A Matter of Perspective

September 9th, 2019 By Michael Hingson

A red wagon on a very glossy and reflective floor.

As some of my readers know, I work for a company called Aira. I believe that Aira has developed and provides the most transformative product for blind people since Ray Kurzweil developed his reading machine in the 1970s. Through Aira, blind and low vision people have full access to all visual information otherwise unavailable to us since we cannot see it. I’m glad to say that many people have begun to adopt and embrace Aira.

As many of you know, Aira uses a special app on a smartphone to establish a video and audio link with a highly-trained agent who describes whatever the user, also known as an Explorer, wishes to know. For a hands-free experience, users have options. Users can purchase lanyards for their smartphones from many sources on the web which will permit them to hang their phones around their necks with the phone’s camera facing away from them. Alternatively, a user can wear a specially developed pair of smart glasses that incorporate a high-resolution video camera that allows the agent to see the user’s surroundings. When using the glasses, users also carry a specially programmed smartphone specifically used to power the glasses and to establish a connection with agents. Between using the smartphone app or the smart glasses, technology has come a long way with regards to portability, which got me to thinking of all the different kinds of assistive technologies I have encountered in my lifetime. I thought it would be fun to stroll down memory lane, as it were, to discuss some of the technologies of the past. I think it’s relevant to put the technologies of today in perspective with what we had available to us years ago.

Generally speaking, blind people (even today) carry more tech than our sighted peers. However, carrying tech used to be more challenging. I recall several people in the 1990s and early 2000s saying they almost needed a wagon or at least a large roller bag to carry all their productivity tools with them. So, what did a typical student carry around in 1995?

First, they may have carried a note taker that, like today, included usually a Braille display or at least a voice output feature. They did not have much access to the internet as it had not taken off and so earlier notetakers did not include a web browser.

“Forget the idea of having a cellphone. Those monsters were large heavy devices that were mounted in automobiles and were quite expensive.”

Some portable computers were beginning to make their presence known, but they were not the lighter laptops or ultra-books of today. The more portable ones weighed from 8 to 12 pounds. By 1989 screen reading software began to appear with the development of JAWS for DOS and OutSpoken for the MAC, but even back then many people still used external speech synthesizers such as DecTalk and special software to drive them to read computer screens. In 1995, WindowEyes appeared as a competitor for JAWS for Windows, but it never was quite as popular as JAWS. There was a version of OutSpoken for Windows, but it did not become nearly as popular as JAWS and WindowEyes.

If you wanted a calculator, you needed to purchase one from companies like Telesensory Systems, Inc. The Speech+ was a four-function calculator that was the size of a 5×8 pad of paper. The speech was good, but still you needed to carry the calculator in order to do math unless you could do it in your head.

Forget the idea of having a cellphone. Those monsters were large heavy devices that were mounted in automobiles and were quite expensive.

Also, forget the idea of GPS. If you wanted to know how to get from place to place, you purchased map books such as those produced by Thomas Brothers. These were thick spiral-bound books with several maps that helped you navigate different areas around the U.S. None of them were available to blind people. Back in 1995 you learned to ask questions of those around you, or you did lots of advanced research. If you weren’t adventurous enough to ask questions or do research, you probably stayed home.

In the late 1990s, a company called Arkenstone Systems produced the first computerized maps for blind people. At least now one could explore on their PC and independently get an idea about their environment.

By 2000, most external speech synthesizers had gone by the wayside. There were other screen readers, but they fell way behind the company called Henter Joice and its flagship product JAWS. Computers were still not light and still GPS was not available for the average citizen. We did begin to see a few portable mobile phones usually called “bag phones” as they came with their own bag-like cases with straps for “easy carrying.” I never owned one, but I did see them. I think they weighed in the 3 to 5+-pound range and cost at least many hundreds of dollars with no contract-reducing pricing and horribly high calling rates even for local calls. Notetakers became a bit more portable, especially with the advent of the BrailleNote, but still they took up space due to the size of their Braille displays. Talking calculators were still the norm. There were even a few scientific calculating devices, but most of society still didn’t picture blind people as likely contributors to the STEM fields. On the other hand, sighted people had many choices in calculators and other technology tools that were much smaller and faster than anything available to blind people.

By the time 2007 came around, much tech had gotten smaller, lighter and faster for sighted people. Cellphones were near the size we see today. Calculators and computers had also become smaller and much more portable. As this was happening, blind people, through the organized consumer movement, demanded that the blind and low-vision populations not be left behind. Nokia, a major cellphone manufacturer, made available a screen reading software package called Talks so that blind people could use cellphones just like their sighted colleagues. Notetakers became as light as they could be and the software they incorporated grew to include more features. Competitors to the BrailleNote appeared. By then, the manufacturer of the BrailleNote, Pulse Data of New Zealand, had merged with Humanware of Canada and worked hard to produce a product much of the market adopted. Laptops became somewhat lighter, and the JAWS feature set increased to support many more programs and word processing systems. By now, the need for a wagon to move all the tech around disappeared, but still one needed a pretty large briefcase to carry around needed tools.

Additionally, many people tried to create technologically advanced travel tools to enhance or replace guide dogs and canes. None added much value. Guide dog training improved, and white canes became more flexible which aided their users in better navigating their surroundings. Also, O&M instructors began to realize that using a cane that only came up to one’s stomach was not good for travel.

In 2007 the iPhone appeared in the sighted world. Now the phone had made a quantum leap forward and could take over many of the functions of portable computers. Blind people didn’t catch up to their friends until 2009 with the advent of VoiceOver from Apple on the iPhone 3G.

Over the past 12 years, technology continued to grow faster, smaller, and lighter. We still often carry more stuff than our sighted associates, but we have caught up to a large degree. Even so, it is, I think, important to remember that it is unlikely that in the near to mid-term we will be able to be on an exact equal footing with our colleagues when it comes to carrying tech.

I do not want to leave our discussion of assistive technology without talking about the most dramatic technical change outside of Aira. In 1974, Dr. Ray Kurzweil invented his device, the Kurzweil Reading Machine. At the time it was a prototype in his lab, but Ray saw the potential of what his device could bring to blind people – a way to read any printed matter independently. Ray went searching for funding to help perfect his machine. Most of the scientific and governmental communities scoffed at him and would not stretch their visions to see what Ray had to offer. The National Federation of the Blind was the first organization to fully embrace Ray’s technological vision and worked with him to secure the funding he needed. Ray’s first prototypes weighed 400 pounds and incorporated a full “minicomputer” to operate the scanning system.

In 1979 when the first production model of the system was sold, the cost was $50,000 and was purchased only by agencies. Stevie Wonder may have bought one for himself, but no one else could afford their own unit. Fast forward to today and Ray’s invention is an app on smartphones. Also, other competitive Optical Character Recognition apps are on the market, and all cost under $100. They read much better than Ray’s original unit, and they process images faster and more accurately than that 1979 first production model. Ray did envision this early on when he told the audience at a company meeting at Kurzweil Computer Products that he saw the day when his reading machine would be the size of a briefcase or even smaller.

During my life, and yes, I recall Ray’s first units as I worked for the NFB and then for Ray at that time, I believe I have seen two real technological leaps for blind people. The first was the Kurzweil Reading Machine which made it possible for blind and low-vision individuals to independently read virtually any printed literature. The system wasn’t and still isn’t perfect. However, with a little work, print information is truly accessible to us.

The second leap is Aira. This technology makes even more print and now graphic information available to all print disabled persons. Also, Aira makes so much more visual information available to us, whether it be related to travel, visiting public places such as grocery stores and airports, and even offering independence to us in conducting research and in performing any task around our homes. If it hasn’t happened already, I am sure that someone will use Aira to build a home and get all surfaces, walls, and other aspects of the building project square and correct. Aira truly makes you only as limited as your imagination.

Gone are the days of heavy burdensome tech. We do have some specific and specially developed technologies that help us in our daily lives. Nothing can and will replace the reading and writing language of Braille. However, it is certainly nice to know that that which is not necessarily immediately available to us in Braille is accessible through other technological tools.

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