, and would be appropriate for different types of questions.

On an old episode of the Blind Kiss podcast (still, by far our favorite podcast of all time), Damon Rose declared that his life would be much simpler if he just knew what color things were when trying to describe them. He related trying to get his father to bring him a bottle of shampoo from another room. He went through every permutation of the size and shape of the bottle until, finally, after several mistaken attempts, his father brought the correct bottle, saying, “There you go. It’s the red one.” Rose was quite exasperated by how much time and vexation could have been spared if he could have just said, “Bring me the red one.” Unfortunately, Viz Whiz probably couldn’t have helped him much in that moment, because he was actually in the shower, but now he can find out the color of his favorite shampoos for any such future situations.

VizWhiz logoYou can read a lot more about VizWiz and other ways accessible smart phones have made life better for all of us in an excellent article written by Damon Rose at BBC News-Technology. How have smart phones changed your life? Only for the better we hope. Please leave a comment and let us know about your smart phone adventures and discoveries.

Braille Gifts for the Blind Gadgeteer

Red t-shirt background studded with Braille dots spelling "Out of Sight"Brailletshirts.com has touchable t-shirts. In fact, that’s the best way to read them. Using genuine Austrian crystals or metallic studs, each Braille dot is placed by hand, then heatset onto the item so there is no irritating attachment point on the inside. To quote the site, these tees are “Quirky, different, tactile and a little bit sensual.”

The owner of Brailletshirts.com, Alice Woodside Lynch, became intrigued when she saw a Braille message in an issue of “Daredevil” (I know, it’s like a theme or something!). She became even more interested when, a short time later, she was diagnosed with macular degeneration and has since gone on to study Braille textbook transcribing.

Her training enables Lynch to use Grade 2 Braille on the t-shirts, though Grade 1 is available if you prefer. The shirts come in black, red or blue, and several styles—short sleeve, long sleeve, zip hoodie, and fleece–and there are nine different crystal colors to choose from.

The shirts can say anything you want, though an especially long phrase may cost a little extra. Here are a few of the suggested messages:

  • “2 hot 2 handle”
  • “sexy” (apparently a great looking word in Braille)
  • “cuddle”
  •  “touch me”
  • “hands off!”
  • “time to get tactile”
  •  “Brailliant!”
  • “Braille readers are leaders”
  • “If you can read this, you are too close”
  • “Differently visioned”
  • “Can you see me now?”

One design is a Braille version of the famous “I heart NY” with the heart outlined in red metal studs, but you can substitute any direct object your own little heart desires.

Brailletshirts.com also has Braille totebags and Braille jewelry. The totes are 12″ by 15″ natural cotton with a Braille manuscript-sized pocket on the front and red or navy trim on the handles and edges.  The Braille phrase of your choice is placed on the front on the pocket or on the back. The pouches are 6″ by 9″, “suitable for cosmetics, travel items, or as a tote for a notecard size slate and stylus.”  The attractive  jewelry–necklaces, earrings, and keyrings–is designed around brass or copper discs embossed with up to six cells of your choice of letter.

Give us a heads up on any cool, fun items you’ve come across in your internet travels. The gift giving season is looming.

RFID Technology Makes Navigation More Accessible

Man with guide dog, using RFID technologyOne of our special interests is the use of technologies such as RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and NFC (near field communication) in the area of disability. The wide availability of accessible smart phones and the relative low cost of developing applications for them opens the door to many possibilities. A story written by Alena Roberts and recently published in the Matilda Ziegler Magazine describes the Talking Tags RFID Wayfinding project of Guide Dogs for the Blind of the UK that uses RFID technology to aid both indoor and outdoor navigation. Here is the original story reprinted here with permission:

 Using RFID Technology to Make Indoor and Outdoor Navigation Accessible

by Alena Roberts

Navigating to new locations has become progressively more accessible for the blind in recent years. In fact, last year I did a whole series on low cost accessible GPS options. Unfortunately, as awesome as GPS is, it’s limited primarily to the outdoors. So what this means is that we can now get to our destination’s front door, but we may not know how to get to where we need to be once we’re inside. Thanks though to a new partnership between Guide Dogs in the UK and the University of Redding, this problem may also soon be solved. The Talking Tags Way Finding Project is using RFID technology to overcome the limitations of GPS.

So how does the system work? The system comprises of three components: RFID tags, a handheld receiver, and a database of prerecorded messages for each tag. The tags themselves are usually as small as a credit card, so they can be put essentially everywhere. RFID also doesn’t require the user to find the tag, but simply to be near enough for the receiver to find it. Once the receiver finds the tag, the message is spoken. It’s that simple.

RFID technology has been used for years in industrial shipping applications and warehouse inventory to track products because it’s a simple system that doesn’t take up much space or carry a high cost. By using the technology for indoor navigation, this would be great for all kinds of situations including malls or other buildings that have multiple stores or offices. It could also be used at bus stops and even intersections to let the user know where they are. All of this can be accomplished very easily without the addition of any large equipment.

Here are some of the features of the Talking Way Finding system.
- The Talking Tag can either be temporary or permanently placed
- The tags can be used indoors or outdoors
- Different languages can be used
- Low cost of installation, running, and maintenance
- The handheld receiver is light weight and will last all day
- A Smart Phone app could be created to avoid the need of a special receiver

The system is still in prototype stage, but it’s Guide Dogs’ hope that the system will be available for use in 2012 or 2013. Visit the Talking Tags project site to learn more about the project.

Marvel Comics Makes New Daredevil Title into Free Audiobook

Daredevil swings across an audio-detailed cityscapeMarvel Comics has released a free audio Daredevil comic. Daredevil, a red-costumed crime fighter, is also Matt Murdoch, mild-mannered blind lawyer with secret super senses. Blinded as a youth, ironically while saving a blind man from an on-coming truck carrying radioactive material, young Matt’s other four senses develop to extraordinary levels. These senses enable Matt to become the superhero Daredevil, the Man Without Fear. Using his super hearing as a kind of echolocation, Daredevil swings across the canyons of New York City, battling such supervillains as Kingpin, Bullseye and the Owl with his trusty billy club and ninja skills.

Daredevil #1 Audio Edition is not the first audio comic book. Superman Lives!  has been around since 2005.  Batman–The Complete Nightfall Series appears even earlier, circa 1994. However, this seems to be the first time Daredevil has shown up in audio format (though the movie, Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, does have audio description).

According to an Associated Press release, senior Editor Stephen Wacker said that the audio version of Daredevil # 1 came about after he and series writer Mark Waid thought the Matt Murdock/Daredevil character might appeal to visually impaired fans.  Wacker relates that he has “received several letters since editing the character. Many spoke of being visually impaired or sharing the character with friends who were.” Wacker was thus inspired to present the first issue of the reset title as an audiobook.

Full panel descriptions are provided directly from Daredevil writer Mark Waid’s script, the same descriptions that the artists use to inspire their drawings. We gave a listen to the audio sample and, after a slightly awkward introduction, it has all the earmarks of an enjoyable read. The descriptions are clear and well-detailed without being overblown, making the action  easy to visualize, and the voices used, while not professional actors, are well done.  The cover has the innovative detail of a red-costumed Daredevil, swinging via billy club across a aurally-depicted grayscale cityscape. All the buildings and even the birds flying by are made from the words their sounds make. For instance, the birds’ outlines are filled with the word “flap” repeated over and over.

While this seems to be Marvel Comics first foray into the world of audiobooks (a summary internet search did not turn up any other available Marvel titles), as huge fans in our own right (Spiderman rules!), we hope they will be inspired to make many more.

Olympus DM-620 Still Accessible After All These Years

Silver Olympus DM-620About a month ago, I purchased the Olympus DM-620 digital voice recorder in my ongoing quest to acquire the latest and greatest in nonvisually-accessible digital recorders.  The Olympus DM-620 digital recorder is the latest in a line of Olympus digital recorders with voice guidance that makes most of the recorder’s settings and features nonvisually accessible.  Other Olympus models that can be purchased with voice guidance are the Olympus DM-420, DM-520, DM-2, and DM-4.

With the voice guided prompts, most of the recorder’s features are nonvisually accessible.  It is still not possible to set the date and time without sighted help, and information about how much memory and/or recording time you have available is still not spoken, but the important settings can be adjusted with the help of voice guided prompts.

I needed a little bit of sighted help to install the batteries and to identify some of the buttons.  However, after only a few minutes, I was able to operate the DM-620 and change settings on my own.

Pressing the Menu buttons starts the voice guidance which allows many recorder settings to be changed.  The first thing that you will probably want to change is the speed of the voice prompts which, by default, are set to speak fairly slowly.  Another setting that you might want to change is the format of the recording files.  I prefer to use the MP3 format at 128KBPS.

The Olympus DM-620 provides five folders that can be used to hold audio recordings.  They are labeled “Folder A,” “Folder B,” and so on.  Each folder can hold up to 200 files (i.e., recordings).

I have found with some digital recorders that it is often a bit tricky to know which folder you are using.  What I have done to overcome this problem is to record an audio file in each of the five folders stating the name of the folder.  For example, in Folder A, I record a file which says “Folder A”.  Then, I lock the file so that it cannot be erased accidentally.  Files can be easily locked and unlocked through the menus, and all of this is accessible with voice guided prompts.

There is an electronic version of the User’s Guide for the Olympus DM-620, available as a PDF document: DM-620 Detailed Instructions (English). While much of this is readable with screen access technology, the file is formatted for visual presentation, and some of the information consists of unlabeled graphics.  Nevertheless, I found that, with some effort, some useful information can be extracted from the PDF document.

All of the Olympus digital recorders I have used over the years have the ability to pause during recording and playback.  This means that you can stop the recorder at any time to avoid recording any unwanted information or pause while listening to long recordings.  Unfortunately, there seems to be no ability that I am aware of in the Olympus digital recorders with voice guidance to insert or add to recordings after they have been stopped.

All in all, I believe that the Olympus DM-620 is a very useful digital recorder, and it is reasonably accessible to the nonvisual user.

I was able to purchase this recorder on Amazon.com for about $126. (Currently listed on Amazon.com at $119.)

Contributed by Curtis Chong of Technology for the Blind

 

PLEXTALK PTP1 DAISY Book Reader Puts Everything in Your Pocket

Photo of a white and a black PLEXTALKThe PLEXTALK Pocket PTP1 is smaller than most cell phones, yet it is packed with powerful potential—everything you would want in a digital book reader, plus a few great features you may not have known were possible. It supports all of the popular book formats, including NLS/BARD, Book Share, Learning Ally, and Audible. It has integrated support for Microsoft Word files, encoded Braille, HTML, and plain text using the built-in speech synthesizer. The big difference between the PLEXTALK Pocket and other digital book readers and music players is its compact size (approximately four by two inches, or ten by five centimeters), outstanding recording capability, and built in wireless network access features.

Before we look at the amazing new wireless features, let’s examine the unique recording and playback capabilities. The PLEXTALK Pocket will play back audio in MP3, WAV, WMA, OGG, and AMR WB+ formats. It is easy to navigate through the files using the keypad and arrow keys and enhanced navigation support is provided for DAISY titles. You can also set bookmarks and optionally record annotations and it will remember your last reading position for up to one thousand books.

The quality of recordings made with the PLEXTALK Pocket is some of the best we have heard. There are two recording modes. The long format, or main recording mode, using the internal microphone, an external microphone, or a line-in from another device, saves recordings to the SD card. This mode is suitable for recording lectures or other live events.

The short format is for recording “voice memos.”  These recordings can be up to one minute long and are stored in MP3 32 kbps mono format. Since they are stored in the PLEXTALK Pocket’s internal memory, voice memos remain with the PLEXTALK Pocket even if you change SD cards. There is enough internal memory to hold about thirty minutes of recorded memos.

The PLEXTALK Pocket has some unique features for controlling the recording. You can monitor the recording using earphones and receive periodic audible feedback about the recording input level. You can either start a new recording or append to an existing one and select from either automatic or manual gain control. Of particular interest is the DAISY recording feature that allows you to set index heading levels from one through six during recording or playback and later use them to navigate through the recording using any DAISY reader. You can edit your recordings using the selective delete function of the PLEXTALK Pocket or the included PRS Pro DAISY editing software.

We think the best feature of the PLEXTALK Pocket is the wireless networking. Once you establish a wireless connection to your router, you can access some pretty exciting features. You can listen to a variety of streaming Internet radio stations through one of the best speakers we have heard on any portable reader. It is easy to select a station from the list provided or to add your own favorite stations. And, both MP3 and WMA stream types are supported.

We really like the podcast download support and consider this to be reason enough to get a PLEXTALK Pocket. You can edit and maintain a list of your favorite podcasts and select new episodes to download as they become available. Episodes download in the background so you can do other things, like read a book or listen to another podcast. The PLEXTALK Pocket will automatically keep track of the podcasts you have heard and show any new ones that are published. Finally, you can use wireless networking to connect your PLEXTALK Pocket to your computer instead of fumbling for the right USB cable. (This is a nice bonus for those of us who tend to misplace our cables.)

We were interested in the PLEXTALK Pocket when it was first introduced but the new wireless support and a special sale price from Freedom Scientific put us over the top. It gets a strong five robots rating from us and it will get a big work out during the coming school year. If you would like to learn more about the PLEXTALK Pocket, Jonathon Mosen of Freedom Scientific has produced a very nice podcast demonstrating its myriad functions and features in detail at the FScast website.

 

Tracking Down Accessible Books

 

One of the challenges we face every semester is tracking down all of our textbooks in accessible media. It can be a real scavenger hunt picking through the wide variety of sources and formats available today. In a single semester, the mix may include recorded AccessText Searchaudio, plain text in PDF format, or any of the various indexed formats such as DAISY and epub. And then, when no other source can be found, there are the dreaded scanned textbooks that come with their own set of problems.

Most schools and universities have a professional who assists students with the task of procuring textbooks in accessible media. However, there are many times when it is necessary for us to do the leg work ourselves to ensure we have all the materials we need. A great resource for finding the books we need for school is the AccessText Network .

The mission of the AccessText Network is to help “college students with print disabilities by connecting their disability service offices directly with leading textbook publishers” to obtain textbooks in accessible media. Although membership to the AccessText Network is limited to educational institutions, the free search engine available on their web site is a very convenient way to search the catalogs of a growing number of textbook publishers and accessible media providers including the National Library Service, Book Share, and Learning Ally.

In order to search for textbooks, navigate to http://www.accesstext.org and click on the “Accessible Textbook Finder” link. Select “ISBN” or “Title”  and select the catalogs you would like to search (all are selected by default) and click on the “Search” button. The page is very accessible and easy to use with a screen reader.

Let’s give it a try. A search for the commonly assigned Computer Science textbook “Introduction to Automata Theory” found one result. Since the result was found in the AccessText Network catalog, the accessible media edition will have to be requested through the university’s disabled student services office. Had the book been found at Book Share or Learning Ally, we could have immediately downloaded from their web site using our personal membership accounts.

What about general reading titles? We decided to try a search for a title by one of our favorite Science Fiction writers, Jim Butcher. The first book in his Dresden Files series is called “Storm Front.” We clicked on “New Search,” changed the search type to “Title” and typed in the name. Scrolling down to the search results, we found that the book is available from both the National Library Service and Book Share. This means we have three accessible media format choices: formatted Braille (BRF), Digital Talking Book (DAISY) from Book Share, or  recorded audio from the National Library Service. The ability to search the National Library Service, Book Share, and Learning Ally in a single search is perhaps the best feature of the book finder for most individual readers.

What hoops and hurdles have you faced in your quest for higher learning? Leave a comment with some of your experiences with tracking down books in accessible media.