Sunday, April 30, 2006

Reading To The Extreme! A Look At Guerillea’s XR1.

The team recently set down with the company to look at the XR1 and it’s step up models. And man were we crazy impressed. I am generally not a big fan of Stand Alone scanners. Part of me says that they don’t offer much beyond what we have with Open Book, K-1000 or even Omni Page Pro. But I am considered, by some who know me better than I, to be a Power User of some current gen AT. The truth is that the XR1 is a fantastic device for the aging population who is computer user impaired. And if that’s not your bag the more Extreme models offer so many more options that you will toss your old Reading Edge into a very large dumpster when you experience the machine for the first time.

The first notable thing about the XR1 is it’s level of support. The manual is available in just about every flavor imaginable. You can find it on the web in HTML or you can order your model with large print or Braille copies. A quick start cassette comes with the unit and it is placed directly at the top of the box so it’s the first thing you find when opening the unit’s packaging. This tape covers everything from opening the box’s contents to your first scan. And it’s super detailed as well. To give you an idea of just how good their level of support is check out this link to the website with a video tutorial.

To talk tech for a second..
The unit it’s self consists of some off the shelf technologies packaged with AT&T Natural Voices running under Windows 2000. A 40 GB hard drive a 2.0 or higher processor is under the hood as well. FINE Reader and some licensed Visuaid software aids the unit in providing a very clear and understandable speech that is pleasing to hear for long reading sessions. The scanner it’s self is detachable via Velcro and this allows the company to upgrade or service the scanner without you sending the whole machine back for repairs.

The scanner sits upon a modded PC case. The PC has a CD, floppy, USB, microphone jack, headphone jack, external speaker outputs and Serial connection. In the XR10, the top of the line model, it’s possible for you to run a Screen Reader on the unit with a full 104 styled keyboard. Why would you do such a thing? Well for starters the top of the line model will let you emboss directly from the scanned or saved images. Renaming or editing files can be done via the keyboard.

The Extreme Reader also can be combined with the $250 MP3 accessory so you can take scanned documents and convert them into MP3 files. But if your into DAISY then your covered too. The XR series of units will also play DAISY media, audio CDs and a whole host of text formats. PDF, RTX, DOC or another file of common use can be read aloud by the Extreme Reader.

Now what sets the XR1 apart from it’s rivals is it’s ease of use. That term gets bandied about a ton in the industry, however, in this case I think it’s fully warranted. The XR1 uses an external keypad with only four buttons to control it’s various functions. These buttons are easy to spot and they have tactile markings. Striking the buttons or holding two down at the same time accomplish the initial scan, pause/play or you can hold them down to go back or forwards by a one line at a time. In virtually seconds after scanning I was able to master the functions of the unit and read one of those notices that comes from the airlines about what you can and can’t bring on a plane.

The Extreme Reader also has a wonderful currency reader as well. We placed the most awful wisps of dollar amounts under the unit and only once did we need to press the bill ultra flat for it to be read. Trust me.. it was impressive.

Updates are offered for free in the first year of the unit and then you will need a maintenance agreement. The CD comes in the mail and you simply place it in the machine and turn it on for the unit to self update. Very Visuaid actually. But this is the type of narration/guidance provided throughout the Extreme Reader experience.

If you don’t require that much hand holding, and chances are if your reading this Blog you don’t, the XR10 unit has tons of flexibility in it’s larger key pad. Even that unit, however, sports the easy interface of the XR1 at the bottom of the pad giving the low level user the path to upgrade later on as they used the unit. All you need is a different key pad and it’s CD to swap up or down the unit’s models. And that’s a pretty far cry over most of the “on the case” user interfaced competitors.

Bottom line:
If you know someone who is afraid of computers but still wants to have the ability to read at home the Extreme Reader is a great choice in the field of Stand Alone scanners. The unit’s quality of speech when reading tables, money, floppies and DAISY formats sets it apart from others. And the easy to use key pad will have even the oldest and crankiest user enthralled in minutes.

If you’re a more advanced user who may have that ultra large old school Reading Edge on your desk then the XR10 is a perfect replacement. The form factor is smaller than the Edge but similar to the size of a CPU tower laying on it’s side. The advanced key pad will be no challenge to you and you may even like the simple to emboss directly from your scanned images feature.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

April 06 Tech Update: The “Would You Stop Whining About Vista Already” Edition

Yes I am aware that it’s the last day of April and almost the last hour of it as well when I posted this update. No I am not procrastinating. It’s just slow for AT this month. You see the cycle of news is thus..

January: ATIA News
Rebury: Debunking CSUN rumors
March: CSUN Press Release heaven
April. Zzzzz
May: Make fun of what has and has not come out yet from CSUN
June: Debunking NFB and ACB rumors
July: More Press Release Nirvana
August: Hibernate until Xmas.

Closing The Gap used to be in there somewhere but it’s kind of a non entity now that it’s all about the edjumacation thingys. So there’s more mainstream tech to discuss then juicy AT news. Sorry about that Chief! Now let’s bring down the cone of silence and begin shall we?

Steve’s Word of the Month
Mission Creep
Definition : This is a term that comes into play when an organization’s goals begin to falter and wear over time. So it sounds good on paper but the actual process tends to make one lose the original focus of the Mission Statement. See below..

As a bonus for Steve I give this one too.

Open Source Parking
Definition: It’s like .com squatting but for Open Source initiatives.

Lightning Round!

JAWS 7.1 Mark II: The second update to the public beta of JAWS 7.1 has been posted. Get more on that here…

CSUN: Both Blind Cool Tech and the Blind Access Journal have some CSUN coverage up. And of course Main Menu has been playing some wonderful stuff from the poorly overcrowded sessions as well. Have I said I wasn’t impressed with this year’s management? Oh wait.. I just did..dammm.

CSUN Blind Access Journal

Voice Mate: Well start searching ILA and Ebay because the Parrot is no longer in active production. And honestly it’s been surpassed by the whole host of devices like the Book Port, mPower, Pac Mate, Easy Link and Maestro. At least you don’t lose everything when you change out the batteries.. no you step out of that line Pac Mate.

Tid Bits: Lots of links to training courses on Skype and others in Dean’s latest post. Shout out to Dean by the way..

Florida Lighthouse: Here’s a story via Blind News about what could be the start of a very scary trend. That is the closing of your local Lighthouse of the Blind. I may not like some of the politics of our business and I may say that some heads of these organizations are way over paid when It’s the lower staff doing the work but.. I don’t wish for anyone to lose any service that they count on at all.

Internet Explorer 7. Windows Media Player 11: The new public beta 2 of IE7 is out now. There will be a beta 3 this summer but it’s being said that beta 2 is super stable. Windows media 11 beta should arrive in less than 2 weeks. If your planning on submitting yourself to the torture that is the Vista public beta then skip both of these programs as their Vista version cousins are far more secure and feature rich than the ones being released for Windows XP.

And another related article can be found here..

Windows Updates: For those who work with others with no broadband connections I inform you that 5 updates around 15 MB were made available this month. And if your person your working with has Windows XP Media Center it’s another 5 at 17 MB. Good luck!

Artificial Eyes: In Korea they think they have created a good simulation of how an insect’s eyes work. That sounding icky I found something more human like on the subject.

LCD Glasses replace Bifocles: Computer styled glasses have been around for awhile, however, these may just replace the commonly used bifocles.

Linux attitude: Let’s see. Last month I found us an article saying that the long hair and sandals demeanor is what turns most off to Linux. Now this month it’s a snotty “holier than thou” mentality. For me it’s just that we let DOS for a reason not to ever go back to command line thinking again.

Web Surfing at Work Legal: Take this Dan Brown. Never poke fun at the power of the internet![One day I may explain this in joke]

Firefox update now including Mac: Mozilla and Mac. Two great tastes that you would have thought would have come together sooner. Now just update your Firefox every 15 minutes as it seems to be the hacker’s paradise lately.

McNealy One Liners: Sun’s biggest star may have stepped down recently, however, his off the cuff remarks may be missed most of all. Check out these one liners and be warned you need to keep all liquids away from keyboards. There are some real gems in the link below.

~ “Vistarific!”

Oh if I had a dollar for all the remarks and flack I got over the Vista delay in March. “Oh Ranger I thought you said it was coming out no matter what”. “Oh Ranger I guess you were wrong on that one eh?”. “Oh Ranger your so wise and virile”. Okay maybe not that last one.

Here’s the deal. As much as some may fear Vista and they may believe that they got a last second call from the governor as they walked the Green Mile.. I can honestly say your wrong. Here’s why. A release of Vista in August would have meant that we would have jumped right into a product that everyone would have been forced to support via drivers and technical help. The delay in Vista’s release now gives us a longer public beta cycle where people who have NO BUSINESS LOADING AND RUNNING VISTA will be clogging up every AT list imaginable with their whining and complaining about what is essentially a pre release of an Operating System with very little AT support. And each one of the phone calls and emails I get for help will be forwarded to each and every one of my detractors. So .. nanny nanny boo boo. Who’s laughing now nubies. :]

For the record the public beta is available for public consumption on May 22nd. You need a very good connection speed and a DVD burner on hand just to download the gigs of files by the way. That alone will preclude many that I fear will attempt to run Vista at the start. Or change that to I hope that will preclude most that wish to attempt. Yeah that’s the ticket.

One of the wildest Vista stories of the month came from the Windows Super Site. In a scathing review of the February Community Technical Preview [a.k.a. CTP] Paul ripped into what was promised by MS and what we may actually get some 4 years later.

In a follow up review of the next CTP, 5365 for those counting at home, he defends his views and even discusses the reaction he got from friends at Redmond.

So the question I get often is “should I buy now and upgrade later?”. Answer is “sort of yes”. What I mean by that is that computer makers are still running under the guise that Vista was coming out in August. So many machines may run Vista just fine if you buy one today. It just won’t come with the hollofoil logo. Here’s what I mean about Vista Compatible Logo machines.

Again I say its’ not that Vista won’t be AT compatible. It will because well we have no choice for it to be so. Resistance is futile. But the biggest problem with Vista will come in the training of low level to mid level users who let JAWS do things that Windows already does. New hotkeys are a given but learning where that file is and how to get it? That’s going to be the fun little romp. Check out these articles to see how paths have changed.

Vista Arrow

Vista Processes Changes – End Task

And if that’s not scary enough that article up above on the CTP 5365 release talks about a feature where the screen turns black and takes your focus to a dialog box that can not be tabbed to regain focus until you tell Windows what you want it to do with the task at hand. Sweet.. pain in the butt.

So what about Boot Camp and the inevitable OSX comparisons? Well I found out some info on that too.

All is not completely lost though. There is a small faction at MS who do want change. Partially because there is a new head at the Windows division but more so in that almost every department but the Windows division is on target to deliver their product on time to meet the original August ship date. Office 12, IE7, Windows Media Player and a whole host of others have already turned in their work early and were let go for 15 extra minutes of recess. Windows on the other hand will be all alone in detention.

The cool kids at MS are actually kind of hardcore in their new philosophies. I conclude by showing you that MS can be all about the cheap for students.

Free tools from MS

Windows Live Mail for Students

Not bad for the evil empire eh? Next month the free continues as we all bow down before the goodness of Vista Beta!

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Leaves Are Blooming And So Are Your CCTV Options.

Sorry about the lack of updates after CSUN. I have been traveling and I have a new project that may be due this summer. So it took some focus away from the Blog. Okay the Playstation is enough to steal my focus away.. and my new Robot Chicken Season 1 set.. a good meal. you know come to think of it there are some new flavors of Dibbs, crack in ice cream form, out there. Well stuff it here's some AT opinions.

Here’s a bit more from my loads of CSUN news. Yes.. I actually had more to say about that. Go figure. I am a verbose kind of guy.

The following are my opinions about a few of the many CCTV units out there. Remember that I am a low vision user and my views of these units are specific to my vision. Your mileage may vary. So if any of these units sound good to you I urge you to seek them out through your local distributor. And since viewing these devices is like eating ice cream you may find that you have to go through at least half of the 31 flavors out there to find the one that best fits your tastes. Also remember that I see a lot of these things, about 7 to 10 new models a year, and I admit to being very very jaded about some solutions to the eternal argument on what makes a good Video Magnifier/CCTV?Auto Reader/whatever the industry term is now a days.

With that said…

The Clarity Carrymate.

I recently spent some time looking at this unit from Clarity.

Like a lot of their products you find yourself loving it or disliking it intensely in just the first 10 minutes of use. Personally I am not a fan of this unit. Now that’s not to say it’s not a good display or that it isn’t easy to use. It’s just not my cup of tea.

I once owned an old style Travel Mate. So I am familiar with where the units have gained their evolutionary track from, however, there is not enough “new’ here to be interesting really. The unit is self contained. It is heavy beyond it’s listed 10 pounds. And it’s not something I would want to lug around from place to place if I have weight restrictions or conditions that make carrying this unit an issue for every day use.

The unit’s display is clear but the unit I saw was tended to give a not so clar auto focus when zooming in on glossy materials. Light is always a key aspect in this unit’s presentation. So external lighting choices may drastically affect the quality of image seen on the unit’s display.

Now here’s either a selling point or a major detraction. The unit’s frame is very solid. The type of solid that let’s you know you dropped 10 pounds of dead weight on your foot kind of solid. While the unit can be moved into various positions doing so may feel a bit more laborious because of the heavy duty style of the unit’s frame.

Bottom Line:
With options like Enhanced Vision’s Acrobat, and it’s fleet of accessories, it’s hard to recommend this to a general traveler who wants flexibility when traveling. A mid line CCTV may not have the ability to focus on materials from far away but it does fit nicely in the over head bins in airplanes. Now if you need a work out and your hell on equipment then seek this unit out by all means.

The Return Of The OPTi.

Years ago the Opti, I am sticking with the regular spelling thank you marketing gurus, was one of the only options out there for laptop enabled CCTV units. But like any new emerging sub category it had it’s problems. Driver support from limited memory video cards was wonky at best. Refresh rates of early LCD laptop monitors made viewing images difficult. In fact it was like watching a flipbook of crudely drawn letters in sandscript if you had a high amount of useable vision. And then the killer was that the unit just didn’t want to work with a laptop running Zoom Text. Just having it on your system rendered it inert. Not good for those with low vision who generally, at the time, universally used ZT on a daily basis. Even worse for a college I know of who loved that camera until they found out about the ZT issue.

Well after a short vacation of a few years the Opti is tanned, rested and back to take on the laptop Video magnifiers of the world. And it brought a two cousins.

One style has an arm that allows you to turn the unit’s camera in to almost any direction. The second has the camera mounted on a fixed arm which only allows you to move the camera up for distance viewing or downward to view documents. The third is the old mouse style camera which may be familiar to those who already have used a Liberty Solo or the new Fusion. And all, at this current date, still do not work well with systems that run Zoom Text. I know.. I asked one of the lead engineers at CSUN directly.

The units utilize software that enables you to take pictures of what your looking at for later use. Only a few formats are supported for now and the software it’s self seemed to be about as easy to naviage as the one found with Clarity’s laptop unit. The software was still in Beta so this could all change by the time the unit is released into production.

The feel of the units were solid and the mouse cam was easy to use. Laptop configurations were said not to be as restrictive as some others on the market, however, the quality of image is effected on any unit by the minimum requirements of any given laptop. USB 2.0, at least a 64 meg video card and a decent LCD monitor are your guidelines for all of these laptop units. But honestly a better system can’t hurt if your going to rely on these guys for general all purpose use.

The weight and the form factor was good. The heaviest unit I have found so far in this sub category is the Optelec Clear Note and the Opti was far less heavier than that. And a bit easier to move around as well. But in the Clear Note’s defense .. it comes in a really snazzy custom made bag.

Bottom Line: Wait and see. Just about everybody and their dog have a Laptop Solution coming. The key elements you want to look for are self contained battery, more than just USB video support and weight/setup time. Draining power off your laptop’s battery could be very uncool as you KNOW this little fact will bite you when you least expect it too of course. And remember your going to be carrying a laptop bag and this thing around. So moving to a more durable rolling case may just save you time at the chiropractor having your shoulders put back into place.

Magnilink X Reader

I have been using these devices for daily reading tasks since 1980. And at no time have I been in more debates about how good or how well or how fantastic or how bad a CCTV is until now. This unit’s opinion base was fractured into two camps and both tended to be very vocal about their likes and dislikes. First let’s look at the unit shall we..

I want to say that the X reader was one of the clearest images I have ever seen on a low vision electronic video magnifier.. period. It rarely showed a halo in false colors, it barely tore or smeared an image at rapid reading speeds and there is no denying that it is a marvel of Euro engineering that looked like it just fell out of the Ikea catalog.


Here’s what the detractors had to say about the unit. Several felt that the controls, especially the rocker stick to zoom in and out, would break off after long use. Others did not like the 3 colors offered [in both positive and negative by the way making a total of 6] and the knob used for color selection was also said to be inadequate. And this is the big E the lights under the unit are directed forward towards the user rather than down or away from the reader. Personally this was the only fault I found had merit. The unit is so open underneath that the glare from the lights on glossy materials will take your focus away from the unit’s display. Some may just say that I am traditional but honestly that light was bright folks and I wasn’t a big fan of squinting to see text in a negative image.

I spoke to the company at CSUN. And they were perplexed by our findings. The unit has sole well in Europe and they had never received this kind of feedback about it’s performance. I tossed it off to us being impolite typical Americans with their nasty Yank attitudes. No really I did. I wasn’t prepared at all for the rebuke about an opinion. So when in doubt rely on humor to get you out of a tight situation.

In response to our remarks the company is working on a few new accessories. One of which is a piece of cloth that can be held in place by magnets affixed to the unit it’s self. This cloth will block some of the glare I noted above from the reflected forward mounted light. Their solution is unique and stylish I will give you that. Now where did I put that furniture catalog at anyway. I need a functional office desk to put this thing on that doesn’t scream US Office Cubist Post Modernism.

We got in a Topaz last week. So expect some views on our test unit soon.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Beyond The Rim: Dean Jackson

"Beyond The Rim" is a term that comes from the Sci Fi show Babylon 5. It's a term that means respect and admiration for those who have passed onward to a better place.

Dean Jackson is a name you may have seen or read or heard of if you were a Braille Note user. This gentleman was one of the most knowledgeble people I knew of in regards to the Humanware line of note takers. And he always seemingly found an answer to whatever ailled your system either on the User Lists or in other venues. It was this care for detail and kindness to any level of User that I found to be just amazing.

It has been recently reported by Jonathan Mozen that Dean has passed beyond the rim. My condolences go out to Dean's friends and family. We have lost another strong voice in the world of AT and his contributions to our industry won't be soon forgotten.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Dude... Your Gettin' A Dell...

Well I am typing on my new Intel Dual Core system and it's kind of strange. Buying a Dell was on a kind of "My Name Is Earl" list of things I thought I would never do. And then good old Mike Dell had to go and buy Alienware. Drat and curses foiled again.

You see I worked at Gateway, okay an outsourcer for Gateway but you know how that goes, and I stayed loyal a long time. I mean I knew the way the Restoration Discs worked, I knew the secret numbers and phrases to bypass level 1 support. And honestly at one time they were actually good machines. I am still a sort of fan of their laptops, however, they are just repackaged Toshibas. Which you can land cheap at Best Buy from time to time.

Anyway, back to a possible point, the lads at UPS in my area need a serious tthrashing. I called in a favor at work so I could be home to setup the new testing rig. I used some time I had laying around for just such an occasion. And I sat in front of my TV playing Xenosaga 2 [almost finished too] wating for my two 28 pound and one 48 pound box to come. It did.. at 4:07. Or at least that's the time the auto response phone maze gave me when it informed me that my major purchase had been dropped off at our complex office. The VERY THING I was trying to avoid mind you.

Now if I was not paying attention then it's my fault right? Well I had the sound nearly off. The dog never barked and this brown costumed ninja placed the "Sorry Charlie" sticker on my door without a sound. Amazing. . simply amazing. I was going to chalk it up to them not wanting to deliver my system to a second floor unit, however, I have a first floor garage and the fellow could have dropped and run off very easily. Instead he dropped it off alright. A half a mile in the front of my complex. Sigh..

I found out later that our local UPS does this all the time. He left a 2 pound box of Diabetic supplies up front once a few weeks ago. Good Grief!

So I landed a XPS 400 Media Center XP machine. I got it on one of those Dell deals you see on the TV.. until April 9th it says by the way. But I also landed one of those weekly specials that fall between the hours of 12:00 PM and 12:01 PM. Funny thing about Dell is that you could do the same quote four times in four hours and get four unique results. Well I spun the wheel, bought a vowel and guessed the puzzle correctly. And Vana showed me this..

Intel Dual Core 2.8
1 GB 533 MHz [DDR I think] RAM
256 NVIDIA 7300LE Turbo
Sound Blaster Music 5.1
160 GB 7800 HDD
Dual DVD Drives w/one Dual layer RW
20 inch Ultra Sharp Widescreen LCD [running with DVI at the moment]

The out of the box experience has it's moments. Non visually the thing you have to look out for is the non speaking Dell ULA with your Express number for tech support. The screen says in nice hard to read text that the number is also under the Dell Accessories folder as well. But you wouldn't know that if you didn't have someone on hand to read it to you.

Now as another aside I was impressed that the speaker cabeling, and a few other odds and ends, had tactile markings. So you could figure out which line was which.. from the multi colored text diagram. Honestly though even sighted individuals need help with 5.1 though.

I had not planned on buying a new system so soon but yet so far away from Vista. then microsoft had to go and have it's self a little meltdown. And then I was asked to be on a panel at this year's NFB National Convention in Dallas.. and well I needed a testing rig at home in order to really do things right. Weak excuse? Nope. I was running off my Toshiba laptop as the dedicated home system of choice when the video card went bad on my old P IV 5 year old Gateway. It was time to move on and Dual Core sounded nice. And I guess I am a sucker for a sale. But I hear that after this big blow out is done wait on buying until after the "Education Window". This is the golden time where parents buy their deamond spawn computers for college and some companies raise their prices by 10% during the mid April to late July period. To quote Connect Four "Pretty Sneaky Sis..".

Now here's the best and funniest part of the story. Do you know when I called to verify the status of the video card with some Assistive Technology makers? Yep.. today around two hours hours before Mr. Brown dropped my stuff into apartment complex limbo. Boy does that say a lot for Mr. AT over here doesn't it? One conversation with tech support resulted in this line of dialog..

"Humm.. We tested the 6800 but we think it should work. Let us know how it goes could you?"

With this information on hand I decided to just load one program for now and fall back to the "count three and pray" method. Zoom Text is stable and running pretty darn good. the text is so clear that I disabled xFont. I think if I turn it on bold the screen will burn the Start button into the wall behind me.

Okay.. enough personal stuff for now. They all can't be juicy gossip or wild rumor or accusation all of the time.