Friday, August 13, 2010

The future of blindness notetakers and other opinions...

Just wanted to write my feelings on a discussion that I had on a notetaker
Yesterday, some people on the GW Micro list for Braille Sense products
started talking about the future of blindness notetakers in general. (here,
a notetaker is a device used to take notes and do other tasks; in this
context, a specialized computer with Braille input/output). The core topic
was whether current blindness notetakers (herein refered to as blindness
PDA's) have any future viability, and various discussions on connection
between current mobile computing trends and blindness PDA's on the market
today. While some said that notetakers will not go away mostly because of
use of Braille I/O, others pointed out recent developments in ever changing
technical demands and needs as reasons for demise of notetakers as we know
As a participant in this discussion, I cited with both sides: that Braille
system is the most effective way of communication between us (blind) and
sighted peers, but mainstream development must be taken to account when it
comes to discussing future of these devices. I went so far as declare that,
if there is no openness in platform, there will be no progress in
development (currently, the top PDA's, BrailleNote and Braille Sense does
not have an SDK). After several hours of debate, a GW Micro representative
finally stepped in, clarifying (indirectly) about the nature of the list in
question - a support forum for users of Braille Sense family.
So, here I am, composing this blog post in response to all the messages that
were sent to that particular list and observing message trends on other
lists - thus, here goes my opinions:
First, let's discuss the communication channel between users and a
manufacturer. The background is that there is a opinion that "... there is
no communication, or little messages from HumanWare ....". That, I'd say, is
not true for a number of reasons. First, Humanware does respond (mostly in
private), it's just that the messages coming from Canada has slowed down
somewhat. These days, that trend has somewhat reversed (not entirely), with
some tech support reps responding occasionally to messages on the
BrailleNote list. Second, it should be noted that almost all answers on that
particular list comes from "expert users" (including myself) who knows ins
and outs of KeySoft architecture, leading to a possible impression that the
company does not respond much. You may notice that all "hacks" and tech
information was sent by several individuals, including myself, Alex Hall,
Nicole T., Robert Cummings and other experts, with hacks and info ranging
from bug reports to most advanced info so far - changing system sounds and
finding memory leaks under keysoft.exe (which plagued models prior to Apex).
Thus, just because the company does not respond publically does not mean
that the company is not responding at all - it's just that the reps do
respond, but in this case, it's the very nature of the list that drives BN
users forward.
Second, let's ponder the thought of notetakers and programmability.
Computers are meant to be programmed in some way - which I think is the
greatest invention since 1945. Notetakers, in essence, are computers
themselves - a specialized computer, in fact. If the logic statement that
"computers are programmable" holds true, then it'd make sense that
notetakers are programmable as well. The one huge drawback is the
availability of actual tools of doing it (called SDK, or Software
Development Kit). In connection with our PDA situation, Braille Sense (more
properly called Braille Hansone (pronounced han-so-nae) in Korean) has
Contents sDK in Korean as of 2010; HumanWare does have application framework
to support writing new programs under the hood.
This leads to several questions: Will HIMS (Human Information Management
Service), the producing of Braille Sense, come up with English version of
their Contents SDK? Will GW Micro, the North American distributor of Braille
sense, work with HIMS to develop English extensions to popular contents
(which includes a handy Bible reference program for Koreans)? Will Humanware
Group, maker of BrailleNote family, release a public SDK for KeySoft? In my
view, I'd say it'll be great if there would be SDK's for both platforms so
that those who are familiar with programming can write useful software for
these devices (by the way, both were developed in C++). But that involves
time and effort, and testing is required to make sure that the documentation
for the SDK is up to date and as accurate as possible. Then you may ask,
"why don't we write a simple program using C++ for these devices?" The chief
problem is the communication method that is in use - Braille characters,
which requires special attention when it comes to input/output routines, as
well as design considerations for general embedded devices - slow
processors, low memory, specialization, etc. I'll continue to advocate for
SDK's for these platforms until it is here - for the future of these
Speaking of future of these devices, this brings me to the final opinion of
the day: connection between blindness PDA's and mainstream trends. As we
have examined, if notetakers are computers, then all things related to
current happenings with mainstream embedded systems must hold true -
changing perception, more accessible mobile technology, etc. The perception
these days, in my observation, is miniaturization and more attention on
accessibility in general, as well as being independent of cables via
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Also, people want more creativity and openness in terms
of development, as well as being able to keep in touch with others at all
times (almost all times, which I believe is the success behind Android
environment running on top of modified Linux kernel). With this trend in
mind, I'd say the trend for blind people would be more independent devices
using wireless means of communication i.e. having almost the same devices as
sighted peers with an added way of communicating with them via Braille
support. In my view, notetakers will be around for a while, but current
trends and changed perception on mobile tech world will cause blind and
visually impaired computer users to reconsider their options.
In closing, I'd like to leave you with a well-known phrase: a frog in a
pond. In other words, it is time for enlightenment in blindness technology
world to inform citizens that there are other choices out there, and the
full power of a computer will not be realized until useful programs come out
for the above platforms. I look forward to a day when users will be the
chief driving force behind innovation and creativity, with many creative
apps produced for the benefit of the future generation to come.
Signed: Joseph Sungwon Lee
University of California, Riverside (class of 2012)

1 comment:

  1. Interesting blogpost, Joseph. I wonder what your thoughts are on the use of braille displays with computers replacing the Braillenote? One parent of a braille reader told me that she feels her child is more integrated into the classroom using a laptop computer with a braille display, rather than an accessible PDA such as an Apex, PacMate or Braille Sense. What are your thoughts about pairing a braille display with an iPhone and focusing on writing accessible apps for the mobile system?
    Thanks for all your comments, and for your Braillenote wiki--can't wait to see your next move! Lore Schindler Teacher/Tech Coordinator, Visually Impaired Program Los Angeles Unified