Random Musings

I didn’t have much time to work on a cohesive topic for today’s Blind Confidential post so I’m going to toss out questions, comments and, of course, a bit of opinion in hopes of generating comments and discussion.

My Conversation with Mike Calvo Yesterday

My good friend Mike Calvo suggested that I add an RSS feed to this blog. Now, when you come to the page, you can activate the link “Subscribe to the Blind Confidential RSS Feed” if you prefer receiving information that way.

Mike also told me that Freedom Box System Access was being featured on Main Menu last night. The Serotek guys have gone a long way with System Access in the 2.0 release and I think they will be noticed as a real force in the screen access market fairly soon. I’ve very much enjoyed the work they have done in MS Word and their Internet Explorer support rivals that in some of the more famous screen readers. Mike is a good guy and he, more than most AT CEOs today, represents the “designed by blind people for blind users.”

Descriptive Video Movies

Amazon has started stocking DVDs with audio descriptions of the video. Apparently they have been doing this for a while but I only noticed recently. The problem with having DVS on a DVD is that, if you hope to play it on a standard DVD player in your living room, you will need a sighted person to help you navigate the menus. If, however, you watch it on your PC, Microsoft Windows Media Player does a good job of exposing the menus.

Looking Forward to ATIA

I arrive in Orlando tomorrow to attend some meetings at the ATIA conference. I haven’t heard too much from the conference other than Freedom Scientific announced a new portable CCTV device called Opal.

On Friday, in honor of Hunter S. Thompson, I will post a Fear and Loathing at ATIA 2006. I will try to blend real news with my feelings of warped reality that always occur when I enter a Disney resort.

More on Turing Tests

Yesterday, Will Pearson, a friend of mine from abroad, posted a comment on Blind Confidential about security, screen readers and Turing tests. It is definitely worth a read. I plan on doing an article on AT devices and possibly compromised security at some time in the future.

Audio Representation of Visual Items

Recently I have been playing around with a web camera and the VOIC software. You can find the software and download it from its author’s web site. This is a pretty interesting way of hearing the visual aspects of the world. I will be writing about this next week after I’ve had more time to practice with it.

I have also been spending a lot of time studying how audio games, particularly those from GMA Games (http://www.gmagames.com), represent very complex scenarios using three dimensional sound. I think that these techniques can be brought to other areas of access technology. What do you think?

That’s all for today, with my attendance at ATIA tomorrow and Friday, I need to focus today on some more professional tasks (which are also very cool). Sorry for being a bit lame today.

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Quiet Week

The ATIA conference starts this week in Orlando, Florida. New product announcements, some very good presentations and enough marketing propaganda to choke a blind elephant will abound. Bright lights, annoying music, the sound of Eloquence speaking from booths all around while booth babes lure their prey to listen to a demo they could care less about. Yes, the assistive technology trade show season has begun and Blind Confidential will attend.

Until I get to Orlando, though, the deafening silence around the industry grows daily. Every company wants to make their big announcement at the conference so remain tight lipped until the PR machine kicks into gear. Never fear, BC will don his Gonzo disguise and travel with his attorney at his side to witness the fear and loathing at ATIA 2006.

More on Turing Tests

After posting my article yesterday, I received a number of comments from sighted people who asked the question, “if a screen reader can break its way through a Turing test, what can stop the spammers from employing the same techniques?”

My first reaction reminded them that we celebrated Martin Luther King yesterday and that a Turing test is the 21st century version of a “Whites Only” sign on a door. Barriers to accessibility discriminate against a specific class of people, just like the old Jim Crow laws did. If we view a web site as a “virtual place of public accommodation,” it follows that its owners should make reasonable accommodations.

The response I got to this argument came in the form of, “Why should everyone suffer the annoyance of spammers just to protect the rights of a fairly small minority?”

I went back to MLK but they continued to rebuke my arguments. The truth is that, by act of congress, people with disabilities comprise the only class of US citizens who do not necessarily receive equal protection under the law (a topic for further exploration in a future posting).

So, I started noodling with ways that blinks could gain access to these sites without opening the door to spammers. While I do not accept that people with vision impairments should be required to do anything special to access these web features, the pragmatist within feels that we will probably lose this battle.

Freedom Scientific, GW Micro and probably other AT companies worked closely with Adobe (one of the most cooperative of the mainstream companies) to find a solution to the problem of digital rights management (DRM) and the screen reader. Publishing companies who wanted to use the Adobe format for their e-book releases noticed the obvious fact that if a screen reader could access the information, a less honorable sort could use the same technique to pull the text out of the reader and publish it for free. The solution the screen reader companies and Adobe developed gave each AT product that needed to access this protected information a kind of digital signature that told the Adobe reader that it can trust this program because it contains the magic words that inform the reader of its purpose.

I propose that the screen reader developers get together with the W3C/WAI and start working on a digital signature scheme that will give screen reader users the same trusted status as they now enjoy in some digitally protected documents. Highly encrypted digital signatures appear all over the Internet. Paypal, MoneyBookers and other payment systems all use digital signatures. This, therefore, shouldn’t be too hard for the smart folks in the AT business, the W3C and the web site hosting community to put together.

Until these “trusted user” signatures can reach the market and web sites changed to accept them, a moratorium on this type of Turing test should start immediately. So, please sign the petition in yesterday’s post and write to web masters who discriminate against we blinks with the 21st century moral equivalent of segregated busses.

A Couple of Odds and Ends

A reader sent an email informing Blind Confidential that Apple Computer has an opening for an intern to work on its Voiceover screen reader. For the sake of promoting competition, I think that if Apple had a credible screen reader, the Macintosh might make some inroads into the population of blind users. Some people, including the person who sent me this job notice, really enjoy Voiceover . Others, however, argue that it lacks even the most basic features available in the popular Windows screen readers. In AccessWorld, Jay Leventhal really blasted the product in an article titled “Not What the Doctor Ordered” which you can read at:


I don’t have a link to the job posting and hope that our friend can post it as a comment and, perhaps, describe why she prefers Voiceover to JAWS or Window-Eyes.

Other Upcoming Events

BC will present a position paper on how interface concepts found in audio games might form the next major step forward in screen reading and other technologies for people with vision impairments. The conference takes place in April up in Montreal and you can learn more about it at http://www.chi2006.org.

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Turing Tests on Web Sites

What is a Turing Test?

Alan Turing, one of the founders and early theorists of what we now call computer science, posed the question, “Will it ever be possible to build a computer that can be mistaken for a human being?” Since then, computer scientists, experts in artificial intelligence and robotics have tried but have not succeeded in building a machine or crafting a piece of software that, under scrutiny, would be mistaken for a human. Every year, there is a competition where a panel of experts can ask questions of a hidden person or computer. They don’t know to which they are talking and, afterward, they vote on which contestants are human and which are machines. In the history of the competition no computer has fooled the panel.

What does this have to do with vision issues?

There are many web pages that contain inaccessible graphical word verification systems, also known as CAPTCHA. These intend to distinguish between actual humans legitimately trying to use the site and bots employed by spammers that will use the site for a commercial or malicious purpose. Thus, these graphics serve as Turing tests to separate the humans from the software.

The popularity of these Turing tests increases as spammers find more ways and web sites to use for their purposes. Some very popular sites, including BlogSpot, the host of this blog, Yahoo! And many other very useful web sites have implemented these tests.

The web version of the Turing test works by presenting a graphic that contains a word or sequence of characters drawn in such a manner that OCR software would probably not decipher it properly and then requiring the user to type it into a box on the web form. In its most basic form, no blind person can use it independently as they cannot see the graphic. Some web sites, Yahoo! For one, also provide an audio sample, distorted somewhat to prevent voice recognition software from understanding it. The audio samples, though, also make it difficult for people (like me) with perfect hearing to distinguish between the characters in the sample and virtually impossible for our friends with some hearing loss to use at all.

Who should be fixing this problem?

As a web accessibility advocate, I have long argued that such problems must be fixed by the content providers. Some advocates for people with vision impairments have suggested that Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act which requires all telecommunications equipment and services to be accessible to all would actually cover web sites as they can only be accessed via telecommunications products but this topic requires more attention and I’ll hold it off for a future posting. The web site hosts, though, would counter that they must do something to keep the spammers and other undesirables away.

The next group that could solve this problem are the Screen reader vendors. Historically, the AT companies have delivered many technologies that people believed too difficult to present in a manner that a blind person can understand. For many years, programmers at Henter-Joyce, Freedom Scientific, GW Micro, Dolphin Systems and others have proved the skeptics wrong by presenting an increasingly more complex collection of information to users of their products.

Why, then, do the AT companies claim that solving these relatively simple Turing tests evades the current generation of very smart people who work on screen readers? Clearly, this problem falls out of the scope of the work that some of these same programmers do today. But, those still involved in making screen readers, though, claim that this problem remains impossible.

Until about a week ago, I agreed that this problem is possibly too difficult to be solved in a screen reader. Then Blind Confidential received an anonymous tip from the world of research. Apparently, a graduate student has demonstrated software that can analyze these bitmaps and convert the contents to speakable text. My source said that this software runs pretty quickly and has shown a success rate between 95-98%. Although not perfect, I will take a probability in the high nineties over the near 0% we blinks have today.

This also begs the question, why does the multi million dollar screen reader industry claim this problem impossible while a graduate student, working on a meager university stipend, can solve it? Wouldn’t such an invention bring an AT company a terrific patent and a competitive advantage over the competition? Why do screen reader companies avoid doing research to advance their craft?

I believe that, until this technology reaches blind computer users, it should be removed from the web sites that currently employ such tests. I also believe strongly that screen reader companies should take a long look at this problem and, as Richard Stallman once said, “innovate, don’t litigate!”

Please join me in signing the petition below that specifically addresses Google’s use of this technique and, hopefully, we can start making headway in this problem in web accessibility.

The petition is entitled:

“Google Word Verification Accessibility”

It is hosted on the web by PetitionOnline.com, a free online petition
service, at the following URL:


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Welcome to Blind Confidential

Hello to My Fellow Blind and Low Vision People and Our Friends,

This is the first post in what will hopefully become an active blog that will focus on issues related to blineness, low vision, assistive technology, laws and regulations, accessibility, traveling alone, independent living, Braille, the people who influence the lives of we blinks and most anything else of interest to our community. Of course, I will be stating my opinion of all of the aforementioned and other topics as they come up.

Rumors abound around the AT industry and Blind Confidential will do its best to confirm, deny or comment on them. Our team of experts and spies attend many conferences, work on all kinds of projects and work in or have friends who work in the assistive technology industry. Blind Confidential will post anonymous stories that one might want to publish without revealing themselves and, therefore, jeopardizing their professional standing. So, feel free to be as juicy as you like and BC will ensure your concerns are stated publicly.

Blind Confidential will also try to remain current with new product releases by and for blind and low vision people. BC will evaluate the products when it can and the easiest way to get a good review is by making a free product available to our crew.

So, please start sharing your stories and I will include my own as often as I can.

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