Techshare: Friday morning and lunch
It's day two of Techshare. Quite nice weather outside and the hideously long ride on the DLR to get here has had the edge nicely smoothed down with a surprisingly OK cup of coffee.
So what's on the agenda. I'm planning on getting to four sessions this morning before I hop back on the tube to my office in West London - where the rail stations have less exotic names. East India? Canada Water? No, Shepherd's Bush.
First sesh of the day is with Ugo Vallauri from Computer Aid - an organisation that refurbishes old 'puters and passes them on to partners in the developing world. They've refurbed and delivered over 150,000 PCs now. Gosh. His subject was about using free and open source software to make computers more accessible.
Basically, he was saying that assistive technology like the screenreaders for blind people used in the developed world are just too expensive. Too true, best part of a grand if I recall. Visually impaired people in Sub-Saharan Africa - where the level of blindness is very high - can't afford it, purchasing the operating system is an issue too.
So he uses free screenreader software such as NVDA made by a couple of Australian blind fellas. He thinks libraries in the UK, or other places with budget constraints, could install this free software on their machines to good effect - that was a bit of an aside but interesting.
The thing I took away was that there are no flexible free screen magnifying applications that could, say, work well with free screenreaders such as NVDA to bring greater access for people with low vision. Money is needed and Ugo seemed to prefer the 'open source' approach to developing software as it breaks out of product development groups with limited resources, and allows coders all over the world to enhance products and add features or plug-ins that will work better for more people.
Don't ask me to explain 'open source' to you. It's almost like a religion!
Computer Aid also works on other projects such as telemedicine and learning for remote regions in Africa, Kenya, Latin America etc.
So send your broken down PC to somewhere useful. It's the green thing to do.
Next up, it's 10:30 and we're into a dose of social networking the screenreading way. Brian Hartgen from a blindie consultancy firm demonstrates with his talking computer on stage. Say 'talking computer' to a blind person if you fancy annoying them, incidentally. Screenreaders popular in the UK are HAL Supernova, WindowEyes and the genre-busting JAWS which has the lion share of the market right now.
A very practical session where he demos Twitter and Facebook - the two giants of social networking in the world - and proves, live in front of everyone, that screenreader users can indeed use them and be part of the Twitterverse and whatever we're calling the Facebook world these days.
"They break down social barriers and isolation" says Hartgen. And talks about how it's all about keeping in touch with friends, family and colleagues. He omits to mention that Twitter is equally about finding like-minded people by subject and you can see 'top trending topics' on its front page and can tell what the world's collective conscious is thinking, right now, in realtime, instantly.
He mentions that there are some blind specific communities that might be even better as you can talk just like as if you were on the phone with lots of other people at once. He mentions Accessible World and the UK based Accessible Friends Network.
He thinks that Twitter is more blind friendly as it's all about the text whereas Facebook preoccupies itself with photos and video ... which is basically just 'eyes stuff'.
They're both accessible but Hartgen prefers to use Facebook's mobile site on his PC as it's a more cut down version and easier to navigate. And for those who'd rather not have to bother with Twitter on the web, you could download Twinbox - a free application from techkit.com which lets you use Outlook email to engage with other twitterers or tweeters. McTwit is an accessible Twitter application developed by an American blind fella called Jamal. So there are some alternative options to an already accessible site.
at 11:40 Michel Pepin from Humanware demoed the as yet unreleased but much anticipated Orator software. It's a screenreader for the Blakberry smart phone. Developed with Code Factory (who make the Mobile Speak screenreader software for phones) it's taking a long time because it's being developed on the JAVA ME platform that Text To Speech has never been added to before. Symbian and Windows Mobile are the phone operating systems that currently give the kind of access that blind people require.
RIM, who make the Blackberry, have had an Accessibility program for 8 years now. They already have access solutions for people with hearing, low vision and motor function issues apparently. The screenreader is the last outpost of inaccess for this much used business product that boasts high security.
To make it accessible they've created a core accessibility application which will only be available in two of their phones initially: the Curve 8520 and Tour 9630. The Storm and other phones in the range should have accessibility added within 8 months in new model releases.
They launch in the autumn with US English speech. December to January for UK English speech. And "further into 2010" for other languages like French and Spanish.
Pricing: a single licence will be 450 US dollars or 300 UK pounds. he has spoken to some phone carriers who if they take up the option of supplying Orator, may give a better price.
When it came to questions, there seemed to be a bit of unease in the audience. One person voiced disappointment that the product was so expensive, "Double the price of similar products" and that the iPhone now gives speech access completely free of charge. Michel briefly acknowledged the questioner with a noise I couldn't quite hear.
At 12:40 there was a lunchtime session with a blind software developer from MicroSoft-Saqib Sheikh. He talked up the accessibility features in the new operating system Windows 7 which goes on sale on October 22 and is the successor to Vista.Saqib works on the search engine Bing ... accessibility is his hobby not his job.
He said he felt there was a real desire to make all parts of Windows accessible right now. "A billion people use windows: it's not a case of making it accessible, it's about there being so many different people from all walks of life using it. Certain products you can narrowly focus but not Windows."
The two stand out accessibility features for me in Windows 7 were the enhancement of their built-in screen magnifier which now enlarges video and all parts of the screen. And Chess is now accessible to screenreader users - I gather it must be a built in game that you get when you buy it. That's quite cool.
He went on to talking about how Silverlight is now accessible in versions 2 and 3 if you use NVDA or JAWS 11 screenreaders. Silverlight is a tool which is kind of like Flash but different, according to Saqib.
OK that was me. I couldn't stay for the rest of the conference. I hope We've helped give you an overview of some of the things going on at this year's Techshare. Next week AbilityNet is doing another Accessibility 2.0 conference as mentioned in our newsletter a couple of weeks ago. It seems I'm on a panel talking about the net beyond the computer: phones and that.