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CSUN 2011: the techies review

by Emma Tracey

31st March 2011

The 26th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference took place last week in San Diego. Run by The California State University Northridge, or CSUN, it is the largest assistive technology event in the world.
CSUN 2011 logo
CSUN is of particular relevance to the blindness community. Here, four blind and visually impaired assistive technology experts review the event, and flag up what they consider to be the most exciting developments showcased this year.

Kiran Kaja

Kiran Kaja
Kiran works for Adobe Systems and is a technology enthusiast with a strong interest in mobile computing.
At CSUN, Many blind and visually impaired conference goers were regularly using their mobile phones for everything from reading the event information, to using Twitter and Facebook to help them keep track of the people they most wanted to meet. It's unsurprising then, that better access to the latest mobile phones and other smart portable devices was a significant topic at CSUN 2011.

The lack of proper built-in accessibility features in the Android operating system, when compared to Apple's iPhone with its Voiceover screenreader and in-built magnification, was hottly debated among experts and participants alike. By the end of the week, the general consensus seemed to be that the owners, Google, need to update Android's underlying accessibility API. An API is the interface which gives external developers access to relevant information about the inner workings so they can make products and applications which communicate with it.

Updating it would allow Google and others to create assistive technology products for Android and would significantly lengthen the list of its accessible applications. This work would mean more choice for the disabled gadget lover which is always good news.
The LevelStar Orion 18
Level Star, the makers of Icon and BraillePlus note-takers, were showing off a specialist, Android-based 18 cell and voice only prototype called Orion. It will run Android version 2.3 on dedicated hardware and potentially provide access to applications including Twitter and Facebook using mainstream Android Apps already on the market. There are further rumours that it may become the first note-taker with 3G technology built in. Watch out for it later this summer.

Another interesting product at the conference this year was the DocuScan Plus from Serotek. This allows documents to be photographed using a scanner or portable camera, and converted to text. The thing that makes this product stand apart from other portable OCR solutions, is that the resulting document can then be saved in the cloud, an easily accessible personal space online. This makes it grabbable from any internet connected computer or mobile.

Versions are currently in development for both Windows and Mac. DocuScan Plus does ship with a compatible camera, but other document cameras and scanners can be used. At around $300 for the software, this product appears to be cheaper than other similar OCR solutions on the market.

• Follow Kiran, @kirankaja12 on Twitter.

Ricky Enger

Ricky Enger
Ricky Works for Serotek Corporation and is co-presenter of the SeroTalk podcast.
Attending the CSUN Conference is always a pleasure, and this year was no exception. While I spent much of my time in a booth demonstrating our own technology, I did take the opportunity to find out about the latest hardware and software of interest to blind and visually impaired assistive technology users.

The most exciting product for me by far was the Mobile Accessibility suite from CodeFactory, providing access to the Android mobile platform. The product gives affordable custom access to common tasks including calendar, contacts and messaging, and contains a screen reader for applications outside the suite.
A screenshot of Mobile Accessibility for Android by CodeFactory
While there were many other items which piqued my interest, what really stood out for me this year was a trend rather than one particular innovation. Companies are focusing less on creating specialized devices, and are instead choosing to enhance off-the-shelf technology. Consequently, the price of these products is significantly lower and the need to carry a number of single-purpose gadgets is eliminated.

Ipplex is a perfect example of a company who has embraced this philosophy. Its first product is LookTel, an application for the Apple mobile platform, iOS, which identifies US currency, but that's just the beginning. Under the LookTell banner, Ipplex is designing affordable applications for iOS and Android platforms, providing object identification, OCR, and even remote assistance.

As I reflect on this year's conference, I am thankful that a world filled with powerful yet affordable assistive technology is no longer just a future possibility. That world is taking shape right now.

• Follow Ricky, @ricky-enger, on Twitter.

Robin Spinks

Robin Spinks
Robin works for RNIB and is a technology evangelist with particular interest in low vision products that will aid employability.
Within the field of low vision, there were several interesting advances on show at this year's CSUN exhibition.

Many conference sessions commented on how the Apple iPad's large display, coupled with its in built screen magnification and VoiceOver, are opening up opportunities for persons with low vision. At the same time there's a fast growing interest among App developers, keen to leverage the potential of the tablet for people with visual and other disabilities, especially within an education setting.
The iPad 2
Staying with the iOS platform - the operating system Apple uses to drive it's mobile products - a brand new app from Ai Squared caught my attention. It's called ZoomReader and is certain to be of huge interest to many low vision users. For around $20, This application allows the iPhone or iPod Touch user to read the small print on anything from restaurant menus, to bills, medicine bottles etc. You can change the colours to improve contrast, snap a picture of what you're looking at to save for later, or listen as the text you have captured is read aloud. One particularly handy feature is the ability to use the flash on the iPhone 4 to improve the readability of what you're magnifying. ZoomReader will be available from the app store very soon.

Blackberry maker, Research in Motion (RIM), also launched an excellent new theme for ten of their current devices. The Clarity theme allows low vision users and others with reading difficulties to simplify the user interface and display all text and menus with bold easy to read white fonts on a black background. This is available as a free download from the Blackberry app store.

• Follow Robin, @robinspinks, on Twitter.

Léonie Watson

Léonie Watson
Léonie describes herself as a "Web technologist, accessibility advocate, screen reader specialist, tequila drinker & book addict".
CSUN 2011 was a gathering of the digital accessibility tribe. People from all over the world came together to share knowledge, discuss ideas, and continue the process of making the web a more inclusive place.

HTML5 was a key topic at CSUN 2011. It will replace the current HTML 4.1 as the emerging language used to build websites in the future.

HTML5 offers many exciting possibilities, but it is still very new and few features are supported by screen readers at the moment. It does hold a great deal of promise, such as the ability to include captions and audio description for multimedia content. At the moment AD has to be pre-recorded, but HTML5 will make it possible to provide the descriptions in a text format that a screen reader can speak, in synchronisation, with the video itself.
CSUN 2011
Many access technology vendors were also present, including Freedom Scientific, NV Access and Sendero Group. The conference was a great opportunity to provide direct feedback about individual access technologies and to learn about new products, but for me, the real treat of CSUN was the chance to meet so many others from the accessibility tribe.

I often speak to people in the field of web accessibility on the phone, chat via email or on Twitter, but we rarely have the chance to meet in person. CSUN was a rare gathering of the tribe and the week brought about an amazing level of discussion, collaboration and innovation for web accessibility.

•Follow Léonie @LeonieWatson, on Twitter or read her blog, the Tink Tank, at Tink.co.uk
Products mentioned in this article are neither endorsements nor recommendations from the BBC. We have included an idea of the prices of some products to illustrate the general point that assistive technology is now more affordable; previously such technologies may have been considered prohibitively expensive to some potential users.

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