Friday, January 08, 2010

Inclusion: 2010 Consumer Electronics Show featuring off the shelf accessibility

I’m a little geeky and get excited each year when the annual Consumer Electronics Show , or CES, starts. However, I’m more excited by two announcements from this year’s CES, currently going on in Las Vegas. Usually, we see technology for people with disabilities launched at annual conferences for that specific market, but this year, two companies are using the CES to announce and demonstrate their products. This fact makes the point that the needs of today’s consumers with disabilities are getting more of an intentional focus. After the paragraphs sharing about these two innovations, I will share why these announcements are so landmark.
(The links are courtesy of

The first product I will share is the
Ocean Blue
set top cable box which features fully accessible menus and on-screen information for the blind. This information of video programming has been available to sattelite and cable users for many years, and developed into some monstrous remotes, most of whose functions were lost on those who could not see the screen. Not any more, though. (The above link has a Flash video which will launch upon opening, which will give you a full working demonstration of their product.)

In the past, have cable providers thought their customers who are blind didn’t need the same information that their sighted customers had full access to? It doesn’t have to be that way any longer. Ocean Blue collaborated with the UK’s Royal National Institute of Blind People to develop this fine, workable solution that means access for all without people who are blind having to find some other solution to find access to the otherwise freely disseminated on-screen information. And, for the cable companies, they can offer more actual information to their customers, as well.

And, the second product I’ll offer up is the
Blio e-reader.
(This CNET web interview features both text and a Flash video you can launch, which will let you hear or see a demo of the Blio actually in use.)

The Blio is the latest innovation from Ray Kurzweil, a name very familiar in the various disability circles as he is associated with many reading innovations over the past 35 years. Now, Kurzweil is taking the knowledge base he’s accumulated over the years and integrating this into one of the latest technology trends, e-books.

There was quite a buzz at the CES about the many different e-book readers from the various book sellers and tech companies. What sets the Blio apart, though, is that it does what all those others can’t—it makes e-books accessible to all readers, including the blind. And, to top it off, the Blio does for sighted readers what the others also do not—gives them full color presentation and web-integrated abilities.
There are a few facets that set Blio apart from the other e-readers.

First, the Blio is not another hardware device like the other book sellers are hawking, which will almost always be exclusively tied to that one bookseller’s service. Instead, the Blio is computer software. Initially, Blio can be installed on Windows-based computers, as well as the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch, and Kurzweil is wanting to make it available on other operating systems.

Secondly, Blio also comes with more than a million books available for free when you install it.

And, finally, is a feature the other e-readers can’t match, the price. The Blio is free.

Now, let me tell you why these two products mentioned above are big announcements for assistive technology, specifically, but, more importantly, in regards to off the shelf accessibility. Why is this off the shelf experience important, one might ask. It is important because nobody should have to pay an additional cost to use the products that he purchased for the same price as everybody else. It would be like selling a bicycle to people, then saying, you have to pay an additional cost to make the wheels unlock and let them roll for you. That bicycle analogy is the way it has been for people with disabilities in the past when they have had to purchase additional software or hardware just to use the off the shelf computer, which they purchased for the same price paid by everybody else. However, because this population has a disability and has an additional need not addressed by the computer, this segment of the population had to pay what basically amounts to a disability tax to purchase the access devices.

Only recently, have companies begun to embrace the idea of off the shelf accessibility. One of the first products I found this way was the Olympus DS 30, DS 40, and DS 50 models of its digital recorders and music players. These voice recorders came out of the box with talking menus already installed, which were activated on startup. The user could turn these off if he didn’t want them. And, one of the biggest leaps into accessibility was the one that Apple made last year when they included Voice Over, their built-in, fully functioning screen reader, in many products from their line of Mac computers, the iPhone, and various models of their, now ubiquitous, iPods.

Now, with the launch of Ocean Blue’s set top box and the Blio, you might hear a loud rumble taking place in thepopulation of people with disabilities. That rumble is chanting, “Hurrah! The digital revolution is here!”

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