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.
6 thoughts on “Cool New Technology”
My experience with Vista’s DVR functionality enabled through Media Center is that it has improved on what was possible in Windows XP. Most notably more of the program guide is read by screen readers. Things are not 100% perfect because by and large unless you can focus the text with the keyboard, most screen readers will not read it. This impacts areas like settings and such where the items that are focussed are next and previous buttons. System Access might be able to read more here based on what I’ve seen in a couple other programs on Vista but I haven’t tried it in Media Center in a bit.
That said I’ve used Vista’s Media Center capabilities on my home PC for several months with success. At times I’ll also use the Orb service to view and record television. In addition, the TV listings available on http://entertainment.msn.com/tv/guide offer the ability to schedule recordings.
My biggest frustration with my home media environment is that my Media Center PC isn’t located near my main television and I’m looking around at various media stream options. The product I’m currently exploring is the Netgear EVA8000 which seems to offer a web interface.
By way of full disclosure for folks who do not know me, I am an employee of Microsoft although I do not work directly on the Media Center product. These comments reflect my personal opinions.
I have not yet gotten my hands on Vista, but depending on whether or not I get a certain job I might have that experience sooner rather than later. But the odds of me actually getting said job look rather promising at this point. Having said this, I will relate a somewhat negative experience my father and I had several years ago. I had just gotten my first desktop PC as a high-school graduation gift, and IBM A S T running in DOS. However, a few weeks prior to that computer is when we had the bad experience. My father had taken several vacation days from work, and he and I went to a local Best Buy to look at computers. We had by this time ordered my DEC-talk external and it had arrived, along with a copy of JAWS. So we took that with us in hopes of trying it out in a computer. Well, the salesman who assisted us was a complete idiot and refused to open up the backside of one of the computers so that we could try out DEC-talk. So we ended up taking an HP Bell home with us, but when we attempted to put the speech synthesizer card inside, it refused to go in. We tried various things, fixes, but the darned thing would not budge. That is how I ended up with an A S T, and it worked quite well.
First, I am aware of the new technology from Serotech to which you are referring and I agree it is awesome! However I did want to agree with you that there have been a number of interesting significant milestones within screen-reading over the years as a whole which, once introduced by a developing company are quickly used within other products. While I agree with your list completely of such innovations, I think the only one I would add to that is the concept of the Virtual Viewer. Other than Jaws, no other product has this available to the user and it is just such a fantastic concept for not only displaying help information , but also for the presentation of screen data, labels, accompanying messages, anything essentially which needs to be presented within a flat linear environment for line by line analysis or closer inspection.
Thanks for a great blog!
Oh yes, the virtual viewer in JAWS is excellent. I think the free and open-source screen reader known as NVDA has this feature too, but I’m much more familiar with the JAWS virtual viewer. One other feature that I think was mentioned earlier is the Speech and Sounds Manager. That and the Voice Alias thing have really taken screen reading to a new level in my opinion. I could go on and on about the many awesome features of JAWS, but I might be intruding on what others have to say so I’ll end my comments here.
I’m curious if anyone has experience with the Beyond TV software available from http://www.snapstream.com
Having XP Home currently the Media Center attempts are not an option and I’ve heard a single worthy report that JAWS and BTV are reasonably compatible. I’m preparing for this experiment but would rather have the benefit of previous attempts or wisdom – questions on multiple technology lists have yielded few results.
My primary goal is to have control of my own DVR scheduling and playback where cost is certainly a factor but I’m open to most approaches. Prior to Chris’ post I’d not heard of a TIVO unit which would enable such – only ones which would allow email scheduling and no ability to play them back afterwards except with a sighted guide through their menu.
ANyone have a suggestion where I might find more resources to help my exploration?
JAWS 8.0 in use on the XP Home system – 2 SMAs remaining.
RIM/RAM remote access?? You’re right, that’s a fantastic development! I hope we see more of this kind of thing. Not to mention operating systems that keep up with the advancements.