12 March 2008

CSUN 2008/First Day

Jim Fruchterman is one of those guys. You know, literally a rocket scientist. The kind of Cal-Tech geek who could – or maybe did – make a bomb chase you down the street, around a corner, and wipe you and your house out as you put the key in the door. But he's chosen to do other things with his life.

He built blind reading software back in the 1980s. In the 1990s he and Roberta Brosnahan and the other geeks who made up what was then Arkenstone created WYNN – the literacy software for dyslexics which changed my life. I still remember talking to this guys back then. A prof had said to me, "there's reading software for blind people, there must be something for you." And an early-generation search (Alta-Vista, no doubt) gave me the phone number of these people who seemed to be working in some echo-y hangar at Moffett Field near San Jose. Maybe it wasn't a hangar. Maybe that's just how I imagined it. "Yes," they told me. "You scan books in and it reads to you. Shows you the word and reads it at the same time. You can even take notes right in the program." I ordered it for me. We ordered it for every computer lab at the university I was at. I could finally say goodbye to books read onto those stupid RFB+D cassettes by bored work study students. I could finally make notes as I read books. Yes, it was every bit as amazing as it sounds.

All that to say that Jim, now the leader of Benetech (Arkenstone and WYNN are now part of Freedom Scientific), keynoted the 23rd Annual International Conference on Technology and Persons with Disabilities this Wednesday, and shared his vision of the future of Assistive Technology.

He insisted we must "raise the floor" through free technologies shared on ubiquitous devices. He insisted that we must stop asking people with 'disabilities' to "come to us" and we must "come to them" – enabling websites, computers, libraries, and above all mobile phones to bring these accommodations to where the people already are. And he pointed out the validity of this business model. After all, if a dyslexic student (for example) can get basic information through free text-to-speech software (such as Firefox's CLiCk-Speak or something in the future which runs on their mobile), they instantly become more economically (and academically) viable – and they will then become customers for the high-end solutions which will power their educations and jobs – solutions like WYNN (which now does so much more than what I described above).

And his targets are essential. This morning I saw a Nokia Mobile Phone (the N82 model with the 5.1 megapixel camera) teamed with $1600 (US) software. You held it about 7 centimeters above a page of text, take a picture, and after about 5 seconds it begins to read the text to you. Brilliant, absolutely. But also extravagantly expensive. But we have more ubiquitous answers. For $200 (US – with a contract) you can have an HTC Touch phone with a 2 megapixel camera, and for $5 a month more you can have a ScanR account, and – if we can just get a decent consumer addable text-to-speech system for mobiles (I know it is coming, just not here yet) – you could accomplish the very same thing affordably, though the wait will be (obviously) a bit longer.

Just as I can teach and analyse text-to-speech through Firefox/CLiCk-Speak, Microsoft Reader, or NaturalReader in order to prove the value of purchasing WYNN or Read-and-Write.

This is critical. We must build a base of universal design solutions based in ubiquitous technologies. This will allow all people to start to build their own solutions. But that does not mean we stop creating those "high end" specific solutions. Newly empowered end users will both demand those and be able to afford them.

- Ira Socol from sunny Los Angeles

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

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