Well folks, I’ve decided to hold off my Hunter Thompson tribute for a future Blind Confidential entry. ATIA 2006 disappoints so heavily with its lack of new announcements and virtually anything exciting. The weirdness of a Disney resort where even the hotel soap is shaped like that psychopathic mouse notwithstanding, ATIA 2006 bores one to tears.
A few exceptions to the same old, same old stand out. Code Factory has brought its Mobile Speak Pocket to its first major US conference since its release last September. This product truly impresses, it runs on virtually all Windows Mobile 2003 and Windows Mobile 5 mainstream PDA devices. One can buy a kicking Dell Axim, with a processor in excess of 600 mhz for around $350 and add MSP for less than $500. This gives you a talking PDA with Wi Fi, Blue tooth, lots of memory and multiple input methods for under $1000. For an extra $65-100 you can add a Blue Tooth keyboard for long notetaking sessions. MSP introduces the first ever touch screen interface for blind users and, quite impressively, it works amazingly well. If you want a new notetaker solution, BC suggests you check out the solution from Code Factory.
Dolphin has its Pocket HAL screen reader for mainstream PDA devices on display. It differs from MSP in a number of ways. Pocket Hal provides output to Blue Tooth Braille displays, a feature Code Factory promises “soon” and Pocket HAL requires an external keyboard as its only input method. The biggest criticism of the Dolphin entry is that it lists a handful of specific PDA units (all from HP) on which it can be run. Knowing the Dolphin people, though, I’m sure they have already started working on improvements.
Both MSP and Pocket HAL can accept Braille input from the Blue Tooth Braille keyboard sold by Optilec. This device costs a lot for a keyboard but it has a terrific form factor, being both lightweight and relatively small.
I think the products from Code Factory and Dolphin demonstrate a further shift in the AT landscape. First, we blinks had Blazie notetakers, an entirely proprietary hardware and software system. Then PDI (now called Humanware) released its Windows CE based Braille/VoiceNote series of products. Although the PDI products used a mainstream operating system, the user community would soon learn that they did not have access to third party software and most peripherals. Then Freedom Scientific made history when it introduced PAC Mate, the first hybrid product that would marry mainstream PDA technology with a form factor designed by and for people with vision impairments. PAC Mate users could attach most third party peripherals, plug in all sorts of expansion cards and run lots of third party software. The JAWS scripting language added power and flexibility to those inclined to customize and make accessible applications that previously were not so.
Now, Code Factory and Dolphin have raised the bar another level. With MSP running on my HP 6515 PDA/Phone, I have a 5.7 ounce device sitting in my breast pocket. This device has my mobile phone (GSM 4, GPRS) built in, it runs the Wayfinder GPS system using the built in GPS receiver, it has Blue Tooth and IRDA included as well. The 6515 also comes with a thumb keyboard which I found quite usable after a few days of practice. I also purchased an external keyboard for times when I need to take a lot of notes and an 802.11 Wi Fi SDIO card for attaching to wireless networks. The 6515 is now available for around $450 from HP (after rebate), the Think Outside keyboard sells for around $80, I purchased the Wi Fi card for about $75 and MSP can be found for as little as $475 on the Internet. If one shops around, they can find a wide variety of Windows Mobile PDA units at a wide range of prices that should meet their needs and budgets.
Other New Entries
While not exactly “new” the people from Serotek, Nuance and Wayfinder boast of the combination of the Freedom Box Network, Talx and the Wayfinder GPS system running in concert on Symbian Series 60 telephones. Talking about this combination with Mike Calvo, Serotek’s CEO, is like talking to a kid in a toy store. As one of the last blind people who run an AT company with the designed by and for blind people ethic, Mike shows a level of excitement for this combination that I last saw from the guys who made PAC Mate when it first hit the market. The combination provides the user with an excellent talking GPS solution, a talking mobile phone and all of the streaming audio and other useful information available on the Freedom Box network. The price/performance ratio of this system truly impresses as one can get the phone for free with a cellular contract, Talx carries a very reasonable price tag, the Freedom Box network runs about $100 per year, a separate off-brand Blue Tooth GPS receiver is available for $60 at Wal-Mart and, perhaps most impressively, the Wayfinder service costs $85 per year and includes downloadable maps of most of North America and Western Europe. This may just be the bargain of the year.
Freedom Scientific continued its movement into the CCTV market by announcing the upcoming release of Opal, a portable magnifier for the low vision community. As my vision deteriorated, I never tried a CCTV and now that I have nothing but a little light vision, I cannot see well enough to try out the newer CCTV models and cannot, therefore, provide an honest assessment of those available today. If one of the BC readers wants to write up a review or comparison of various CCTV devices, I would be happy to post it here.
Newcomer to the AT industry, Plustek Inc. announced a new entry into the scan and read market segment earlier this week. This new entry to an ancient market provides nothing that cannot be found in OpenBook from Freedom Scientific, K1000 from KESI or a commercial OCR package with JAWS, Window-Eyes or the screen reader of your choice. Plustek does include a scanner and sells the entire package for roughly $700. A quick look at the Plustek web site did not give me a warm and fuzzy feeling. Imaging and OCR makes up their primary line of business and the vision impairment market seems to be an afterthought. The text on their web site sounds like a mediocre ESL student wrote it which portends poor communication skills in their technical support group (if they have one). Finally, their web site fails the W3C/Wai test and contains many unlabeled graphics and such. I believe that blind people should ignore AT businesses that will not provide the simple courtesy of making an accessible web site.
With all of that said, I will leave the ATIA topic behind but, to conclude, I recommend that BC readers check out Mobile Speak, Pocket HAL, Freedom Box with Talx and Wayfinder, the new line of CCTV products from Freedom Scientific and ignore the Plustek people entirely.