Virtual Braille and Image Discernment the key learnings of the Optacon

I am a life long braille reader who enjoys the freedom that braille gives me to read any book that has been transcribed or translated. Braille is the key to literacy for all of us who are blind. I can’t imagine not reading braille. It would be like depriving me of the human right of learning.

I recall in the 1970s’ learning to use the Optacon for reading print. As an Optacon user, I was by no means the most efficient. I found that I could read print at about 60 words a minute. The great thing was that the similar tactile context was used to braille. This meant that reading with the Optacon became a natural activity, just like reading braille. The problem was that the low words per minute coupled with the fatigue factor made it very slow to read any larger quantities of material. Although I loved the freedom of reading print, I never lost my love of Braille which I can read at at least five times the speed that I could read with the Optacon. Perhaps if I would have started reading with the Optacon as a young child, I would have read faster. The brain is an amazing thing and I am confident that the fingers can discern in minute detail. A large part of the fatigue factor with the Optacon was the requirement to track the camera across the page. Not only tracking, but alignment was crucial.

In the mid 70s’ a group of students and I at the University of Minnesota, along with a refining effort by engineers at LBL labs succeeded in creating a computer terminal display output that utilized the Optacon’s tactile display to present the letters. One may read about this effort in more detail by following the links on my publication page. My experience in using the terminal was that since there was no tracking effort required, the reading speed was much faster.

The electronic braille display has been around for at least 36 years. In some ways the concept of an electronic braille display is very similar to the Optacon. it seems as if the designers of braille displays, are focused on providing a multiple cell context, i.e., enough tactile cells to simulate a line of braille. I don’t believe that this is a critical factor. I expect that if we built a device similar to the Optacon, coupled with the technology used to build the virtual terminal screen we could accomplish a revolutionary change for braille reading. What would happen if we had a tactile display that went across all four of the fingers of both hands? In other words, a display for the left hand and the right hand. Then we create a virtual screen that when prompted through commands that we issue such as through small muscle changes in the hands, we would experience letters in Braille moving under our fingers. Gone is the limitation for providing a line of cells for we now simulate a virtually long line that can be any length. Gone is the need to talk about simulating an entire page of braille for we have a virtual page that can be any size. We have broken the barrier that single line braille displays suffer from when attempting to represent tables where alignment is key. The forty character standard line length for braille is no longer important because we are not trying to fit in a paper model. Then we totally change the metaphor. The 25 line page length is meaningless because pages can be of any length. The tactile display can be higher resolution then is required just to display braille which means that we can imagine images being displayed in the same manner as the Optacon does.

Let’s stretch our imagination. Can we bend the ideas of braille and the Optacon, and come up with a totally new approach, that really isn’t that new but just a combining of successes that we have experienced in the past?

The New Version Of The Syrinx Twitter Client Is Awesome

I have been using the new version of Syrinx by MRR Software for the Mac to handle my Twitter interactions for a week now.

Syrinx is an absolutely stellar Twitter client because the author has worked very hard to make the entire experience of using Syrinx a breeze with VoiceOver.

The new Twitter list support has been added along with the ability to preview the tweet timeline using any of the VoiceOver navigation functions. Now, I am able to quickly and efficiently read, review, and answer the tweets in my many lists.

I am constantly amazed at how productive the Mac with VoiceOver environment is when using VoiceOver compatible software.

Accessible Productivity And Spell Check On The Mac

Operating With A PC
Moving to the Mac with VoiceOver from Microsoft WIndows and JAWS was a great organizing exercise for me. I took a look at my daily tasks and realized that I spent the majority of my computer time in the following programs:
• Microsoft Outlook 2003
• AOL, Yahoo, and MSN Instant Messaging
• Firefox
• Adobe Reader
• Microsoft Office

Email was handled by Microsoft Outlook 2003. Contact management, calendar maintenance task management, and note taking was also handled by Outlook 2003
I used the Miranda instant messaging client for AOL, Yahoo, and MSN messaging. Although Internet explorer had kept me connected to the internet for years I had recently within the last year moved entirely to FireFox.
I used Adobe Acrobat accessible reader to read PDF files. I used Microsoft Word to create and edit documents. I used Microsoft Excel to manipulate spreadsheets. I used Notepad to dig into those pesky text, configuration and batch files.
Amazingly the key common denominator in the above programs centers around Microsoft with a sprinkle of Adobe and open source thrown in.
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Using Vienna As An Accessible Twitter Client

In my quest to move all my activities to the Mac one of the first items that needed to be handled was an accessible Twitter client. Although I am not a power user, the number of people that I follow on Twitter has crossed the three thousand mark. This means that there is a need for a precise filtering mechanism that permits one to take a Twitter stream of over Twenty Thousand tweets a day and quickly glean the high priority Tweets.

I chose Vienna version 2.3.4.
This solution is totally accessible with VoiceOver and permits one to specify the RSS entries for each person that I wish to filter. Once the RSS entry has been added to the list to follow one can group various RSS entries into smart search folders which facilitates grouping of tweets by category.

The coolest thing about this solution is that one can actually see the web based twitter post and respond to it directly within Vienna.

Palm Pilot Replacement

I remember in the late 90’s buying a Palm Pilot for my wife because it was the latest thing out there for organizing one’s life! Organizing is a very general term and definitely means that the Palm Pilot could claim to be a general device.

The razor blade concept was just as true for the Palm Pilot at that time as for the razor manufactures. I think we spent more on replacement pens for that Palm in the first year than the entire cost of the Palm Pilot and it’s accessories. WIth the iPhone we now have a device that is one thousand times more powerful than the original Palm. And to think that it is totally accessible to the Blind is absolutely awesome!!!

Connecting and Organizing

For as long as I can remember I have marveled at the various methods we employ in an effort to stay in touch with our world. I remember the first time I saw a bible. I was amazed at how many pages were in the compact book that I held in my hands as a child.

I received my first new testament in the third grade from my grandparents. The new testament in Braille consists of four volumes. Each volume is at least three times thicker and four times longer and wider than that first printed bible I was shown. I asked someone to show me how much thickness was taken up by the new testament in the printed bible and was shocked at how few pages were used. That same year when I was in third grade I visited a library which had a Braille Encyclopedia that required five book shelves to hold it and was over a hundred Braille volumes.

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Moving Applications On The iPhone

I noticed today that my iPhone was getting a bit crowded and unorganized. I had added some applications to handle Twitter and Skype. The applications ended up on page two of the display. The iPhone is such an amazing device! I have the ability to check my Email, read a book, listen to music, read my calendar, talk on the phone, manage my contacts, talk to people via Twitter or Instant Message, time things with a stop watch, figure out what direction I am walking with a compass. And that’s just to name a few!

I was thinking about how far we have come with accessibility in the blind community. I remember in 1978 working with a computer terminal that consisted of a modification to the tactual display of the OPTACON for presenting the characters that appeared on the screen. One would scroll across the line by using a spinning wheel called a digital shaft encoder. At the time we built this terminal it seemed like it was absolutely revolutionary!

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