Friday, February 29, 2008

Jim Halliday Retires

Humanware has posted a really nice write up on one of our industry's long time and well known players. Best of luck Jim in your future travels.

Magic 11.0 Officially Released!

The product Press Releases should be coming pretty fast and furious again as we ramp up towards CSUN week. Today we find that Freedom Scientific has released the new version of their Screen Magnifier. To get a demo or learn more about version 11 hit the link below.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Freedom Scientific Updates Their Site And Open Book 8 Released

I'm a little late to the party in saying that the new Open Book 8 is out in the wild. Sporting a new keyboard layout, the ability for OB to use multiple scanning engines and the Realspeak voices the update may be worth the $150 upgrade for those of you who have an older version of the product. And for those of you moving to Vista or Office 07 the upgrade falls into the "must buy" category of upcoming AT purchases.

Speaking of updates .. FS has updated their site. To see the new look and navigation check out the link below.

Windows XP SP3 RC2 Now Online

Microsoft has released to the public a RC2 version of Service Pack 3. If you are already running a previous version of SP3 you will have to uninstall it first before attempting the new update. If you haven't played with SP3 yet and you are running SP2 then you can check out the link below without having to jump through any hoops. However XP SP3's final version should be coming up in April. So if you want to wait for the real thing you won't have to wait long. Of course for those of us who like to break their operating systems for no good reason will be hitting the link below.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

One Month: Zoom Text USB

The best way that I have explained this product to other long time Zoom Text users off line is like this... Imagine that you have heard that your favorite book is going to be turned into a movie. You think about which actors could play each character. You dream about the styles, sets and costumes. Then you compare your soon to be released movie to other movies of the same genre. And then you go the extra step by going to the midnight showings of this movie because you are a fan and you don't want anyone to spoil it for you. Now here we are at 3 AM, the movie is over and we have to be at work at 7:30 AM. Let's begin our look at the ZT USB.

The Zoom Text USB has finally arrived and it takes on the Dolphin Pen and Freedom Scientific's Magic options in the arena of Screen Magnifier portability. But unlike those competitors the ZT USB doesn't act like some might expect and this could be a make or break issue if you are looking for the ability to use magnification anywhere at anytime.

Box shot of ZoomText Magnifier/Reader

A picture of the original version of the USB Drive for Zoom Text

The good news is that if you are a person with a small amount of vision loss and you are familiar with Zoom Text's installation process then you will be very comfortable with how the ZT USB operates. However if you require some form of Screen Reader or if you use Zoom Text at a high level of magnification you might find yourself needing assistance on new and strange computers.

Ai Squared has utilized a standard USB drive for Zoom Text rather than the U3 type drives used by Serotek and others. The original design used a method where you pinched both sides of the drive and then slid out from the main body the USB connector. This design has now been replaced by a switchblade or swivel method of removing the connector from it's storage area. The original design did protect the connector better, however, individuals who suffer from hand related disabilities may have encountered some difficulty in removing the drive from it's covering. The newer style is easier to open but it does make me encourage you to consider the Drive Replacement plan more readily. Also, this recommendation goes for other companies who offer USB solutions as losing or destroying your only copy of an Assistive Technology program can be costly in the long run. 

All Screen Magnifiers at this time require an install shield of some sort. Current and classic models of Screen Magnification use either DCM or Mirror Driver technology for video interception. Companies like Issist take a kind of Windows Magnifier approach but for the most part the big 3 in mainstream AT go the routes mentioned above. So from this standpoint Zoom Text's USB option isn't unique.

When you approach a new computer using Windows XP with the Dolphin product you will find that the program will start on its own and prompt you verbally that it will need to install a component before you can use Screen Magnification on that particular system. The process is veritably seamless and you only have the one prompt. The process can also be started manually by browsing the Dolphin Pen and choosing "GO" if that particular computer is locked down from launching programs automatically. In cases like this for speech users you will find yourself relying on Windows Narrator or SATOGO to get you past these initial hurtles.

If you approach a new computer using Windows XP with the ZT USB you will encounter a box with options familiar to you if you have multiple media players running on the same system. This box has options for viewing the various file types on the ZT USB, however, in all my tests the default option is almost always "Run Zoom Text". Since this box is not spoken by any on board speech having the default set to "Run Zoom Text" can be very helpful at times. This box launches automatically due to the inclusion of an "autorun" file like those found on installation CDs. One positive aspect of using this method is that you can place a check in the checkbox in this box in Vista which will in turn launch the program every time you come back to this computer in the future.

The decision to use this "autorun" file makes installing ZT on a fresh computer pretty simple. Taking it to another computer already running ZT can be a totally different story though. More on that in a second. Once you select the "Run Zoom Text" option you should be launched into the normal Zoom Text install shield. The same choices found on the CD are available here. So, again, if you know how to install Zoom Text, and you have Admin privileges on that particular system, you will be up and running on the reboot.

From the start of the new session of Windows you can setup your new Zoom Text USB with all your custom settings, features and managed application preferences. In fact operating the ZT USB is just like using the version you are already familiar with from the CD. You still have access to the new tutorials and the Dual Monitor functionality. Plus you have all the voices on board as well. once you have the USB version installed you will have a hard time knowing if you are on a typical install or the new USB option.

That is all well and good if you can get there of course. I mentioned before that running the USB drive on a computer that already has ZT on it can be a challenge. First let me say why you would want to do this. You can save your configuration directly on to the USB its self. Running the USB will launch your settings from the drive and when working with multiple users of Zoom Text on one system this can save tons of time in configuring or searching for one of several profiles. I've thrown people for a loop if I have left my ZT USB active and they hear True Voice instead of Neo Speech. While this is good for  a chuckle it can be confusing to some who aren't well versed in undoing some settings. And yes someone did restore me back to factory defaults to keep me from leaving my drive in systems where it didn't belong.

But even more horrible than being stuck with my funky ZT configuration can be the install process gone wrong. The version in which ZT becomes USB aware is 9.13. This can be a problem if your local library, school disabilities center or VR Counselor's office is behind on their updates. You must update Zoom Text to this version before you can use your new USB drive on these systems. The USB contains this update, however, the prompts for this and other error messages you may encounter are not spoken. They are in large print and that may be enough for some to troubleshoot their way across the gap. But you may find that you will need Narrator or SATOGO or an unsuspecting bystander if you can not navigate these boxes on your own.

Things get a whole lot trickier if the system has an older version of Zoom Text aboard. As a normal part of the Zoom Text USB install process the program will load into a 30 day demonstration mode of version 9.1. This, of course, is normal behavior because the CD version does the same exact thing until you enter your product serial number. Where the USB differs is that after you remove the USB drive from a computer the zoom Text program will remain on that system. And without the drive in the system it will revert back to Trial or Demo mode.

Ai Squared has enabled the USB drive to load a key onto that computer to make it a full version of Zoom Text if you so desire. By loading a key, as with the CD version of the program, you can use ZT with no fear of timing out. Sadly though if this is a computer that you do not own or if you are using on a temp basis you are loading the system down with an unactivated version of the product. Also since the program runs from the computer and not the drive you will need to uninstall ZT from a computer who has been nice enough to let you use it temporarily. Other USB options for Assistive Technology can leave some residual files too, however, the Zoom Text install can be pretty invasive to some Network Admins out there. Therefore caution is advised on where you decide to use your USB drive. 

Note: I stress this portion of the program's use because so many people I run into are comparing the various USB AT options in a universal way. Serotek's way of doing things is not the method Dolphin, G.W. Micro, Freedom Scientific or Ai Squared accomplish USB connectivity. Counting the number of times I explain this a day off line requires me to use both hands and four toes on one foot. This confusion is natural do to the various strategies employed by all for each of their portable options. Still knowing how your particular product works in this arena will save you a world of disappointment later on down the line.

For one month I used the USB drive in my daily work. I tried it on five systems. Two were laptops, three were desktops of various ages and one of each ran Vista. In all cases, once the USB was installed correctly, the product ran fine. Having my specific configuration on hand was fantastic. Sure I could have made a .zxc file and carried it around on a drive, however, I would still have to install ZT and then open that file to get it to work in the same "all in one" package of the ZT USB. I also found the empty space left on the drive [around 400 MB] made a great last second dumping ground for small files. And in this respect I could drop one of my many other USB memory sticks for a while.

What I didn't like about using the drive is that if the ZT USB is not connected Zoom Text will look for it when booting up. The program will send a call out to all my USB ports and I can clearly hear my Seagate Free Agent drive spin up when I launch the program without the ZT USB on board. I occasionally heard one older system's floppy drive be called as well. This was annoying but not a showstopper for me by any means.

I also generally hesitate in the idea of carrying the program in such an easy to lose, crunch, fold, spindle or mutilate fashion. I guess the argument could be made that taking around the CD could be just, if not more, dangerous. But I don't carry the CD around with me either. Which then brings up the question.. "Who is this for anyway?".

If you have to move around to a lot of systems a day, month or year then this may not save you any time. You still have to install the program. You still need access as an Admin. You still are restrained by any system requirements. You are still only running a 30 day trial if you do not have your ZT USB on board or if you haven't transferred one of your three keys to that system.. And you still might find  that a multi license agreement ,if you are in a call center or some such employer with a lot of computers, is a far faster way of accessing the program on the fly.

Who this option is perfect for is the Road Warrior person in sales or who often travels to various offices. A lot of these types of companies outsource their I.T. departments. And one thing I have learned about that is they love to reimage a system at the drop of a hat. In these situations having an easy to find copy of your program can be a real necessity if you  cannot get to the Internet to download a trial copy of the program you are using regularly. Moreover, if the laptop supports this option of course, being able to have Screen Magnification on a Power Point via the laptop screen while using the Dual Monitor feature in version 9.1 to show the Power point through a projector unmagnified has served me well in several situations.

The USB drive is also great for those of us who use the same system with multiple ZT users. Schools especially would be great places for this device as you wouldn't have to worry about setting or resetting your program configuration again and again. Long time users of Zoom Text can accrue many specific managed application files. Or they may forget what they checked off in the checkboxes in specific verbosity options. Having it all just load automatically may save some V.I. Teacher's sanity as a result of being unburdened by this process. 

overall I have to say that upgrading to the USB version of Zoom Text can mainly depend on what you want to do with all this new found portability. You *could* carry around a off the shelf USB drive with a 30 day demo of ZT and your configuration files. However installing all of that could be time consuming and awfully hard to do on smaller monitor displays. that is If you can get to those files without Screen Magnification or Speech Assistance in the mix too. In most cases placing in the ZT USB drive and hitting the "Run Zoom Text" option is faster and easier. Plus you already have your desired settings on hand. So for some users this option will allow for an easier go when traveling from system to system.

I just don't know if this accessory is for everyone. I'm glad to have one don't get me wrong. But I think I let my mind run away with me on how good this device was going to be back when I dreamed about it coming to the market. Hence that first paragraph at the top of this post. I built this thing up in my mind and those poor people in Vermont couldn't possibly figure out what goes on in there. Nor would I have them try! I think in this story my expectations clashed with reality and I may have wanted the movie to be more like the book. And now I get what all those Harry Potter fans go on about on the list serves.

As per my usual recommendation. "Try before you buy" or at least perform a little research before you pull out your wallet.

I didn't talk about the backup feature included on the ZT USB. Here is a link to the MS Word version of the install documentation. It covers the backup feature and more if you are interested in knowing more details about how the drive works.

To learn more or if you are interested in purchasing the Zoom Text USB check out the link below.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Apple: Arrgh! Grudgingly Acknowledging Some OSX Admiration...

Some recent events have sadly knocked me off of my trusty old soapbox when it comes to Apple and the Blind and Visually Impaired. none of this info that I am about to impart to you should be taken as me ripping up my "Friends Don't Let Friends Use Macs" signs. Nor should you take it as my recommendation that you run right out and get a Mac Mini or Air or any other nonsense from the button hating so called Tech Mangod Jobbs. Also remember whenever anyone cries "Microsoft is a Monopoly!" and then puts on their iPod they should then, in my humble opinion, find themselves burned at the stake for being a hypocrite. Even with all of this on the table.. Let me now give Apple some credit for doing some things right.

iPhone: I don't like the thing. It is small, difficult to use effectively and it starts a dangerous trek down a slippery slope where access for all gets tossed out because "Aw. Its so pretty". However I can't ignore that this device has become a real and powerful tool for the Deaf community at large. Texting is now their main form of communication and the clarity of the screen for video ends up being a great aspect of the phone for those needs. And in some cases, as I found out a month ago, some Low Vision users can also benefit from the unit as well.

A gentleman I met had won an iPhone through his workplace. He was planning on selling the fancy thing through eBay or Craig's List when his wife suggested that he look at the phone first before giving it away. Now this guy is not a nOOb when it comes to phones. He was using a Blackberry, with a lot of problems of course, so he was skeptical that the iPhone would be any better for his work needs. He was surprised to find out that it was much better than the Crackberry. he said to me that the inclusion of the glass screen, instead of the normal plastic ones, made the image of the phone far brighter than anything else he had seen. Enlarging the icons, changing contrast and the colors on the larger glass screen really made a difference and he now swears by the phone for all of his work related duties.

I, now with a more open mind, did not find it to be helpful for me. but I am currently using a Q with a 30 day demo of Mobile Speak. Plus, for full transparency sake, to me magnifying such a small screen is always a process of diminishing returns. Voice output is, in a lot of cases, much faster than rubbing your nose on a phone. Again.. just me. Your mileage may vary and you might want to journey down to your local Apple Store for a demo if you are looking for a more visual experience with your phone.

Braille In 10.5: Another arena where I have to take my hat off to Cupertino is their new addition of Braille Display support in Leopard. We recently were playing with a new Macbook Pro when we got the bright idea to try this new feature out. We grabbed a Braille Connect 40 and patched it in via USB. To our amazement the Mac found the display and to use a well worn Apple phrase "it just worked". No balloons, boxes, downloads, prompts or restarts. We just plugged it in and "poof!" there was Braille.

With one experiment gone right we decided to tempt fate and try a totally different display in the same work session. We pulled a Freedom Scientific Focus 80 over to the unsuspecting Macbook. We hot swapped the USB connections. And again, to the silence of a stunned office, it worked again in the exact same manner as I described above. We didn't have time to see how accurate the support was and we used only the defaults set in Universal Access. But this impromptu experiment was enough to make all of us say that we would have to find ourselves looking more serious at the Apple systems in the future. When you figure that you can run Leopard with Windows XP and say Serotek's System Access all at the same time with Voiceover for the OSX side of things... well... I again have to give credit where credit is due.

As an appeasement to the Tech Mangod I now offer these links to be sacrificed to the millions. Oh please Great Jobbs do not smite me down with your minions of AT&T!

Braille support update from the Unofficial Apple Web Log

Page where you can see the Braille Displays supported in Leopard

The Screenless Switchers Page and Podcasts

The Mac Visionaries Page

Friday, February 08, 2008

Random Microsoft Goodness: BCM, Vista SP1, Anytime Upgrade And Patch Tuesday

Ars Technica has just exploded with lots of Microsoft news. Here are a few articles of interest that have appeared on the site in the last 24 hours.

BCM And Office: BCM, or Business Contact Manager, is a very cool and very good part of the Office 03 and 07 suite of programs. Looks like it was so cool that MS is sharing it with others who may not be into MS Office Suites in general.

Vista SP1: The article below mulls over which of the last few releases in beta ended up being the official RTM, released to manufacturing, version that we will see online in the next few weeks.. that is if you haven’t done it through P2P.. ahem.

Anyteim Upgrade: One of the really neat components that Vista offers is the ability to upgrade yourself up to a higher level of Vista bliss. Of course one of the most confusing components of Vista is this “Anytime Upgrade” system. One year into Vista’s life span shows that MS recognizes this issue and they have now done something about the problem. Don’t read the link below if you thought that the solution is to make upgrading cheaper. SPOILER: Prices to upgrade are still the same.

Patch Tuesday: 12 updates for various products are coming. Learn more about them in the link below.

Big Finish Relaunches With Download Service!

By far the biggest reason why I don’t blog as much with my free time is that I am totally immersed in alien worlds when listening to audio dramas from Big Finish. When I was desperate for new Doctor Who stories between the 9th and now 10th Doctors I scoured the interwebs for anything that wasn’t Fan Fiction. Well one of my podcasts mentioned this stuff from a company called Big Finish. A few moments with Google, however, made me more than obsessed with the company and their high quality radio dramas.

Big Finish is based in the UK and they have the licenses to create and sell radio plays from Dark Shadows, Judge Dredd [2001 A.D. to be exact], Classic Doctor Who and starting this year they will be offering plays from the Stargate franchise. All of the plays involve members of the original casts of their respective series. Both casts from SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis will be voicing their characters in these upcoming audio stories. The original sound effects are used as well. And you can easily detect that great care to the quality of each production has been taken to give you a “lost episode” experience.

The actors who portray the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Doctors are all a part of these stories. In some cases the Doctor’s Companions even get their own stories to tell in the new “Companion Chronicles” series. Another high point is that the current voice of the Daleks, Cybermen and other aliens in the new Doctor Who series [Nicholas Briggs] is one of the founding members of the group. And hearing his Dalek voices in the awesome series “Dalek Empire” adds even more of an authentic feel to the company’s various productions.

This month the Big Finish website relaunched with one very important new feature. For the first time you can subscribe to a download service for many of the Big Finish heavies like Doctor Who and the upcoming Stargate stories. The company will still offer their traditional CDs, however, paying for shipping is an expensive proposition for those of us in the States. If you do, like me, like physical media you aren’t out in the cold on the downloads. In fact you can download the files the day the masters are cut for CD pressings. So you can have the best of both worlds in that respect.

Big Finish has a huge back catalog with hundreds of hours available amongst it’s various dramas. At the moment they are about to release a new season of the 8th Doctor Adventures. They also have just released a new telling of “The Phantom of the Opera” which is said to be the closest adaptation to the original work yet. And there are new installments of the Classic Doctor Who stories released every month too. At present they are at episode 104 in the monthly release count.

As you can tell by this post I am a gigantic fan of the Big Finish productions. If you are looking for something new, original and sonically modern then give these audio stories a chance. If you are a fan of any show I mentioned here then don’t hesitate to jump to the site at the link below to know more about these fantastic new dramas from some of your favorite characters.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Amazon Buys Audible

I heard this in passing on one of my tech shows last week. Looks like everyone's fave digital bookseller just became a smaller fish in a very big pool.

Vista SP1 IS Real And Coming In March

So far my work with SP1 with a lot of AT programs has turned out to be .. well borring. Nothing exploded and nothing ate Vista for lunch. Oh sure it wasn't smooth as glass. But as far as the update goes it tends to be just another "run of the mill" sort of thing. Naturally I suggest you wait for the official "all clear" signal from you're software of choice. Or you can do that three month grace period on patches. However SP1 speeds things up, adds a few tweaks and is worth the upgrade once it goes online officially.

The Super Site for Windows has updated their FAQ for SP1. You can check it out at the link below.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

January's Poll Results And This Month's New Poll

As you might remember last month's poll came to me when I was picking up one of many moving boxes that contained tons, or at least it felt that way, of Cds. I had ripped some of them but I had not really nabbed the majority of my collection yet because I kept flip flopping on the bit rate I wanted to use. Hence the poll.

January Poll Question: At What Bit Rate Do You Archive Your Music?

128 - 5 (25%)

192 - 5 (25%)

256 - 0 (0%)

320 - 6 (30%)

Lossless .. I Have Gigs Of Space! - 4 (20%)

I have to admit that this one surprised me a little. I was using 192 a lot as of late. But then the same number of you use 128. And that took away my thought that I was in a happy medium. but then I saw the 320 votes pull up and win by one. I use a 30 gig player, the Archos 604 if anyone is interested, and I can hold a good bit at 320. However I don't see myself going lossless. Probably due to my desire, no need!, to have the original physical media for those recordings I treasure most. Heck the link to this month's CD is a reissue of one I already have. Which sadly means I will be doing that standard "trade in and trade up" routine for a 24 bit master and one bonus track. Sigh..

This month's poll came from a discussion I had with some co-workers. Every once in a great while the Low Vision and Blindness community hits a trend. A "One product to rule them all" kind of thing. In 2007 we jumped from the Creative Stone to the Victor Reader Stream. Considering the recent news out of ATIA this begs the call for this month's poll question.

Poll Of The Month: Do You Own Or Are You Going To Buy A Victor Reader Stream?

Yes, I own a Stream and I love it!
Yes, I have one but I just don't get the hype..
Yes, I am thinking about buying a Stream
No, I am not interested in getting a Stream
No, I use another device like the Victor Reader Stream

Hopefully that list covers all the bases. I don't like to invoke the "other" option if I can get away with it in things like this.

Enter The Accessible Digital Lifestyle

Serotek has released their presentation from ATIA on the web. To hear the MP3 version go to the link below..

To see the Power Point with audio use this link..

View PowerPoint Presentation with Audio

And to learn more about the many products offered by Serotek go to their front page..

Window Eyes Short Introduction To Scripting

2008 will more than likely end up getting the tag "The Year of the Scripting Edition". Naturally we had JFW, then Magic in the summer of 2007 and just recently Zoom Text released their edition as well. So it wasn't a real surprise to me when GW Micro, and a few others out there, told me that scripts were on the way. If you are into this sort of thing then you are in for a real treat. Me.. not so much. I respect and admire but I'm generally more of an "out of the box" tester and trainer.

Here is the link to the news from GW Micro..