Important Messages, such as Service Disruption.

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We would like to wish everyone a merry Christmas and happy New Year!

brianhartgen's blog

Why do some blind people do what they do?

Unexpectedly, yesterday was a very busy day for me at home. When I get up in the morning, I do an email catchup, look at what has been happening on Twitter and that includes reading news stories on the web to keep my current affairs knowledge up-to-date.

One thing people were talking about was that a Twitter client a number of blind people use, (The Qube), wasn't sending tweets although it could receive them.

I am not going into the complexities of why that happened. That has been covered extensively elsewhere. But a great deal of the time was spent using an alternative client called Tween, which I had seen reference to in earlier weeks.

Fortunately, there were some excellent JAWS scripts around to get us started and particularly suppressed JAWS speech output when composing tweets. But I felt there needed to be some useful additions to improve the user experience, and so with the permission of the original script developer I added to his code. This involved writing scripts, (including figuring out quite a problem relating to enabling and disabling automatic messages in the System Tray and Notifications Area), and of course, testing them. It takes just as long to test scripts and provide documentation for them as it does to write them and I had several JAWS versions to test including identifying which ones would work and those which would not.

As I suspected, many people, (me included), have gone back to using the Qube now it is working. However, I will not be uninstalling Tween, nor will I be ceasing ongoing development of the Tween scripts. That was a question which came up several times yesterday. I will continue to support them, improve them and make changes to them. Yesterday was rather like a fire practice we had when in school. The fire drill is now over. If we like we can go back to how we were using Twitter before. Any Twitter client could stop functioning at any time, and it is always good to have something to revert to and to try if something stops working. I remember when I produced an audio tutorial for Windows 95 and 98 back in the late 90's I think, one of the first points I made was that Windows gives you a lot of ways of being able to do exactly the same thing, and it is always good to know of as many as possible.

Exploring and using Tween was an education for me in that it has lead me to thinking the interface may be excellent for those people using voice recognition technology. Some people simply cannot use the keyboard for many reasons and I think Tween would be ideal for them.

But that really isn't the point of this blog post.

What amazes me is the way some blind people behave towards others when particular events are discussed, and the list is growing. Most commonly, it relates to screen-readers, internet radio, Apple V. Android devices, and now, Twitter clients. I've seen on Twitter yesterday and today people being bullied about the Twitter client they are using. Some people have said for example that those wishing to exchange messages on Twitter were being disloyal to the Qube client by going to another. This is complete nonsense. If something isn't working, you go and find an alternative. For some people, Twitter is their window on the world particularly if they are alone, just as chat clients are, including audio chat rooms in which people can meet and get to know each other. The need to access services is still there so a way needs to be found to use them. To say one is being disloyal is pathetic.

This approach and atitude comes hot on the heels of a "comparison" recently distributed of the two screen-readers, JAWS and NVDA. Personally I wouldn't have said it was a true comparison of what each is capable of delivering. I remember over ten years ago a group of us delivered a Main Menu presentation comparing the functions of JAWS and Window-Eyes, and I am certain we all did that in a professional down to earth manner. I felt, in part, that this was not a comparison but a scathing attack against its developers. But again, it is excellent that people have a choice about what it is they wish to use, and in many cases, it is good to have more than one screen-reader on a computer for accomplishing different tasks, in the same way that it is helpful to have two internet browsers installed. It doesn't mean that one is better than the other, it just means that both offer different things. There's a screen-reader I can think of which I've tried, and I just don't like the way it delivers content. But I would never dream of condemning anyone for using it or telling anyone they shouldn't because it does offer good things too. Indeeed, I've heavily promoted what that product has to offer.

I've also beenin the company of people in a professional setting where some individuals have introduced remarks so as to be vicious about a particular manufacturing or software developing company, even if no reference had previously beenmade to it.

So please people. Try not to condemn others for what they use. It is their personal choice to use a product or a service which they particularly enjoy and benefit from. The most important thing is that we as blind people can effectively communicate and have access to so many services on the internet. I think we are living in fantastic enlightened times. As one of our past Prime Ministers Harold Macmillan once said, we've never had it so good.

Notes for Musicians, Vocalists and Recording Engineers

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to give musicians, vocalists and audio production engineers a summary of resources which are available in respect of audio recording and editing using Microsoft Windows on the PC, together with my own experiences and concerns in this field.

Software

This article will focus upon two software products, CakeWalk Sonar and Sony's Sound Forge Pro.

I have used Sound Forge for about 13 years and I have just begun to use Sonar. Sound Forge is a single track editor and producer. This means it is not multi-track software. While it is true you can easily mix sound on sound, overlaying items as you go, you cannot lay out sound with each item on its own individual track. Having said that, it is the ideal tool for audio recording, mixing, post production, editing and restoration. I've used a few audio editors in the past, but Sound Forge to my mind has always beaten them all, added to which it comes bundled with a number of remastering and audio processing effects which are incredibly useful.

Sonar on the other hand is a multi-track audio platform which allows you to undertake many audio-related tasks. Not only can you lay out items on their own individual tracks, but it is ideal for musicians, those who wish to do karaoke, or work with music and sound purely in an audio capacity. In the case of Karaoke as a basic example, you can have the music on one track and sing on another while hearing the music at the same time. If the results are not satisfactory, you can retake all or part of the song again until you have something which is to your liking. Added to this, the V Vocal editor allows for manual or automatic pitch change together with other characteristics in fine detail. Audio effects are also added, such as reverb, equalisation, normalisation, etc. Sound Forge also contains these other tools in addition to noise reduction. Both products also allow for "audio scrubbing", which enables you to hear snatches of the audio as you move through it.

Product Accessibility

In terms of accessibility to screen-readers, my focus here is JAWS for Windows because that is what I use almost exclusively. It is also the product which grabs the most attention and publicity in this area.

My feeling is at the moment that the outlook for visually impaired people is grim. If you feel that you would like the latest and greatest releases of these two professional mainstream products then I am afraid you are going to be very disappointed.

Sound Forge access is quite straightforward. An excellent set of JAWS Scripts are available written by Jim Snowbarger who began writing them for Sound Forge 4.5 (when I started to use it), and has maintained them through to version 10.0, the latest. I am often asked whether Sound Forge can be used without scripts. It can, but not nearly as efficiently and there are some dialogs which are not as accessible. For example, when undertaking fine editing, there is information you need to know quickly, such as the total file length, the elapsed position, the amount of time selected, level metres and many other components. There is also the ability to "audio scrub" in various ways, and this makes for extremely precise and smooth editing. Sound Forge offers this facility without the scripts, but it is by no means as detailed or as fast. The scripts are 30 dollars, and I think if you are investing hundreds of dollars in Sound Forge you may as well spend the other 30 and get the scripts too. It makes no sense not to do so.

There is a fundamental problem with Sound Forge 9 and 10 with its "Mix Paste" dialog which is very unfortunate because it is one of the dialogs you will use most often. Sony have made some of the controls inaccessible to JAWS and at this current point there is no solution to this. To me, this is a very critical issue. If it is possible, you may wish to consider installing Sound Forge 8 with the appropriate scripts. If you are unable to obtain version 8, I suggest purchasing 10.0, and then explain the problem to Sony and ask for a downgrade to 8.0 which they should be able to do. After my discussions with them, Sony accept there are accessibility issues with that dialog. It is not ideal, since Sound Forge 8 is not meant to be used with Windows7.

With Sonar, things are a little more complex.

There are two JAWS scripting solutions for Sonar which provide a high degree of accessibility. These are JSonar and CakeTalking for Sonar.

JSonar is an open source project developed by a dedicated group of volunteers and is consequently freely available to download and use. CakeTalking costs 289 dollars as an internet download and was developed 13 years ago by a highly accomplished JAWS script writer David Pinto and is sold by Dancing Dots, linked to above.

The bad news is that neither of these products functions with Sonar X1 or X2. X1 was released in late 2010, with X2 only recently being made available. This is not good because not only are we a couple of years behind in terms of accessibility, but Sonar 8.5 is extremely difficult to obtain, almost impossible. Dancing Dots do have some copies available (while stocks last), and CakeWalk in the United States also can supply it if asked, although it could take a while to reach you if you live outside America. As far as I know, noone yet has attempted a scripting solution for X1 or X2 which is very disappointing.

We decided to go for CakeTalking, but here are the differences as I see them.

Apart from the very high quality access to almost all of Sonar's features, the main thing CakeTalking has going for it is its 400-page tutorial and excellent setup documentation, which you do need as there is quite a lot to do in terms of configuration. If you follow the instructions however, it does work perfectly. But the inclusion of the tutorials really did clinch it for us. While the JSonar website does have a number of small guides available, if you are a beginner particularly it's a no-brainer. You go for CakeTalking.

The drawback to the tutorial is the way in which it is formatted. It is a very large HTML document which contains no heading markup. While links are included, JAWS does not retain the position you were in when you invoke the Links List. So you read a passage, realise you want to refer back to a previous lesson, and so bring up the Links List. On a standard web page, the focus is within the point of the Links List where you stopped reading. It doesn't work like that in this document, focus is at the end of the list. So you need to go back to the top of the list and start working your way down. While I used Placemarkers to good effect, I think if you want to produce an HTML rendering of your instructions, by default it really ought to include correctly structured headings.

While JSonar does have some JAWS script-related keystrokes included, its approach is generally to allow you to use the Sonar native keystrokes. CakeTalking's approach is to develop keystrokes and strategies to allow you to get the job done quickly and easily, and if that means modifying the approach a little, so be it.

CakeTalking contains a number of dialogs which allow you to manipulate Sonar in specific ways or to invoke JAWS user preferences. JSonar uses the Adjust JAWS Options dialog instead into which their user preferences are placed, such as to enable or disable specific features, and I have to say I prefer this approach since users will already be used to using it.

CakeTalking should really be used with JAWS version 11. I've tried using it with 13, but some aspects of the interface did not function as the tutorial said they should, and also there were a number of system instability difficulties. JAWS version 11 can however be used on a Windows7 64 bit system if you have it, so apart from the inconvenience of maybe having to switch JAWS versions to use Sonar, this isn't too big a deal. JSonar can be used with JAWS versions up to and including 14.

CakeTalking provides you with a lot of additional detail about how to interact with specific controls (of which there are many), and gives you reminders of how to work within individual dialogs. I think with JSonar some help is available, but the process of obtaining it isn't quite as detailed (or as automatic) as is found in CakeTalking.

If you are a user of Braille, there is a great deal of Braille support in JSonar. They've obviously spent a lot of time on that. CakeTalking has no braille support at all that I can see. If there is, I haven't been able to get it to work.

Conclusion

In summary, if you take time to purchase the correct older versions of the mainstream software together with choosing appropriate scripting packages to go with them, you are going to get a very accessible solution to serve your audio production needs. My concern is that as blind people we are used to listening to audio and so this is an area of work where we should excel and to be able to make a living from. The fact that time is slipping by and we are getting further and further behind in terms of accessing recent software versions worries me.

It is worth noting that Sonar does not allow you (it would seem) to mix items by fading a main audio source down midway through, overlay speech, and then raise the volume again. This would be particularly helpful since the "Mix Paste" dialog in Sound Forge 9 and 10 is inaccessible. One way of overcoming this is to purchase a "Control Surface". This is a midi hardware device attached to the computer which will then allow you to assign physical faders on the device to volume levels or other aspects of Sonar. You could then manually accomplish the fades in real-time, and in fact that may even produce superior results to what Sound Forge can do because, to my mind, there is nothing like human input into fading, whether you are producing audio or even broadcasting it. If you decide to go down this route, there is an accessible application developed by Raised Bar Computing, allowing a number of midi devices to communicate with your screen-reader so as to output useful information. This application is free to download.

So, do you need both pieces of software, Sound forge and Sonar? That depends what you want to do. Within the context of my exploration into Sonar thus far, while I am very glad I have it I also really do appreciate what Sound Forge can do as well. I can see audio production jobs where both would be important. To emphasise this a little further, it is possible to send specific files you create in Sonar directly into Sound Forge without having to save them first and then open them in SF.

As a final note, you may decide that you wish to purchase some outside consultancy to help you get the most from what is very expensive software and this would be good advice to follow. Astec (the company I work for) can provide installation, configuration and training on all aspects of audio production. Please contact us for details.

If you live in the United States, please contact Dancing Dots who can provide you with details of tuition.

Questions about Cakewalk Sonar

Hi everyone

I am wanting to obtain software in the Cakewalk Sonar range but I am hitting some problems regarding compatible software versions and JAWS scripts.

As I understand it, CakeTalk Sonar is available, but it only functions with Sonar version 8.5 and not the current release which is X1. Sonar 8.5 is very difficult to obtain here in the UK, and even if I could get it purchasing the added scripts is probably well out of our price range anyway.

JSonar seems like a good option, but I am confused about which currently available software packages it functions with. The site does refer to Cakewalk Music Creator, which may do what we want, but again, obtaining a supportable version doesn't seem to be easy.

Can anyone please let me know which programs are accessible in this range which are currently available?

Thank you.

Thoughts on Flexible Web!

In Episode 70 of its monthly FSCast, Freedom Scientific announced the upcoming JAWS 14 feature "Flexible Web". I happen to think this is a real breakthrough in making the web user experience more intuitive for people. Please note that all the information I am about to discuss is already in the public domain through FSCast.

Flexible Web will allow a JAWS user to:

  • Hide content on a web page which may interrupt the reading experience. Many sites now contain Google Ad Frames or Links to social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, allowing people to share a page with these sites. If placed in the middle of an article or news story for example, these Links and Frames can interrupt the flow of something interesting being read.
  • Start reading at, (or set focus to), a designated point on a web page. Two basic examples would be as follows. When you carry out a Google search, instruct JAWS to start reading where the search results appear, bypassing the other content at the head of the page. Alternatively, when activating a Link to read more about a book on Audible.com, set JAWS to go straight to the summary so as to decide whether you would like to purchase it. Focus can also be set to other elements, such as Edit Fields, ARIA regions and Links.

These two features are governed by an intuitive Wizard which steps you through the process with helpful information along the way. You can create a "temporary customisation" initially, and if you decide you want to apply it you can create a permanent rule. The rules can contain a combination of "behaviours", such as to ignore content and start reading at a designated location. Options in the Wizard allow you to rename, edit and delete rules. Rules can be applied to all sites or to an individual one.

I really would advise you to listen to the FSCast on this subject. Jonathan Mosen does a first-class job of demonstrating all the options within Flexible Web.

One thing I learned from the podcast was that if you choose to hide content using Flexible Web, this also applies to MAGic if you have it running alongside JAWS. So as people are working their way through web pages, the visual focus tracks alongside JAWS. That is very cool indeed.

Not only do I think this will improve the browsing experience for people tremendously, but it will also add useful functionality for those using browser-based applications in the workplace. Together with Placemarkers and Custom Labels, Flexible Web will undoubtedly ensure people have the tools to become more efficient within the course of their work duties. JAWS does stand for "Job Access With Speech" after all!

When JAWS is officially released containing Flexible Web, there will be a number of ways you can get help to use it.

You can use the Context Sensitive Help already built into the Flexible Web wizard to give you useful guidance on how to use it.

You can take advantage of a webinar to be hosted by the Freedom Scientific Training department on 24 October.

Astec, (the company I work for), will remotely train anyone anywhere in the world on any aspect of using JAWS for 40 pounds per hour. This training is reinforced by the provision of documentation to support it. Note that this does not mean we will attend site but it is remote training using JAWS Tandem or similar software. For more information, please write to brian.hartgen@astec-at.co.uk

In summary, the introduction of Flexible Web just demonstrates why JAWS is a fantastic screen-reader. Using Flexible Web, Placemarkers and Custom Labels, Freedom Scientific really do give blind people excellent control of web pages, allowing people to find and read what they want very quickly. I wish them the very best of luck with this new feature.

Personal thoughts on creating an app

Hi all

Well, we have now released our Team-FM iPhone app. If you haven't read about it, the internet radio station, Team-FM (owned by myself and my partner Lulu), now has an app available for iPhones, iPads and iPods. This is obtainable from the App Store if you search for Team-FM.

I have to say this has been a big learning curve for us. It means as an internet radio station we have a presence in the App Store and as a result there is expertise we can draw upon (and tools available) so as to encourage people to listen to Team-FM and we will be taking full advantage of those. The range of promotional tools available for developers is very impressive. I am very proud of the fact that we have this app available and also that a similar Android app is on the way very soon.

It just shows that, if you set your mind to something, you can achieve it. Last year, I knew absolutely nothing about Drupal setup or administration. But we needed a nice accessible website using Drupal as a platform. I learned it and built the site. We needed a way of people being able to listen to our programmes when they wanted to. We went out and found a way of doing it. We needed pictures not only for the website but certainly for the new app. We got them created. We knew nothing whatever about creating apps for the Apple and Android platforms. We're doing it. Who knows what else we could do.

My message is, don't give up. If you want something, go and get it if you can.

I must say that the app evaluation and review process from Apple seems to be very thorough and that is as it should be. The app submission process and documentation for developers is all there for anyone to use and it is accessible. Go for it!

We've received some amazing comments and encouragement as a result of launching the app and thank you so much. Please do keep your suggestions coming. We've already received a number of suggestions for improvement and features, and we are already very actively looking at moving forward from version 1 of the app to improve the user experience. This is only the beginning. We will keep improving.

If you have comments to make, (for example if you are having a problem with the app), do let us know. We cannot possibly improve anything if we don't know about it. If you have questions or suggestions, do send them to info@team-fm.com and we will do our very best to improve the app. We can only learn, but I think what we have is a very good start and something to build on.

Have a good day everyone!

StationPlaylist Scripts V5 now available, please read!

I am very pleased to be able to bring to you version 5 of the StationPlaylist Studio scripts for JAWS. These scripts are distributed free of charge for anyone to use.

Before continuing, I would like to thank Ross and his team at StationPlaylist for providing magnificent support through the process of creating the scripts. I could not produce them without the tremendous co-operation given.

Please read these notes through carefully before upgrading.

If you plan to upgrade to SPL Studio version 5, you will need the new scripts which are available from
www.hartgen.org/studio

If you are already using a version of the scripts, my advice is to download the zipped archive of them for 5.0, and extract the contents of the archive to your JAWS Settings/Enu folder, replacing the files which already exist.

Then restart the JAWS program.

If you wish to install them using the installer method, this is also available for you from the same page. Again you should restart JAWS following the conclusion of the installation.

When StationPlaylist Studio version 5 loads, you can press Insert+Q. This will hopefully tell you that version 5 of the StationPlaylist Studio scripts are running and that you are using build 1. If jaws does not output this information then clearly there is a problem with the installation.

The scripts support JAWS version 10 through to 14 public beta.

If you are using what might be described as a "cracked" copy of JAWS, you should under no circumstances install the scripts.

If you have questions prior to updating to the new scripts, have questions about installation, or you encounter a problem with them, this is what you should do. Send an email to
jaws@hartgen.org
clearly stating the problem that you have and the Windows operating system you are using. I will then do my best to resolve the problem for you. Please note that a resolution (or fix) may not come right away. I will do my best to fix the problem as quickly as possible, when time permits. Problems with script installation or JAWS configuration will always be pushed to the top of the support list. Thank you for your understanding.

The best way of keeping up-to-date with build changes, (which may occur frequently in the initial stages of release), is to follow me on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/brianhartgen
or friend me on Facebook
www.facebook.com/brianhartgen

Here are the features and changes in this version of the scripts and I hope you enjoy using them.

  • Changed a keystroke to read the elapsed time of a playing item from Control+Windows+- to StationPlaylist Key then - (dash).
  • Added a keystroke, StationPlaylist Key then V, to output the "popup information" relative to a track in the JAWS Virtual Viewer. The "popup information" displays information on the screen when the mouse is moved over a track icon in a Playlist. Note that the information which is output is controlled from within StationPlaylist's "Options/Track Info and Logging" Dialog Box.
  • Added a keystroke, StationPlaylist Key then Control+T, to read the total length of tracks which have been selected or checked.
  • Keystrokes have been added to enable or disable metadata streaming. When any of the keystrokes are pressed, you are asked if you would like to enable or disable metadata streaming. Please refer to the section of the scripts User Guide relating to metadata streaming.
  • Added an option to automatically disable metadata streaming when you exit StationPlaylist Studio by pressing ALT+Control+X.
  • Added an option to warn you if metadata streaming is enabled when StationPlaylist Studio is launched.
  • Added a keystroke, ALT+Windows+6, to announce the song pitch status.
  • Added a keystroke, ALT+Windows+7, to announce whether the playlist has been modified since it was previously saved.
  • Changed a keystroke from StationPlaylist Key then Y to ALT+Windows+8, to announce the playing status of StationPlaylist Studio, whether the playback has stopped, is in Live Assist, Automation or Paused.

My favourite new features in SPL Studio V5!

StationPlaylist Studio version 5 has now been released, so I thought very quickly I would post information about my favourite features. Studio, Creator and Streamer have all been updated with new improvements. We use all of them.

Studio has two internal audio players, each of which will play a song alternately. You can now assign each player to output via a different soundcard. This means you can assign two soundcards for use as the audio playback. If you have a sound mixer, and you use Studio through that as I do, you can assign a channel on your mixing desk to each audio player, making for some very nice cross-fading. It works really well.

Next is a feature which allows you to change the properties of an item you have inserted into your playlist. So if you've inserted a spot group in error, you can change that to a manual track or any other item, such as voice intro.

Multiple tracks can be selected for copying or deleting for example by pressing Shift+Down Arrow repeatedly.

Here's a cool one, probably my favourite. In the track preview player, you can hear the last 10 seconds of a track so you can find out how the song ends. I love that! Gets you ready for those cold endings.

"Unsaved playlist warning" is a new option in the General Options. When checked, if a playlist has been manually altered and not saved, Studio will display a warning when exiting Studio or clearing all playlists.

There are stacks of other new features too. Creator has been completely redesigned and has some great options, such as a break note which disables cross-fading, something I particularly asked for.

The JAWS scripts for Studio V5 have been completely rewritten and they differ substantially from V4.33. We do have some new features, and I'll post the changes along with the scripts.

Enjoy your new products if you decide to upgrade!

Initial thoughts on AccessNote

Hi everyone

It's been a little while since I've posted anything to my blog, but I thought I would write a quick entry here in relation to the forthcoming app which is to be released entitled AccessNote.

Before we get to that, I have to say that I took delivery this morning of an Apple wireless keyboard I bought it from Amazon, and although it was quite expensive at around 60 pounds, it is definitely a worthwhile purchase.

When Apple produce something, it just works! That's the great thing about anything from them. Once I found the On/Off switch, I turned on the keyboard, paired it via Bluetooth which was a very straightforward process, and started using it!

It is a beautiful design and resembles a standard laptop computer keyboard which is exactly what I was hoping for. I can type at the same speed on this keyboard as I can a regular desktop. I also like the fact that it slopes up at the back which makes for a lovely ergonomic design.

There is a very good summary on this web page of VoiceOver and navigation keystrokes. But for me, this keyboard has turned the iPhone into a mini computer rather than just a phone. Fleksy is wonderful, the mini bluetooth keyboard I have is good too because with both of those things, they can be used when I do not wish to carry another device or if I need something really portable respectively. However, this keyboard is just going to be so brilliant for email composition and particularly when taking thorough and accurate notes, which leads me to my next topic.

What I want is an excellent app for notetaking, giving me similar functionality to that available on more specialist notetakers for the blind. I sent a tweet out, saying I was really looking forward to the new notetaking app, AccessNote being developed by the American Foundation for the Blind. I very much support AFB in terms of what they are trying to do here and if you read it's description you may understand why.

But the reaction I received back by way of mentions is, to put it mildly, unehthusiastic. There's the usual moaning about over pricing (which was also applied to Fleksy when it first appeared on the market until people started to realise how absolutely brilliant it was). But also I am receiving the comment that it duplicates what other notetakers do. But people do not seem to be able to answer my basic question, which is, please tell me the name of the app which replicates precisely what AccessNote is trying to do? Sure, there may be notetaking apps, indeed there is a basic app built into the iPhone as it stands, but AFB's app also boasts convenient keyboard shortcuts to achieve common tasks which blind people want to be able to do, comprehensive search facilities, accurate VoiceOver navigation, and Dropboxing syncing to name but a few items. AFB say this will be priced under $30 which is reasonable given the high cost of app development and time investment.

I tried at least one free app which was recommended, and from a VoiceOver performance perspective it was really bad. There was lots of extraneous speech I really didn't want to hear, the focus kept moving from where I wanted it to be, and various other niggles which do not make it a pleasure to use. But this would be the case, it is a free app. You get what you pay for. People need to understand that not everything in this world is going to be free or less than a pound of UK currency. This atitude is really irritating me.

So, let me end by sayingI completely support AFB's initiative and I hope it will not be too long before the app is available to us. Go AFB!

My thoughts on the Text Detective app

Two new apps have recently appeared in the iTunes Store, dedicated specifically for blind people. The first is Fleksy, the second is Text Detective.

There are many audio demos and reviews of Fleksy, but it is a subject we may come back to either in a later blog entry or podcast.

Text Detective allows a visually impaired person to scan paper-based text using the i-device's camera, have it converted to sensible text output using OCR (optical character recognition) technology and have its contents either automatically read by VoiceOver or made available for review.

What follows is not a review of TextDetective, but it is a few thoughts on the app which I could not condense into a tweet. But first, a description of the app from the iTunes Store.

Text Detective finds and reads text in printed documents within seconds using your iPhone’s camera. The detected text can easily be read, edited, copied and pasted into documents, emails or other apps. It even stores all the scanned text in a history, which allows you to refer to it later. Every step is accessible. Text Detective works best with the clean and crisp text you find in documents, and at a distance of about the length of a forearm. You can use it wherever you go, and you don’t need to worry about network coverage – it even works on the plane. The app is optimized for iPhone 4S, but can be used
with iPhone 4 and iPod touch. If you want to use Text Detective on an iPad, please be aware that the camera position is different to the one on the iPhone/iPod, which might require additional training and practice to align the camera lens and align the text.

I have tried a number of such apps on Nokia phones and the iPhone, and I feel this app works just as well as any other. It is important to support the development of this app because it has been developed for us and it is hoped it will be improved over time.

Here are some reasons why you may want to consider purchasing it:

  • It is only £1.49 in the UK Store. Compared to some apps, that is inexpensive, although I am not one for begrudging developers of specialist apps for trying to recoup some of the costs involved in both product development and technical support to users.
  • It is completely accessible with VoiceOver as you would expect.
  • There are a lot of spoken prompts which help a great deal. The way the app works is briefly this. You hold the camera a little distance away from the page you try to scan. There is no need (unlike some other apps) to activate a "Take Picture" Button because the app uses video streaming technology. This means you do not need to disturb focus while you locate the Button and double tap it, a nice feature. TextDetective will then try to repeatedly scan the text. If no results were found, this is spoken by VoiceOver. You then are immediately able to do something about it, such as raising your arm to a greater height to give the app more of an opportunity of scanning the text. If it then subsequently finds text capable of being interpreted, a percentage count of the OCR progress is given. That spoken guidance is invaluable and is reason enough by itself why this app stands out from the rest.
  • The other major advantage is that there is plenty of well written help available. The developers (BlindSight) have naturally realised that the majority of people using this app will have never taken a picture before, and they go to great lengths to give as much help as possible concerning how you might go about that. Short of someone showing you how to take a photograph of a page, the help in this app is the next best thing.

In summary then, I think this is an excellent app. But I would respectfully suggest that people consider the quality of recognition results they receive within the context of similar applications of this nature. With even the most expensive of these, the quality of results will only be good if the person taking the photograph is very accurate and it may take several attempts to get satisfactory results from a single page. I think while the concept of being able to sit on a plane or in a restaurant for example to scan a menu is good in theory, the reality is it may not be quite as simple as that.

In terms of reading mail, I feel such apps are useful to get the sense of a document which has arrived for you to read, and will allow you to sort out what may be "junk mail" or something you really need to deal with. But I don't think anything at this point is going to compete in terms of accuracy with a scanner connected to a computer with high quality OCR technology. As long as we keep that in mind when we purchase such apps, our expectations will not be set too high.

StationPlaylist JAWS Script Donations

Hi everyone

During any part of your week, if you do make use of the StationPlaylist scripts for JAWS, please consider donating to the project if you can, even a small amount would be very worthwhile.

For the past three years, I have written the code for, and provided technical support for, the StationPlaylist scripts. This has taken many many hours of time. There has been no charge for the project over the years. A new set of scripts is on the way and of course I intend to maintain the existing set.

In addition, scripts for StationPlaylist Creator are in development, again at no cost to the user.

If you would like to donate to the project, I would be extremely grateful and thank you very much indeed. Please use the Button on this page in order to do so.

Thank you so much for reading.

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