Computing for the handicapped. (Audio Visual Operating Systems) (column) Shel Talmy.
Computing For The Handicapped
Truism--The dual worlds of computers and electronics have made and are making life easier for millions of people. The corollary to that is, people take technology for granted today that would have seemed like science fiction a mere ten years ago.
There is another group of millions who have been receiving the residual benefits of existing technology. These are the handicapped. Until recently, they had to make do with products designed for the general public, that were converted for their use. This is no longer the case.
Today, many dedicated and farsighted people are creating products specifically for the handicapped, and the curious thing about this is that much of what is being created is exportable for use by the general public--a healthy tradeoff.
The purpose of this column is to keep you informed of what is happening in this overlooked field. I will be reviewing and evaluating computers and related products, software and electronics. If you have a friend who is handicapped, tell him or her about what you read here. It might provide that extra measure of independence that all handicapped people crave.
To illustrate what I mean about products that are useful for all, I want to tell you about a demonstration I was given at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles. It was for a computer and software system to be utilized by the visually handicapped, and to understand it, perhaps I should tell you something about the people who created it first.
Anyone who has sampled a Pi na Colada knows that the combination of pineapple juice, coconut, and rum produces a mellow concoction that slips down so easily that you remain unaware of its effects until you fall off the bar stool. The blend is rare, and when it works--watch out.
And so we have AVOS, which stands for Audio Visual Operating Systems. Take one John Hlivjak (pronounced liv-e-ak), a blind electronics retailer; one talented technician named Don Krantz; and one Roger Sax, retired lawyer and real estate broker. Shake well and voila! You have a young, aggressive company with an innovative approach that will go a long way toward filling a vacuum.
Hlivjak snatched Krantz out of the air, literally. Both are licensed Ham operators, and became acquainted during radio contact. On one such occasion, Hlivjak dropped a casual remark that he wished he could get a VU meter with an audio output to use in his work, and bemoaned the fact that the only one on the market cost $400, and if that weren't bad enough, had a limited range of functions. Krantz investigated, told Hlivjak he could build him what he wanted--and did.
Hlivjak was presented with a VU meter that did everything he wanted and more, at a third the price of the existing item. It was the beginning of a relationship.
Enter Roger Sax, who was finding that retirement left him with too much time on his hands and no channel for his energy. The result of the meld is the AVOS System.
The system consists of a standard Osborne 1 that contains 64K of RAM (random access memory), and two 5 1/4' double density drives with 185K of storage per drive, plus the Street Electronics Echo GP voice synthesizer.
So far, so what--equipment you can pick up at any computer store. What makes this system special is the software. Perhaps the best way to describe it is "thoughtful.'
According to Hlivjak they chose the Osborne 1 because it best suited their initial objectives. It was portable, within the financial reach of most people, and easily adaptable for the special software.
The software was written under Krantz's direction, and three teams of programmers participated. The package supplied with the system consists of a voice driver system that is self-loading, a voice-oriented text editor/word processor, an intelligent text formatter for printer output, a filing/ database program, a personal finance package, and a couple of games. Also included in the package are eight tutorial and reference cassettes that teach you how to use the computer and the programs, and a beginner's course on programming.
All programs give simple vocal prompts for the visually impaired user. Menus are read on request using a question mark. I mention this because I would like you to imagine a directory that you could scan in a few seconds being read line-by-line, slowly by a synthesizer with a strange accent. It is a real time saver.
One of the nicest features of the software is the "reader mode.' With it, the keypad becomes a command center. In word processing, for example, one number advances the cursor a letter; another, a word; a third, an entire line. You can also back up, scroll up and down, and repeat lines, all of which are spoken by the synthesizer. It makes it very easy to insert or delete text, move blocks around, and perform all other major functions. Hlivjak told me that the program is similar to WordStar and claims that it is as powerful.
The database program is just as easy to use and works on a simple hierarchy system. In other words, Cabinet for general category, such as food; Drawer for type, such as Chinese; and File for specific recipes, such as pickled nightingale tongues, Mandarin style.
Now, for what I think is the most remarkable part of this software created for the visually handicapped--it is the most user-friendly I have seen. All vocal prompts are displayed on the screen making it an excellent package for the sighted user as well. I have suggested this to Hlivjak and Sax, and they are considering making it available to the general public.
Up to now this sounds like an unqualified endorsement. There are a few drawbacks, which are correctable with some effort. The software runs only on the Osborne 1, which has limited storage space. I would have liked to try the package on my CompuPro. An installation program for other CP/M based systems seems to be a necessity if the company is going to expand. I am told their next project is to convert the software for the IBM PC. Maybe after that . . .
Also, the choice of the Echo GP synthesizer leaves something to be desired in my opinion. Its enunciation is not as good as that of the Intex or the Votrax, for example, all of which are about the same price. However, on a scale of 1 to 10, let's call it 8+.
The software, with the Osborne 1, including Braille keyboard, the Echo, and one year of free program update costs $2,975. The software package alone, with tutorial cassettes costs $1,450. You can write to AVOS, Inc. at 1485 Energy Park Dr., Minneapolis, MN 55108. (612) 646-1515.
I look forward to hearing more from AVOS and other companies like them. It is nice to know that there is group of innovative people fulfilling the needs of an often overlooked segment of the population.