Yesterday, I spent some time talking over Skype with my good friend and Serotek CEO, Mike Calvo. While we talked, he demonstrated the coolest new piece of technology that I have witnessed in AT for blind people in many years. From my perspective, the entire blindness technology biz seems to avoid innovation and, for the most part keeps up with operating system releases from Microsoft, does its best to keep up with new releases of Microsoft Office, competes heavily in support for web browsers and adds value by including things like additional speech synthesizers and such.
In my highly biased opinion, the last few important innovations in the blindness biz were (in reverse chronological order): Serotek’s RIM and RAM remote access products that do not require anything installed on distant computers – a serious productivity boost to blind IT professionals; Serotek’s USB drive support that, unlike the entries from FS and Dolphin, required that nothing be pre-installed on the target machine; JAWS Speech and Sounds manager that, although the interface can be made simpler, makes all of the elements exposed on a web page really useful by saving a ton of chattiness and, as a result, making web browsing much more efficient; Freedom Scientific’s introduction of “Quick Keys” in the JAWS support for Internet Explorer – a feature that was quickly copied by GW Micro and Serotek, this feature improved the efficiency of web browsing for blind people by an order of magnitude or more and, way back in 1999, JAWS’ introduction of using the DOM for accessing information in Internet Explorer and, shortly after, in other applications. Excepting the Speech and Sounds Manager, all of the FS innovations have turned up in Window-Eyes and System Access but those first introduced by Serotek have yet to appear in any other product.
What Mike showed me yesterday will improve access for blind people virtually everywhere in the world. At this point, I am sworn to secrecy about the details of this highly innovative new bit of technology but I believe that the plan is to introduce it to the public on Main Menu this Tuesday night.
I am somewhat torn over whether to get a Tivo for my house and add the networking support so, using whatever screen reader I happen to have on at any given moment, use the ability to check out the TV listings and program it from another PC in my house or get a Windows Vista PC with a TV tuner card in it and access the Vista Tivo-like functionality right on the computer.
I have one blind person helping me find information about adding functionality to Tivo as the Internet interface seems only to come from after market vendors. I have talked to a bunch of friends who use Vista with screen readers, the System Access and Window-Eyes users seem to be the happiest of the bunch, but none can tell me how well the multi-media features, including the Tivo-like DVR functionality works with any screen reader.
Retail stores that sell computers don’t seem to have any PCs that one can actually try. On Friday, my wife and I went to both CircuitCity and Best Buy to look at these media center PCs. Both stores featured computers with all of the features we found interesting but neither had one turned on. I had my System Access USB key in tow but it did me no good as the computers weren’t even plugged into electrical power let alone online or attached to a cable or satellite television connection. So, where can a screen reader user go to actually check out a product before bringing it home and being disappointed?
If anyone knows about this stuff with any screen reader, please post a comment or write directly to me as I am really very curious.