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First Impressions: A New BookSense Owner Compares the New Audio Player and Book Reader to HumanWare’s VictorReader Stream

July 11, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

This article compares the new BookSense product sold by GW Micro and manufactured by Hims Co, LTD.” with the well-established VictorReader Stream manufactured and sold by HumanWare. Both products are ultra-portable devices that enable the blind to read audio books, access books in several electronic text formats and listen to music. I have presented this information in a way that expresses what I believe, in my personal and professional opinion, to be the pros and cons of the new BookSense as compared with the VictorReader Stream from the perspective of an advanced blind technology user who has owned the Stream for almost two years and has just started using the BookSense two days ago.

BookSense Pros

The BookSense sports a plethora of new features and enhancements over the VictorReader Stream which are the basis for the vast majority of its strengths.

BookSense has a text-to-speech synthesizer that seems far superior than that in the VR Stream. It uses the Kate and Paul voices at, I believe, 22 KHz. The vastly improved TTS engine is the primary reason I decided to purchase the BookSense despite my already owning a Stream. I read lots of electronic books during the fall and spring semesters in journalism school, and I was finding the TTS on the Stream slightly hard to handle for that purpose at times. In contrast, I have been reading a book I downloaded from Bookshare yesterday morning and have been enjoying it on the BookSense reading with the Kate voice. Kate and Paul are terrible when used as speech synthesizers for computers, in my opinion, but they’re quite appropriate for use on a book reading device like the BookSense. I heard these voices during the BookSense presentation, and I was sold after doing a bit more research.

BookSense is significantly smaller in size and lighter in weight as compared to the Stream. It is supplied with a lanyard that enables wearing the unit around the neck. The BookSense appears to be well-constructed with tough plastic and flatter buttons that seem to be less susceptible to wear and tear as compared to some of the controls found on the Stream.

BookSense enables charging of its battery through the USB connection while the Stream does not. This offers an obvious practical enhancement over the Stream, where only its proprietary charger may be used. Although charging through the USB connection requires a little more than twice the time (5 versus 2 hours) to complete, the increased flexibility more than makes up for that minor disadvantage.

BookSense supports many formats not available on the Stream, including Audible Enhanced (high quality stereo books from, iTunes, MP4 and others. Support for WMA protected files, such as the Overdrive books you can acquire through public libraries, is promised in a future firmware upgrade.

BookSense has a clock! That’s right. The device can act as a talking clock and you can hear the time even when it is otherwise powered off. Hardware limitations mean that the Stream will never provide this unless a revision is made requiring owners to purchase new units or spend a significant amount of additional funds on an upgrade. Lack of a clock on the Stream means that formats like protected WMA will never be supported because they require adherence to expiration dates and similar licensing rules. Besides, I find it annoying that something as simple as a clock was left out of the design of the Stream.

BookSense incorporates a pair of internal stereo speakers that’s actually loud enough to be useful!

BookSense records in honest-to-goodness stereo MP3 or wave formats at sampling rates high enough to be useful for podcasting, sound seeing tours and other situations outside the traditional classroom scenario imagined by the designers of the Stream.

BookSense XT sports an FM radio that allows blind users to finally enjoy some of the basics the sighted have always had, including verbal frequency read-out and station presets. I know this is rather silly, but I’ve always wanted a radio that would tell me the frequency and allow me to store presets in a way that’s fully accessible. Of course, some ham radio gear has contained this level of accessibility for years, but it’s nice to finally see it on a broadcast receiver.

BookSense XT has 4 GB of internal Flash storage, where the Stream has none at all. The BookSense is supplied with a 2 GB SD card and the BookSense XT is supplied with an 8 GB SD card. You’re completely on your own to purchase an SD card for the Stream, which requires one to operate since it sports no internal storage.

The BookSense XT features Bluetooth for connection to a wireless headset. While this feature currently appears to be unreliable, I am confident the issues will be resolved in short order and the use of a wireless headset will be an enjoyable experience for BookSense XT owners.

Finally, but certainly no less important, the BookSense is sold in the United States by GW Micro, developers of the popular Window-Eyes screen reader and a company known for its high touch and attention to customer service and support.

BookSense Cons

Despite the arrival of this new book reader and player on the market, there is no combination of hardware and firmware that is 100 percent perfect. This couldn’t be more true in the case of the BookSense. It is quite likely, however, that many if not all the disadvantages of the BookSense will be addressed in the near future by GW Micro and Hims, its South Korean manufacturer.

HumanWare has done an excellent job with the controls on the VR Stream, making it, perhaps, one of the easiest blindness technology products to use in the field as of this writing in mid-2009. All controls on the Stream feature good spacing and tactile features making them easy to identify and locate from a blind perspective. Although it is obvious that efforts were made to ensure a similarly easy experience with BookSense, its flatter, smoother controls may put off some users who might find them difficult to manage due to other conditions such as nerve damage in the fingers from diabetes.

On a similar note, HumanWare does a good job of packaging the Stream. The accompanying CD-ROM containing companion software, documentation and the tutorial is supplied in a case that is labeled in Braille for easy identification. The power supply has a rather unique rectangular shape and features several smoothed edges that make it easy to identify and set it apart from other adapters. In comparison, the BookSense CD-ROM, which contains no audio tutorial or companion software, is supplied in a basic paper sleeve with no Braille label, making it just another CD among many in one’s collection. The power supply for the BookSense does feature a nice Braille label, but a switch found next to the plug provides no Braille or tactile indicator. Presuming this switch controls the AC input voltage, one might wonder how long it will take for GW Micro technical support to start dealing with burned up adapters and related hardware problems.

Documentation is another strong point in favor of the Stream. The CD-ROM accompanying the Stream features documentation in several text formats and an excellent audio tutorial created by Jeff Bishop, a broadcaster, Window-Eyes script developer and well-recognized participant in the connected online blind community. If you purchase your Stream from a dealer along with an SD card, it may contain some of this documentation in a form that is ready to read right on the Stream out of the box. In contrast, the CD-ROM accompanying the BookSense contains only the user’s manual in four text formats: rich-text format (RTF), plain text (TXT) and two Microsoft Word documents (the older DOC and the newer DOCX). There is no audio tutorial or other content. Despite the fact that both the BookSense and BookSense XT are supplied with SD cards and the BookSense XT sports internal storage, the manual is not available on the BookSense until the user copies it to the appropriate folder.

Full text navigation is available on the Stream starting at the character level and moving all the way through paragraphs, pages and headings according to the format being read. In comparison, BookSense does not currently allow character-level navigation in text DAISY files such as those supplied by Bookshare. It is hoped this serious oversight will be corrected very soon. It is important to note that the Stream experienced similar challenges in version 1.0 of its firmware.

Overall simplicity and usability are solidly in the Stream’s favor. Each button on the Stream has a well-defined function, menus are simple in nature and it is not necessary to understand Windows or other GUI concepts in order to become an expert user of the Stream. In comparison, the BookSense is a complex device. The manual describes the use of controls including combo boxes, dialogue boxes, edit boxes and menus. Each primary feature (Book Reader, DAISY Player, Media Player, Radio) is considered an application. It may be presumed that the extensive feature set found on the BookSense makes the complexity a necessary evil.

Though the BookSense XT features Bluetooth for connecting to a wireless headset, this functionality currently contains a serious bug making it unreliable. Several new BookSense owners have reported that, after reading for a short time, all audio goes silent and the BookSense completely locks up. GW Micro and the product’s manufacturer are aware of this concern and are working to remedy the issue as soon as possible.

Finally, the BookSense is a new, version 1.0 product. There are bugs, oversights and unforeseen challenges that the Stream has already surpassed during its two years in the marketplace. As the BookSense matures, bugs will be squashed and exciting new features will be added. At the same time, HumanWare representatives have assured the blind community that the Stream will continue to prosper.

Thanks go to several Twitter followers for clarifications and updates.

Categories: BookSense, opinion

Guide Dog Users Group Features Inaccessible Convention Streaming

July 7, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Investigating a report late Sunday evening, we confirmed that GUIDE DOG USERS, INC., an affiliate of the American Council of the Blind is broadcasting its convention using an inaccessible embedded Flash media player. Blind users can listen to the broadcasts but unlabeled buttons provide an inferior experience for the blind as compared to that enjoyed by the sighted.

“We will make efforts to make our site more accessible,” said Bill Clanton, founder and producer of All Pets Radio, the company through which GDUI outsourced the streaming. “Some of the changes you’ve suggested will take some time to redesign, but we want to make All Pets Radio available to all audiences, so we will make the necessary changes.”

“I wonder why they didn’t use ACB Radio for this?” asked Karen Shandrow, a guide dog owner and potential target audience for the broadcasts.

GDUI’s webmaster, Earlene Hughes, was not available for comment.

Newegg Adds Audio CAPTCHA, Demonstrates Ongoing Accessibility Commitment

July 7, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Newegg announced Tuesday that it has implemented audio CAPTCHA on its login page as part of its ongoing commitment to accessibility. The audio playback features an easy-to-understand foreground voice reciting the alphanumeric code to be entered with a background sporting an outdoor sound scheme.

“We at Newegg want to make our website accessible for everyone, including our visually challenged visitors. To demonstrate our commitment, just recently Newegg was awarded the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) Nonvisual Accessibility Web Certification for implementing Deque System’s Worldspace product,” said an unnamed Newegg representative. “Newegg voluntarily implemented the CAPTCHA on our website. We always appreciate suggestions that make our site more user-friendly and since becoming aware of your comments we have installed the audio CAPTCHA for your use.”

Blind customers appreciate this positive move. “The NewEgg audio CAPTCHA works great, simple, fairly straight forward, and not a million characters to remember!” said Tina Ektermanis, a blind college student who experienced difficulties making a purchase on the site in June.

NFB’s Accessible Convention Broadcasts Highlight the Organization’s Responsiveness

July 7, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

On Sunday, we reported the inaccessibility of the live convention broadcasts of the National Federation of the Blind. A new, accessible streaming option was released by the organization Monday morning.

“You’re 100 percent correct about the inaccessibility of Silverlight. The first time we realized the company who donated the streaming to us used Silverlight was when we saw your blog post,” said Chris Danielsen, NFB’s Director of Public Relations. “The NFB will never purposely launch an inaccessible technology. We make every effort to make sure we’re practicing what we preach. In this situation, we screwed up. But we rectified it immediately.”

We jumped the gun by writing the story without giving NFB officials a chance to remedy the issue.

“You could argue we should have been aware of it, but we weren’t. As soon as we found out about it from you, we rectified it. I wish an e-mail had come to us before the blog post. I wish you would’ve confirmed this before blogging,” Danielsen said. “In the future, please talk to us before calling us out.”

“The fact that the organization was able to remedy the situation very early on when few staff are in their offices is promising,” said Angie Matney, a blind law school graduate and NFB member. “It demonstrates that NFB is committed to ensuring the best possible convention listening experience for all who were unable to attend.”

Thought Provoker: Accessibility Evangelism or Something Else?

July 6, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

A reader shared with me her thoughts on the term “accessibility evangelism” as a description of the work I do to promote equal opportunity for the blind through access to information and technology. I have honored her request to remain anonymous.

I don’t like the term evangelism because of the connotation. By definition, evangelism is associated with zealots and fanatics. In my mind, evangelism, zealotry and fanaticism are things you want to stay away from because the connotation is that you will do anything to achieve your goals. The impression the term gives is of a group of people that are willing to go to any lengths to promote accessibility and I think that is a little scary or fanatical. I definitely think that the phrase accessibility evangelism is off putting.   Instead of evangelism, I would suggest champion, proponent, advocate, or campaign.

Another reader, Amber, weighed in with her own thoughts:

Well, in general, evangelism makes me think of those preacher guys on TV, you know the ones who are very powerful preachers and generally I get turned off by that. But I think it’s the term evangelism that makes me think of that.

I guess the term to me would mean someone who works tirelessly to get equal access to services and goods. And that’s not a bad thing, just tireless and thankless.

For example, I wonder if we see the similar thing with African Americans. So many people fought tirelessly for civil rights, but do African Americans think of these things when they vote, sit anywhere in a bus, or run for political office or is it something they take for granted? I’m not saying people need to be overly thankful just remember. This goes for many groups.

Steve asked “are you going to sell me an accessible bible?”

Karen has expressed similar thoughts about associating the term”evangelism” with fallen televangelists like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

On the other hand, an evangelist can be a positive supporter of an operating system or particular technology in the computer industry. There are evangelists for the Apple Macintosh computer, the Linux operating system and the open source software movement. Oracle even has an “accessibility evangelist” on staff who works to ensure the company’s products meet established guidelines and rules like Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Now it’s your turn. What comes to mind when you hear the term “accessibility evangelist”? Do you find this term confusing? Why do you think this term should or should not be used to describe efforts to increase accessibility for the blind? I welcome your comments to this thought provoker.

NFB Provides Fully Accessible 2009 Convention Streaming Option

July 6, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

The National Federation of the Blind announced Monday morning that it has made available a fully accessible streaming option for its 2009 national convention.

“We have placed a different streaming link on the home page that should open the stream in the user’s default media player of choice instead of the Silverlight player,” said Chris Danielsen, Director of Public Relations with the National Federation of the Blind. 

“We apologize for any problems that this has caused anybody,” David Andrews, the organization’s webmaster and mailing list administrator, said.

NFB Streams 2009 Convention Using Inaccessible Silverlight Technology

July 5, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In an overwhelming display of hypocrisy, the National Federation of the Blind, claiming to be the representative voice of all blind people in America, has chosen to stream its 2009 national convention using inaccessible Silverlight technology.

While blind people can listen, they can’t control the volume, mute or use any of the player’s controls. While NFB is the primary actor in a lawsuit against Arizona State University over inaccessible textbooks, the organization delivers a listening experience to blind people that is inferior to that provided to the sighted for the purpose of hearing their own convention broadcast live on the net! Shame on the National Federation of the Blind for insisting that others be accessible while failing to practice the very message they claim to preach!

In contrast to NFB’s poor example, The American Council of the Blind is broadcasting their convention coverage live through its long-established ACB Radio outlet using fully accessible technology. We urge all of you to enjoy the ACB convention and use the feedback option, one of the few accessible elements on the NFB’s convention streaming site, to tell the organization’s leadership exactly what you think about their blatant discrimination against the blind community they claim to serve. Choose accessible!

Good Thursday TV Coverage of the Kindle Lawsuit

July 3, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

At around 4:00 Thursday afternoon, I was contacted by Melissa Blasius with Channel 12 News in Phoenix and asked if I could be available at 5:30 to be interviewed for a story that would run on the 10:00 newscast. I discovered I could prepare myself and make the necessary transportation arrangements for this sort of work within one hour after receiving the request.

You may now watch the video of the story on the 10:00 evening news. An article was also written based on this story, though its text is significantly different from the dialogue on the newscast. A copy of the article’s text is provided for easy accessibility.

My thanks go to Chris Skarstad (Toonhead) and CathyAnne Murtha of the Access Technology Institute for their vital assistance making it possible to bring to all of you a direct link to the video despite accessibility issues with the 12 News web site.

Lawsuit says ASU discriminates by using e-books

by Melissa Blasius – Jul. 2, 2009 11:13 PM

12 News

A journalism student has filed a discrimination lawsuit against Arizona State University.

Darrell Shandrow, a junior, wants the university to delay a pilot program for electronic textbooks and readers called Kindles. He says the devices, made by Amazon, are impossible to use by visually-impaired people.

Sandrow, who is blind, says Kindles have a text-to-audio function that can read the books out loud, but he claims on-screen menus have no audio functions. That means he could never navigate to page one. Blind students would have to continue ordering specialty texts in braille or audio formats, and those books can take months to arrive.

Shandrow said, “Asking us to continue on as we’re going is like saying to sighted students you are climbing on to jet age with your e-books, but blind students still need to use the horse and buggy.”

The National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which claims ASU’s use of Kindles would put blind students on unequal footing.

An ASU spokesman sent a response to 12 News. It said Kindles would be used “for a single course where students may also access traditional textbooks.”

In the statement, Spokesman Virgil Renzulli also said all campuses have Disability Resource Centers “providing the necessary tools so that all students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to be successful in their academic pursuits.”

Categories: accessibility, Kindle, lawsuit, news, TV

Positive TV News Coverage of the Kindle Lawsuit Against ASU

July 1, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Shortly after 9:00 Tuesday morning, I was contacted by Tim Vetscher with Channel 15, a local ABC affiliate in Phoenix, and asked to participate in a story on the Kindle lawsuit. He picked me up at 10:15 and we went to a nearby bar-restaurant establishment called Four Peaks Brewry, where he and Toby Phillips, a senior broadcast journalism major at the Cronkite School, talked with me for almost 45 minutes. The interview included a demonstration of Braille reading and accessible technology, part of which made it into the TV story.

After viewing the story, Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, said: “Nice job on this. I see that they didn’t get the nuance that books can be read aloud by the Kindle DX; it’s the navigation that’s not accessible. Still, I think we got our point across.”

The story ran on the 6:00 evening newscast. I am happy to report that you can now watch the video or read the transcript below.

Reported by: Tim Vetscher


Darrell Shandrow, a junior at ASU, is suing the university over its use of the Amazon Kindle for textbooks. (Tim Vetscher)

TEMPE, AZ — A student at Arizona State University is suing the school over a new electronic textbook reader.

Junior Darrell Shandrow calls ASU’s new pilot program to use the Amazon Kindle e-book reader in some classes this fall discrimination.

“I believe it’s important for blind and visually impaired people to have the same opportunity to participate the sighted already enjoy,” said Shandrow.

Even though he can’t see, Shandrow doesn’t shy away from technology.

Thanks to a screen reading program, Shandrow uses a labtop computer that talks to him and tells him what’s on the screen.

That kind of accessibility, Shandrow says, helps him to attend ASU, where he’s a junior in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

When ASU announced plans to begin using the Amazon Kindle as a textbook reader, Shandrow immediately had concerns.

“It’s saying we’re giving sighted students a new avenue for reading but we’re not granting the same facility to blind and visually impaired students,”
said Shandrow.

Shandrow claims the Kindle lacks text-to-speech technology and therefore makes it accessible only to sighted students.

So Shandrow filed a lawsuit against ASU hoping to stop the use of the Kindle.

“We want the pilot program, we just want it to be accessible,” said Shandrow.

An ASU spokesperson released the following statement to ABC15: “Arizona State University is committed to equal access for all students. Disability Resource Centers are located on all ASU campuses. The Centers enable students to establish eligibility and obtain services and accommodations for qualified students with disabilities. These efforts are focused on providing the necessary tools so that all students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to be successful in their academic pursuits.”

“I feel the need for equal accessibility, that is to have an accessible Kindle reading device and accessible books, is a civil right,” said Shandrow.

Amazon claims to be working on adding navigation accessible to the blind for the Kindle.

Shandrow says until that happens, the Kindle e-book reader should be shelved.

In the interest of full disclosure, reporter Tim Vetscher is an adjunct professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

Categories: accessibility, Kindle, lawsuit, news, TV