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brianhartgen's blog

Leasey Availability

Hi to everyone

As many of you will know, during the past six months we have been working very hard on the Leasey product. We've delivered presentations about it and we've had a lot of support both from organisations and the visual impairment community as a whole for which we are truly grateful.

The product has been ready to go for some weeks, however unfortunately there is an important piece of the jigsaw still to put in place, and we have been for some time waiting for other people to make this valuable contribution to it. Sadly, this has not materialised.

We have done everything humanly possible in order to ensure that Leasey could be made available on the date of Sight Village London, but unfortunately until this point this last part of the project has been completely outside our control. It is only fair to the people who have pledged faith in Leasey that I update you to advise you of the situation.

We feel very disappointed regarding this. We have all worked extremely hard and that includes our beta testers who have invested their own time in order to bring about a very good product. We also have a lot of sympathy for the people who cannot wait to get their hands on Leasey!

What I can say is that we are working hard to bring Leasey to people as quickly as possible, and just as importantly, to provide users with the mechanism by which they can be properly supported, which is just as essential as the product itself. We will announce more on this blog as soon as is humanly possible. We believe very much in the Leasey product and are firmly committed to it.

Again, we would like to sincerely thank the people who have helped us so far, and particular thanks go to Freedom Scientific who have recently featured Leasey in their FSCast podcast. It was truly an honour for Leasey to be part of the 100th episode. What a milestone!

Please keep checking this website for further details. As soon as we have a permanent home for Leasey and resources relating to it, rest assured we will bring you the news! Please continue to be patient, and thank you for reading.

Drama Drama Drama, Reflections of an Audio Geek

Background.

I've always been interested in audio editing. From the time I was a small child , (and as soon as I could get my hands on a tape recorder), I've edited music and sound together which I thoroughly enjoyed even then. As time went on, I was introduced by Jonathan Mosen to the Sound Forge audio production software, which opened up the world to me in terms of sound editing using a computer. While I've tested many audio production tools since then, Sound forge is always the one I come back to. But I wasn't just interested in the editing, it was all the other post production processes too, such as the ability to reduce the sounds of scratches on vinyl records.

I've worked on a lot of audio projects in the past, including co-running our own 24-hour a day internet radio station, Team-FM, where we used the StationPlaylist Studio and Creator software to its maximum potential. This station developed my knowledge of audio broadcasting tools together with the ability to create websites.

Sadly, Team-FM needed to be close due to my wife's poor health, and while we have The Bell which is on a smaller scale, I've had to find a new audio outlet for me to get my teeth into, and fortunately, (although unknown to me at the time), there was one right in front of me!

Bert, (who is a leprechaun for reasons I won't go into here), started out as a cartoon-like character with whom I did voiceovers and promotional work for upcoming internet radio shows. At the time, I didn't have a partner or anyone close who I could rely upon to produce quality radio work. So, when you want a job doing properly, the best method I've found is to do it yourself, and that is how bert came to be.

Over time, my wife Lulu broadened out Bert's life to the extent that we began to produce first small and then full-length audio dramas about him, the scrapes he gets himself into, his romantic side coming to the fore and his willingness to help others. While the story is set in a magical context, it clearly focuses upon many life issues surrounding human adulthood including love, forming friendships, relationships and all the issues faced when growing up. The latest episode should be available tomorrow.

Typically, each episode of the podcast is now an hour in length. I've done quite a bit of research about podcasts in the arts and drama category, and what is clear is that generally there is a fairly substantial team of people involved, from the acting to the audio production. This isn't the case with Bert's Place, the name of our audio drama. By and large, Lulu and I play the key roles throughout, with invaluable help given by some other very talented voice actors, and we are always grateful for their input. My point is that it does stretch the imagination to ensure the story from an audio perspective is compelling to listen to despite very few people being involved, but judging by the numbers of people listening, we seem to succeed.

Technical Considerations.

Lulu's imagination knows no bounds. She always comes up with a good story, and her use of English language is second-to-none and could potentially keep a reader interested. But how does that translate to audio?

In order to produce the podcast, I use a number of audio production tools, but principally Sound Forge and Sonar, the latter being with the CakeTalking scripts for JAWS. Both of these allow me to create effective stereo imagery, layer sound on sound with manageable levels, change the pitch of music and vocals, stretch items to expand them in time, apply noise reduction, and so much more.

Lulu will often come to me with the most outrageous ideas. For example, when we were first dating and working on the podcast, she let me know that she would like Bert and friends to visit a magical place in the leprechaun world called the Gardens of Everlasting Peace. In the garden, special flowers grow. "OK" I thought, "how do we get flowers in audio?" Lulu had the answer. She said, "They have to sing". "Right, OK, how on earth do we get that?" I nearly dropped and broke my wine glass!

Fortunately, we had just purchased Sonar that very month, and so I was completely thrown in at the deep end. V-Vocal support had just become available within Sonar, so I used that in part in order to create the image of the Singing Flowers. Apart from the tune they created, they had to "Fill the Whole Garden" according to the script I had in front of me, so they needed to be loud too!

While we have done many other podcast episodes of greater complexity from an audio standpoint, when people talk to us about Bert's Place, it is the "Singing Flowers" they often refer to. It was a very memorable episode with lots of effects.

Another illustration of a complex situation occurs in this very episode just completed. In the previous podcast, number 44, we included (believe it or not), a talking golfball. This time, the house of one of the principal characters also talks!

Inside the house is a robot. Two leading characters are having a discussion and are moving about the room while doing so. But as well as the characters moving and talking, a robot has to open the door and walk from one side of the room to the other while carrying a tray of glasses and orange juice. The robot then needs to set down the tray and, upon receiving an order from its master, go back the way he had come. The door needs to open to let him through, then close again when he is on the other side.

So how do I achieve that kind of stereo imagery?

Because Sonar is multi-track software, I do have every person speaking, and every sound effect, on their own separate audio tracks. This allows me to vary the volume of each item as I need to. However, I do find Sonar is not particularly good at panning, (where an item moves from one side of the stereo field to the other), or indeed fading. So generally, I will do all of that preliminary work in Sound Forge, then place those edited files on their own tracks in sonar. I find that Sound Forge not only allows me to be very precise about this kind of thing but it enables me to undertake exceptionally tight editing, very important in this kind of podcast, of which more later.

So, back to our speaking parts, robot and tray.

Lulu and I go through the script of the podcast thoroughly, and I make very careful notes about who is meant to be where in the room and at which parts of it they should say specific lines. I can then ensure those parts are edited and panned if necessary using Sound Forge. If we want a person always to speak from the same part of the room, that can easily be achieved in Sonar alone as you can set the item to appear at a static point in the stereo field. But movement takes much more work.

As to the robot, I had the sound we had manufactured for its movement. But there were four things to consider. First, the sound needed to be a specific length to fit the dialogue. Second, the sound of the carrying tray needed to be the same length as the robot. Third, they needed to both pan from right to left at precisely the same speed. I had a situation where the tray was slightly behind the robot's time, and that just wouldn't do. Fourth, place them together and hope they fit. I got there!

Working With Other People.

As I said earlier, we do have a small team of very talented actors who work with us regularly. The way in which they obtain their voice parts varies considerably. Some people will send them in. Very occasionally, they need no audio adjustment, perhaps just the occasional "pop" sound removing or some noise reduction applied.

But sometimes, people record their lines over Skype. Some of our best voice talent has come to us this way. We will "feed" a few lines at a time to the actor, and he or she will repeat them, of course adopting the character's persona while doing so. My role then comes into play. I often need to pitch up the voice (since the podcast focuses to some extent on elves and leprechauns), but just as importantly, I have to reconstruct the lines so they make sense. If during the delivery an actor has spoken only a few words at a time, I have the task of ensuring the delivery is of a good standard and that complete sentences are heard. There must be no gaps in that context.

At other times, I will introduce significant pauses rather than edited out unwanted silence. For example, Bilby, (who is well-loved and is one of the main characters), often delivers narrative passages. I think they sound better if they are delivered at a very leisurely measured pace, so as he moves from one subject to another, I'll introduce a significant pause so as to indicate this. Of course, I have to ensure the background noise, (and there will be some), remains constant during the pause, rather than the listener hearing nothing at all. So it's a challenge.

Each episode of the Bert's Place podcast usually takes a week to prepare. This is usually a week of 12 hour days, but it's a great deal of fun and technical challenge, and I thrive on that. I think also my acting has improved over time, (I hope it has), but it's the technicalities of producing the podcast I thoroughly enjoy. I always need something to stretch my brain.

Getting the Word Out.

We are very lucky. Most months, we get people telling us how much they're enjoying listening to the podcast, and also new listeners discovering us too.

We always make the podcast available for direct download from the Bert's Place website atwww.bertsplace.co.uk.
This website in itself took some constructing. I can develop websites, but I needed to learn how to produce a photo gallery which I had not done before, since the site contains pictures of Bert. The website next year will have a new visual theme and a makeover to ensure it is more professional.

We send out via Twitter a direct audio link to the podcast so people can hear it from a Twitter client supporting audio playback. We have in the past posted the podcast episodes to AudioBoo, but I really do not like doing that. This is about high quality audio drama and it goes rather against the grain to have it downgraded to a quality AudioBoo considers acceptable.

Until recently, a podcast feed was available, even in iTunes, so people could subscribe to it if they wished to do so. I say "until recently" because, partly due to relocation to a new web hosting provider, the podcast feed has been removed for the time being. However, it will be restored at the end of the year.

Removing the podcast feed temporarily has allowed us to do a number of things. First, we can introduce more features while people are visiting the podcast feed on a website, such as social media links for promotion, a player so people can hear each episode rather than subscribing, and so on.

However, one of the things people want to hear is the beginning of the story, how Bert came to meet us and what happened before the full-length dramas came into being. So, there is a whole new story which has been constructed and recorded, embracing all the very early episodes. The older podcasts have been cleaned up so as to provide the best possible audio quality, removing the radio promotional material which was part of them. So we're in the process of renumbering and reconstructing the episodes so people get a complete picture.

The mechanics of the new podcast system are all ready to go, so it's just a matter of getting the audio content ready and uploaded. If you have subscribed to the podcast feed in the past, we would suggest you unsubscribe from it for the time being and wait for news of an update towards the end of the year. Thank you.

Summary.

To say again, Bert's Place is a tremendous amount of fun to be involved in. Yes, I love my radio work. I love getting a radio station to air, the planning, the technicalities behind it, putting documentaries together, and so on. But apart from that, Bert's Place gives me an enormous amount of pleasure to co-produce.

Oh, just a minute, I can hear Lulu's keyboard tap tapping away. Is that another podcast script about to emerge for Christmas? What challenges am I going to be put to with that? Soon, I'll find out, and so will you if you care to listen!

Improving Computer Efficiency with Leasey Advanced

Introduction.

As I said in a previous blog post, Sight Village London is getting closer and closer. So is the launch of our brand new product Leasey. In this, the next in my series of articles on the features which existing users of JAWS may like to access, I'm going to focus upon improving efficiency of using the computer.

When you are blind, the keyboard is of course the primary way in which we work with a computer. So, the less keystrokes you have to press, the better things will be.

Apart from making applications more accessible, one of the goals of Leasey is to improve efficiency and ensure less keystrokes are used on a day-to-day basis. In addition, I've always believed that if a screen-reader can do more than just vocalise what is on the screen, so much the better, which is why features like Custom Labels and the new OCR capabilities in JAWS V16 for rendering inaccessible PDF files are very important. They do not lessen the responsibility on HTML and document authors to make such items accessible, but we need ways of jumping over those barriers as a short-term measure. In some of its features, Leasey does just that. It considerably enhances what JAWS is able to do by default and gives us access to tools and services to make daily computing tasks easier.

LeaseyTags.

LeaseyTags is an intelligent application which works alongside Windows Explorer. Imagine the following situations:

  1. You are in a folder containing 50 files and you want to copy the first 36 of them. So, hold down the Shift key, press Down Arrow repeatedly to select the files you need, and after some way down the list you will find JAWS will stop reading out the selected files. That task cannot therefore be completed in one copying process.
  2. You are in a folder and wish to copy files 2, 6, 15 and 20 to the Clipboard. You could potentially hold down Control while pressing Down Arrow, and then press space to select the items you want. However, if you inadvertently release the Control key, you are likely to unselect those which are currently highlighted.
  3. You have a music collection and you want to copy some of the files from various folders onto your portable media player. You have to select files from one folder, copy them to the Clipboard, then paste to the device or SD card. Then repeat the process for all other folders.

LeaseyTags will help with all of these tasks. Simply focus on any file or folder you wish to copy, then tag it with a keystroke. Move to the next file with Down Arrow or first letter navigation and again, tag it. Move into a different folder if you wish and repeat the process by tagging as many items as you wish.

To check which files or folders are tagged, you can either move back through them, and as each tagged item is encountered, you hear a LeaseyTag sound. alternatively, press a keystroke to hear all the tagged items.

When you're ready to cut or copy, simply press Control+X or Control+C, Browse to the location in which the files should be placed and press Control+V. The items are in the new folder in 2 to 3 seconds.

"But", I hear you cry, "What if the SD card is full or some files cannot be copied?" We've thought of that. If this is the case, a screen will be displayed showing you those files which were not moved or copied. In addition, if you try to paste files in a folder where items with the same names already exist, we tell you about that too and give you the opportunity of cancelling the process.

LeaseyTags can be used alongside our LeaseyAudio application, so playlists can be created based upon tagged files. LeaseyTags can also be used to delete files, or alternatively, you can delete one or all of your LeaseyTags.

LeaseyTexts.

Imagine you work a lot with documents and Email every day. It could be that you need to regularly reproduce large blocks of text, such as standard paragraphs always sent to customers or clients. Or, maybe you are not a particularly proficient keyboard user, and you want to reduce the amount of text you have to type. These are just two examples where LeaseyTexts can help.

With a LeaseyText, you can store as much text as you like which can be reproduced at will. For example, you may care to create a signature containing your name, address, telephone number, Email address and so on. Simply create a LeaseyText with that information. It can then be accessed in one of two ways, either by selecting it from a list of all your LeaseyTexts, or through a form of shorthand. You assign an abbreviation to the LeaseyText so that, whenever it is typed in the future, it reproduces the full text instead. In our example of a signature, the word "sig" should be sufficient.

Our beta testers are also using LeaseyTexts in lots of inventive ways, perhaps to store product serial numbers or even a shopping list. Why a shopping list? Simply because you can view any of your LeaseyTexts in the JAWS Virtual Viewer. You would find the LeaseyText you want from the list and it is displayed for you to read. Pressing Escape will return focus back to the program in which you were working prior to bringing the LeaseyText into view. When you go back to the text in the Virtual Viewer, the cursor is focused on the line where you left off reading. So if you had a series of instructions for a piece of software you were trying to learn, this would mean you could read them without ever having to leave the application itself. The same applies to a shopping list. You could be purchasing your groceries online, and the list of items you want to buy is right there for you at your convenience without you ever having to ALT+Tab to another program to find it, then ALT+Tab back to the web browser.

LeaseyPoints.

There are so many other features in Leasey I could write about in terms of improving efficiency and usability of a computer, including LeaseyCuts, from which you can open any document, webpage or folder without having to enter the originating application first.

But again if you write a lot of text in Microsoft word, the chances are that you will want to quickly locate specific sections of the document again, perhaps for crosschecking against something you are about to write. LeaseyPoints will allow you to do this.

You can set up to 10 LeaseyPoints per document. Simply place the cursor on the line of text you want to get back to later, and set a LeaseyPoint by pressing a keystroke. That's it.

To return to that section of the document later, just press an easy-to-remember keystroke, and you're right back there. By default, focus is placed on the word where the LeaseyPoint was originally set which will be spoken. However, JAWS can be customised to adopt different behaviour when the LeaseyPoint is found. You may want to hear the current character only, sentence, paragraph, or maybe the rest of the document onward, although I think that would be highly unlikely.

So what happens if you insert text in the document after setting the LeaseyPoint? Good question, after all, this is Microsoft Word we're talking about here so that is probable. Leasey will set focus to the text containing the LeaseyPoint if the original text still exists. If it doesn't, she will make a very good guess based upon other factors as to where she thinks you want to be.

Whenever you open the document in the future, you will be advised that LeaseyPoints exist so you know that specific text passages have been marked.

LeaseyPoints can also be used on webpages, again to move back to important text passages you may wish to relocate later. Again, the process for setting them is just as simple as in Microsoft word.

Conclusion.

I hope you've enjoyed reading this post. As a reminder, you can come and see Leasey yourself at Sight Village London at Kensington Town Hall on 4 November if you would like to.

In the next article, I'm going to spend some time talking about Leasey's access to Skype, and maybe one or two other things as well. And remember, every JAWS user should have Leasey!

Introducing Leasey Advanced!

In less than five weeks, we will be at the Sight Village London exhibition launching Leasey, Learn, Enable, Advance, So Easy!

As discussed in previous blog entries, Leasey Total Package makes it possible for new computer users to work in a very structured interface, guided by human speech and spoken help instructions. This was demonstrated in detail within our Audio Presentationfor TechTalk and Accessible World. When people are ready to let go of the menu system, they can switch to Leasey Advanced, containing a raft of useful tools, utilities and services. Leasey Total Package, including its accompanying DAISY Getting Started guide, will cost £150.

However, you may not know that you will be able to buy Leasey Advanced standalone, at £100. It is for people who already may have JAWS on a computer and are using it day-to-day. JAWS is an absolutely fantastic screen-reader, and what Leasey Advanced hopes to do is to make it even better! This is why I say that "Every JAWS user should have Leasey!"

What is Leasey Advanced Standalone?

Leasey Advanced gives you a lot more than just a handful of tools which might be useful, and in this series of blog posts leading up to Sight Village, I'd like to explain a few of them in detail. But lets go through most of them now in brief.

Leasey Advanced contains:

  • LeaseySelect. Easily select small or large text passages without the need to hold down the Shift key. Works in HTML environments, text documents (not just Microsoft Word), Email, PDF files, the JAWS Results Viewer, and more. It has never been easier to select text!
  • LeaseyTexts. Reproduce phrases and long passages of text quickly, either by accessing them through a simple list, or even better, by just typing a phrase. LeaseyTexts give you the ability to create your own shorthand. So, if you assign a long Email signature to the word "sig", type it into your document or email, and the text is typed. Ideal given that completing Email signatures in some Email clients is becoming more and more difficult. Similarly, if you type National Library Service regularly, assign it to the text string NLS instead. Every time you type those letters, Leasey will type the text in full. You can speed up your text processing in no time!
  • LeaseySkype. A lot of work has gone into our interface for making Skype easy to use. Quickly find the person you want to call from your contacts list without having to scroll down. Easily set your Mood Text by pressing a keystroke to get to the right place. Hear who signs in or out of Skype automatically if you wish. Switch to a Skype conversation which needs attention from any application. Choose whether you wish date or timestamps to be announced in text chat, and you can even filter out the contact's name too. There are too many features to name here but we'll discuss it in a future blog post.
  • LeaseyPoints. Bookmark passages of text for instant retrieval. Can be used in Word documents, HTML environments, PDF files and the JAWS Results Viewer.
  • LeaseyAlerts. Do you often find locating parts of web pages time consuming? Set a LeaseyAlert not only to look out for them, but to set focus to the correct area of the page without extraneous speech.
  • LeaseyClips. Copy text segments from multiple locations and paste them in any order you like, wherever you want.
  • LeaseyTags. Cut, copy or delete files from multiple folders at once. If you have five files in one folder and six in another, copy them to an alternative location in one copying session.
  • Tools for Text Composition and Email. A number of small utilities are available to help you with this. Quickly change the punctuation level spoken, permanently set the speech JAWS gives to you as you type rather than temporarily, copy the Email address from a message you have received to the Windows clipboard which also works from messages from many Email lists, find out how many words there are in the text, skip down through a message to avoid a person's Email signature, quickly change capitalisation, use a very accessible Find and Replace utility, and more.
  • LeaseyRadio. Choose to listen to any one of hundreds of radio stations divided into ten categories. Store your favourite stations as presets, flick through the LeaseyRadio top 10, hear the current song title being played from any application, and receive regular updates via the internet.
  • LeaseyAudio. Easily create and edit playlists for use in your favourite audio player.
  • LeaseySearch. Search for books in online catalogues from whichever application you happen to be in. If searching with Audible.com and you find a link to a book, press a keystroke to hear its summary without entering the page and searching around.
  • LeaseyConnect. A fully featured address book allows you to store details of your contacts. But it is tightly interwoven with other applications, such as Skype, email clients and those used for Twitter. Want to call someone on the phone or via Skype? You can do it from LeaseyConnect. Want to mention someone on Twitter but you can't remember the username? It's a snap with LeaseyConnect. If you are composing an Email, type the person's name in the To field and press a keystroke. If a match is found in LeaseyConnect, it will be typed for you. If more than one match is found, you choose which address to send it to.
  • LeaseyDiary. If you don't wish to work with a complicated calendar and you want to keep things straightforward, use LeaseyDiary. Store appointments with notes and review them whenever you like.
  • LeaseyClock. Contains a host of stopwatch, countdown timer and alarm functions which can be easily set and reviewed.
  • Dropbox. A small set of utilities can be found in Leasey relating to Dropbox. Access Dropbox Preferences, quickly check on the status of uploads or downloads or go straight to the Dropbox folder.
  • Getting Help

    Every function in Leasey has a keystroke associated with it, so the power user can access what he or she wants rapidly. But how do you learn what the keystrokes are?

    We do have thoroughly prepared documentation for Leasey, but we've also designed a great help system. Leasey will try and guess what kind of help you need depending upon the task you are working with, although you can access all the keystroke categories if you wish. As you move through the help for a category, you will hear the function name and corresponding keystroke so you can get to learn it. If you do not want to learn it right now, just press Enter, and Leasey will do the task for you. Want to repeat that task again? No problem. Just go back into the help. Leasey knows what you were doing before so she'll put you back in the correct place so you can do the same task again.

    Updates to Leasey will be delivered using the Internet, and you can check for them at any time. Whenever we develop something new, we can bring it to you straight away.

    What the People Are Saying About Leasey

    We're very lucky in that we have a fantastic team of beta testers behind us, who have not only let us know what isn't working, but who have made awesome suggestions as to how the product could be improved upon. Here are a few comments.

    "Leasey's access to Skype with the Hotkey Help is the hottest feature I've seen since VoiceOver.

    I like being able to quickly access Voice Messages with LeaseySkype. Also, Unlike a program which simply puts a totally different overlay on top of that application, you feel like you are actually in Skype but with a lot of extra help."

    "I just copied a number of audio files from different folders to Dropbox for listening on my iPhone. It provided a good opportunity to use LeaseyTags. They worked as advertised. What an awesome feature!"

    "I've just discovered a radio station playing the Beach Boys in LeaseyRadio. They are my favourite group and I didn't even know about it!"

    Conclusion

    It is important to say that if you purchase Leasey Total Package, you get everything, the easy to use structured interface making computing easy for new users, and the advanced tools described above. Leasey Advanced only just contains the advanced tools of course, that's the essential difference between the two.

    We're very much looking forward to launching Leasey in November. Meanwhile, do look out for the blog posts describing features in more detail as we get closer to the event. Thanks go to everyone who has expressed interest in what Leasey can do now and in the future! We look forward to exciting times ahead.

What I Think of RNIB Overdrive

Last Sunday evening I received details that the RNIB Overdrive service was up and running. This was quite a surprise because I did not think it was launching until the following day, 15 September.

RNIB Overdrive is a service UK citizens have been waiting for. It allows us to download Talking Books from the RNIB library so we can hear them off line, either using a computer, an iPhone or an alternative portable device, such as the Victor Reader Stream. The previous incarnation of this service, Bookstream, allowed a user to stream books over the internet in DAISY format or loan them on CD. The CD aspect of the library is still very much with us and is not going away.

Currently, the entire collection of 23,000 books from RNIB have not been uploaded. About half the collection is in place with the rest to follow in November.

As the name suggests, RNIB Overdrive uses the Overdrive library service which is commonplace among digital libraries in the world. They have a desktop player for your computer and an app for I O S as well.

I was very excited about being able to download books as I am an avid reader and get through several books a week. People living in America, Australia and Canada among others have this facility in place already so it is nice that we in the UK have now caught up.

I certainly am able to download books and listen to them on my victor Reader Stream. When you get the idea as to how the website functions, it can be done in just a few minutes. However, the website does need some improvement as I pointed out when working through RNIB's trial for this service. There is no way of easily and quickly being able to skip to the next result in a list of books you may have searched for. Certainly pressing the letter G to move to the next graphic using JAWS takes you close, then you can press Down Arrow. But if you are working through a lot of results this can take a while. I suspect RNIB cannot do a great deal about this as the Overdrive interface is probably standard throughout all libraries.

Probably the biggest disappointment relates to the audio itself.

In order to make it easier for people to play books from RNIB Overdrive on players which are not DAISY-compatible, the files are in MP3 format only with no DAISY structure. To some extent I understand why this approach has been adopted. It does make it possible for you to listen to books on devices such as the boombox Plus. This is a very straightforward, easy-to-use player capable of playing MP3 content, and it does retain the position within the book, although there are limits to this. But it is an excellent device and would do well int this context. Moreover if you are not a fan of the Overdrive desktop player, (which again does work well), you can use Winamp, Foobar2000 or any audio player on the computer of your choosing.

But the people involved in preparing the books have not paid too much attention to structure. Ideally, you would have thought each chapter should be in its own MP3 file. This is not always the case. You could potentially have three chapters or more in one file which makes navigating by chapter almost impossible. While as I say I understand the concept of pure audio so to speak, there are many disadvantages in "dumping DAISY".]

The other issue I have relates to the quality of the audio. As against the equivalent DAISY books available on CD, the audio of the Overdrive downloadable content sounds extremely compressed. Doubtless this is at least partly for the customers' benefit as each book does not take long to download. However, the sub-standard quality is very evident when listening on headphones. I have many books from the Audible.co.uk website, downloaded in their "format 4" audio quality. The reproduction from RNIB Overdrive titles is far poorer in my view than Audible's Format 4, and Audible books can even be available in a higher quality than that.

People may take the view that not many will notice. But I think as blind people, we are used to listening to audio and appreciating the very significant differences in quality. If you are familiar with audio production, and you know what you are listening for, this kind of reproduction and subsequent artefacts can usually be avoided.

In summary, it is probably a bit late to be concerned about this now given that half the collection is uploaded. But I just would like people to appreciate what they are likely to receive.

Now having said all that, to be positive, once you get used to the fact that you are listening to books with this kind of reproduction, there is no doubt that the concept of being able to download books does give visually impaired people in the UK a lot of flexibility. If you think that you would like to read a book by a specific author, you can be reading it in a few minutes, and you can't beat that spontaneity. So I would like to thank RNIB for giving us that service. If you enjoy reading, certainly despite my above comments I would recommend RNIB Overdrive, and I will be renewing my subscription again next September for sure.

JAWS 15 Fix for Outlook 2013

There has been a longstanding problem with JAWS in relation to Outlook 2013.

When you delete all messages from a mail folder, ALT+Tab away and then back, JAWS reads the last message which was in the folder, even if it has been deleted. This script attempts to fix this problem. It is for JAWS 15 only.
www.hartgen.org/outlook2013.exe

If you wish to uninstall it at any time, there is an entry in the Start Menu, All Programs, Outlook 2013 Scripts.

Enjoy!

Introducing LeaseyAudio and LeaseySticky Notes.

Introduction.

Last week we brought you a podcast about the LeaseyRadio Player. When Leasey is released in November, as demonstrated, you can browse through radio station categories, assign stations to presets and check out our Leasey top 10 stations of the month. Stations are updated regularly without you having to do anything special.

We were asked whether it was possible for people, through Leasey, to hear music or audio using files on the computer (such as MP3), or perhaps a music CD. Leasey will have this functionality for sure!

Introducing LeaseyAudio.

LeaseyAudio does much more than allow you to hear music. It centres around the LeaseyAudio menu. From here, you can create a new playlist. You are asked for the name of the playlist. Just type it in and press enter.

You then have the opportunity of browsing your music library. Use our LeaseyTag system to assign a tag to each item you would like in the playlist. This can be from multiple folders. As demonstrated in our TechTalk presentation, you can assign a LeaseyTag to any file you like within Windows Explorer.

When you've completed the playlist for now, press a keystroke, and it is generated for you. You can always get back to it and add tracks at a later date.

You can then go back into the LeaseyAudio menu so as to work with your playlists. From here, you can:

  • Open an existing playlist.
  • Listen to the playlist.
  • Hear any song which forms part of the playlist.
  • Edit the playlist. This includes changing the order of the items if you wish.
  • Deleting the Playlist.

When listening to the playlist, from within any application you can:

  • Pause, play and stop the audio.
  • Adjust the volume of playback.
  • Skip forward or back through the track. It's lovely and snappy!
  • Skip to the next or previous track in the playlist.
  • Activate and deactivate Shuffle mode.
  • Repeat the playlist.

With Leasey, you can also rip an audio CD, or play any tracks from it if you wish.

Whether you want to listen to plays, books or music, LeaseyAudio has you covered! All file formats we know about are supported.

LeaseySticky Notes.

A LeaseySticky Note is exactly what it says. When reading books, sighted people often scribble notes in the margin. Maybe you are a student. You have a DAISY book which you are using for study, and you want to make a note to yourself to remind you to quote specific passages. Simply find the place in the book, and create a LeaseySticky note with any text you like, such as, "I really must quote from this passage in my essay". Now, next time you visit that passage, you'll hear the LeaseySticky note.

But it goes further. LeaseyStickyNotes are not just used in books. You can use them on web pages, text or Microsoft Word documents, PDF files, and within many other Windows environments. So if you are a trainer, and a client often struggles when on a specific website, create your own LeaseySticky Notes to remind them what to do.

Conclusion.

Leasey keeps getting better and better, but for this version, we're pretty much feature complete. We'll soon be going into beta testing, and there's plenty more to do before launch. But we hope with these blog entries and podcasts, we've given you a really good idea as to what is to come. We look forward to launching Leasey in November!

Leasey Radio - Why Your Station Needs to Be There!

It's no secret that one of the things we at Astec would like to include in the innovative Leasey product is a radio player. Well, we have the player working, now we just need the stations! And that is where you come in.

We hope that people will be enjoying and using Leasey for years to come, and while they're working with all the cool features, they may like something to listen to. Well, they can with LeaseyRadio, and it could be your station people will be tuning into!

We have a large database of stations we know of which we'll be including in the directory, divided into categories and which is searchable. However, if you run an internet radio station, and you would like it to be part of the directory of an upcoming product, now is the time to say.

Here are some reasons why you might want your station to be included.
1. With global hotkeys which are available to start and stop the player, switch to another channel, and to adjust the volume, when people are not using their Smart devices to hear a station, they may like to hear what you have to offer while at the computer!
2. When people browse the directory, they have the chance of easily and quickly finding your station and listen to your fantastic shows!
3. There is no charge to include your station in the directory.
4. If you change your station's internet stream, no problem. Updates take place within a few hours. Leasey users don't have to wait for a new product update. LeaseyRadio periodically checks for updates via the internet and automatically makes the new updates available!
5. Want to be top of the charts? Listeners can add any one of the radio stations to their list of favourites. When they do, Astec receives notification of this and a monthly chart of the most popular is compiled. The top 10 list of stations have their own dedicated keystrokes. Listeners can find your station just by easily checking out the top 10 and hopefully, they will keep locked in! We'll tell you if you've made the LeaseyRadio chart, and better still, if you're number 1!

All we need for your station to be included is:
1. The station name.
2. The direct stream URL so listeners can hear the audio. This should be in either Windows Media format or an MP3 stream.
3. The station must be broadcasting audio 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
4. The content must be delivered in the English language.

Please send your station's details to:
brian.hartgen@astec-at.co.uk.

Get more people tuning into your station today with LeaseyRadio! You'll be glad you did!

Accessible Skype and TechTalk Presentation for Leasey!

It has been an interesting week as far as access to Skype is concerned. Very sadly, GW Micro announced that the highly popular program, GWConnect, will no longer be continued due to the development tools it uses not being available. As a user of GWConnect for some time, like many others I found this disappointing.

Why is this news frustrating to some, given that most of the screen-readers do support Skype quite well, and for one or two, there are additional scripts available which help to make it more accessible?

What people seemed to have very much appreciated with the GWConnect application was the ease and simplicity of how it worked. It didn't just make Skype accessible. It's very structured interface made it more usable for many.

Skype is a very popular tool used for communication for text chat, Skype and phone calls too, so it needs to be as easy to use as possible and support through screen-reading should be high priority. I remember I did advocate to Freedom Scientific, along with others, that at least some support for Skype should be part of the JAWS product when it is installed, given its popularity. This has been done.

This change in circumstance I wrote about earlier came when we were on the point of including some access for Skype into our Leasey product. For more information about Leasey, please read my earlier blog post on this subject, or read the end of this entry about our forthcoming presentation.

As part of Leasey, we believe that we have created a simple interface which uses the existing Skype program rather than something which could potentially not be accessible in the future. The user is presented with an interface where they cannot focus on an area which subsequently they could find it difficult to get away from. So, by default, the user is faced with his or her contacts list. It is not possible for example with our interface to move into Skype's own search edit field, either by typing or pressing Up Arrow as is traditionally the case.

Given that information, how do you search for a contact? You type into the list of contacts, just as you would with any list. Focus is then moved to it if found. So, if I type Lulu, or her Skype username, we'll get there and I can press Enter to call or Control+T if I want to text chat with her.

Here are some other highlights.

  • When in the list of contacts or recent events, press Control+Insert+1 through to 4 in order to hear the individual Skype details, such as the name or mood text. Press twice quickly to virtualise the information perhaps for copying elsewhere. This is standard JAWS practice.
  • View a user's profile by activating it from the context menu. When in the profile, read it with the Up or Down Arrow keys. People previously found this difficult to read.
  • The Dialog Box to manage your own profile is completely accessible with appropriate help given where the purpose of a field is not clear.
  • When a user chats to you, and the conversation does not have focus, press a keystroke to set focus to the most recent conversation.
  • When hearing incoming messages, or repeating them, elect to have date and timestamps spoken, or whether or not to hear the username. If you were chatting with someone on a one to one basis, you wouldn't want to hear the username.
  • From within the Emoticons list, quickly find what you are looking for and enter it into your conversation.
  • Select and copy text easily from the chat edit window by marking the start and end points of the selection without the need to use the Shift key.
  • Easily set your Mood text or hear your Skype balance. With the mood text, press a keystroke, update the text, and press Enter to save. It's easy.
  • From LeaseyConnect, (which is our fully featured Address Book), quickly find the person you'd like to call via Skype or maybe chat with them using text.
  • The Dialog Box to change Skype Hotkeys is completely accessible.

We hope that this added support for Skype will give people the confidence to use the main Skype for Windows Desktop program. Context sensitive help is of course included all the way!

You can hear a demonstration of the Skype support within Leasey during TechTalk, part of Accessible World, this coming week. If you cannot make the presentation live so as to ask questions, it will be available as a downloadable podcast. Here is the Press Release regarding this event. There is a lot to talk about, and we look forward very much to being with anyone who wishes to be there.

Tek Talk Presents, "Leasey: Learn, Enable, Advance - So Easy!

Have you just purchased your first computer and don’t know where to start? Do you find saving files into folders difficult? Or maybe you're an advanced user of the JAWS screen-reader, and you’re in a place of work and you need to have phrases from web pages spoken to you automatically or to set intelligent bookmarks as you edit the presentation you need to deliver to the boss. Leasey is your friend and can help - at home, in the workplace or for study!

Leasey is the world’s first application ideal for people wishing to learn computing for the first time through to the power user. Through its easy to use menu system for complete computer beginners, context sensitive help spoken by a human being, and dedicated quick shortcut keys for the power user, Leasey allows you to write documents, manage your Email, read your talking books, keep track of your appointments, manage your contacts, hear radio stations, scan documents or PDF files, talk to your friends on Skype and so much more!

Tek Talk has an exclusive. On 11 August at 8 PM Eastern time, please join a presentation to hear the first ever in depth demonstration of what promises to be an amazing product in the years to come! Every JAWS user should have Leasey. Please attend the seminar to find out why!

Date: Monday August 11, 2014

Time: 5:00 p.m. Pacific, 6:00 p.m. Mountain, 7:00 p.m. Central, 8:00 p.m. Eastern and elsewhere in the world Tuesday 12:00 GMT.

Approximately 15 minutes prior to the event start time; go to The Pat Price Tek Talk Training Room. Alternatively select The Pat Price Tek Talk Training Room at: www.accessibleworld.org
Enter your first and last names on the sign-in screen.

If you are a first-time user of the Talking Communities online conferencing software, there is a small, safe software program that you need to download and then run. A link to the software is found on every screen to the rooms.

"Hi, I'm Leasey, What Would You Like to Do?"

Improving Computing Efficiency
Introducing Leasey Advanced
Introducing LeaseyAudio and LeaseySticky Notes

Read About the Upcoming Leasey Tech Talk Presentation and Accessible Skype

I'm very much looking forward to Sight Village 2014, which begins tomorrow at the New Bingley Hall in Birmingham. It is the premiere exhibition in the UK with close to 100 exhibitors displaying the latest and greatest technology. This year, we at Astec have something very exciting to show. Meet Leasey: Learn, Enable, Advance – So Easy!

Leasey is ideal for the computer beginner, those who have a little knowledge and want to learn more and, even for the advanced computer user, she's an incredibly powerful lady!

The Background.

There are still very many people who do not know how to use a computer. When it is switched on, and the screen-reader announces it is running, what happens next? Where do you start? How do you send an email, write a document, make a Skype call or surf the internet? What about these cool DAISY or Audible books people talk about? How does that all work?

Leasey can metaphorically "hold a person's hand" from the moment the JAWS screen-reader is loaded. She brings into view a simple menu system, where the Up and Down Arrow keys are used to move through the options. Alternatively, first letter navigation can be used to reach the desired choice. When you get to the item you are wanting, press Enter.

But even with the most sophisticated of speech synthesisers which are quite "human sounding", if you're not familiar with synthetic speech it takes time for your ears to become atuned to what is being read from the screen. Leasey takes this all away. Her voice is spoken by a real human being. She will not only speak her menus and lots of guidance, but she also provides you with help, every step of the way. So, if you're in the Main Menu, and you don't know that you need to use the Arrow keys to move through, that's OK. Just press the Leasey help key. The help is extremely context sensitive appropriate not only to the majority of Windows controls, but also web page elements, Microsoft Office components and all of our many supported applications, of which more later.

Louise Keel, (my Co-Developer of Leasey), and I have thought very carefully about the way the help should be delivered. It is clearly ennunciated so as to leave no room for doubt as to what is being said, but Leasey is your friend, not to be patronising or coseting you, but to give you straightforward, friendly, easy-to-understand help. This is especially true on the internet which can be very confusing for new users. What if you are confronted with a multi-selection List Box on the internet? How do you work with that? Ask Leasey and she'll tell you.

Leasey gives you help and guidance as and when you need it. Move the cursor rapidly through menus or use quick key navigation? Leasey is right there with you, speaking the newly selected item. Do you want to stop Leasey talking? Simply press the Control key. Do you need Leasey to repeat what she last said? If so, press the Repeat key. Do you want to dispense with the voice guidance and switch to Leasey Advanced? No problem. It can be done with a simple keystroke, but Leasey's help system is always there to be used, putting you in complete control.

What Can Leasey Do?

Without exaggeration, I could write a book detailing what Leasey can do right now and what we have in mind for the future. But lets detail a few features which could not only be used for the beginner but which advanced users may also find helpful.

Leasey brings together a number of mainstream industry-standard applications, not only presenting easy access to them, but where appropriate modifying the interface in such a way that the new user can work with them. We give you a choice as to the programs to be used, and in most cases, have not created our own. If you develop an interface which is very structured as Leasey's beginner components are, it's important that you give people room to grow. Remember, that Leasey understands you may be a new computer user at first, but she wants you to expand your computing skills. So as you learn more, you will want to try new things and work with more programs. That is natural.

So, Leasey's Main Menu allows you to open a word processor, which can either be Microsoft Word or HJ Pad from Freedom Scientific if the former is not an option. For Email, we use Microsoft Outlook, or Windows Live Mail if Outlook is not installed. I hope you are beginning to get the picture.

When within one of the supported programs, you use Leasey's Application Menu system. Again, this is context sensitive and relative to the situation you are working within. The Application Menu is designed to give you access to the most common options you are likely to want to carry out in the situation you are facing.

As an example, when inside an Email message you are composing, she will give you options to "Open Leasey Connect", (a central repository for your Contacts including Email, Twitter usernames, Skype contacts and phone numbers), move to the Subject field, spell check the message, send the Email, and so on. But when you are within a message you have received, you will want different options, such as to reply to a message. Leasey is smart enough to know where you are and what you might want to do.

But as your skills increase, we want you to eventually walk away from the menu system, which is why the Leasey Help gives you the keystrokes necessary to do these things a little more quickly.

I've Never Been Taught How to Use the Keyboard. Can Leasey Help with that?

Absolutely she can. From the Main Menu, simply acccess the option "Improve Your Keyboard Skills". The amazing TypeAbility program, developed by David Pinto of Yes Accessible, will not only describe the keyboard layout, but you can work through 100 lessons thoroughly teaching you how to use the keyboard. There are speed tests, games, quizzes, and more, all presented in a fun and interactive way. I've never seen a typing tutor which is as thorough as TypeAbility. Take a look at this video and you can hear what other people think!

Special Leasey Features.

As I discuss later some of the features in Leasey Advanced, (for the power user), you will perhaps feel that Leasey is J-Tools "in a different dress". It would be very wrong of you to think that. J-Tools was a product I developed some years ago as a kind of swiss army knife for all your computing needs and included many tools which I hoped you would find helpful. Certainly some of those features have found their way into Leasey, but they've been considerably improved upon.

There are already some new features. Lets start with the LeaseyDiary.

I've no idea how many people have said to me over the years how difficult using a calendar is. But we all need to be reminded of important upcoming events. Certainly Microsoft Outlook can be used when you have the skill, but LeaseyDiary is a very simple calendar. She allows you to store an appointment and there is a very comprehensive Notes area to store unlimited text appropriate to the appointment, such as a meeting agenda.

When viewing diary entries, you move through the months of the year presented in a list form. As you move through, you will hear whether appointments exist for a given month. You can then examine them and of course, read and even edit the Notes. Have you ever had long-kept appointments that it was too much hassle to delete cluttering up your calendar? With Leasey, you can delete them with one simple keystroke.

We hope to be able to make it possible to import calendar appointments from Microsoft Outlook if that is what people would like to do. Incidentally, you can do the simple things too, for example hear the current date or insert the date into your document such as a letter.

LeaseyClock is exactly what it says. You can hear the time, set alarms, use a countdown timer or the powerful stopwatch. Of course, for the advanced user, both LeaseyDiary and LeaseyClock have keyboard shortcuts associated with them so as to bypass Leasey's menu system, as does probably my favourite feature of the moment, LeaseySearch.

What Is LeaseySearch?

In her menu system, Leasey gives you the ability to listen to DAISY Talking Books (maybe from RNIB or Bookshare), and to hear books downloaded from the Audible website. So it seemed sensible to give people the ability to choose what they would like to listen to a little more easily than is currently the case.

LeaseySearch at the moment allows you to search the RNIB Talking Book and Braille catalogues, the Bookshare catalogue and also the amazing selection of books from Audible. She will ask you for the author and title of the book you would like to search for. She first examines the websites to ascertain if results matching your criteria exist, and, if they do, she'll bring them back to you so you can read the publisher's summary or place an order. No need to go to the provider's website, find an edit field, type in what you want, press Enter, and have all the problem of finding where the results start. You can do it quickly from whichever program you are working in.

We hope to extend LeaseySearch to include other providers of books together with maybe online stores and services.

Leasey Advanced.

While there are more specialist features and those for new users, lets turn our attention for a moment to Leasey Advanced.

There are many features allowing you to make the most of your computer. LeaseySelect gives you the ability to easily highlight text in documents, Email messages and web pages. Support is currently in place for Notepad, Wordpad, Microsoft Word, Outlook, Windows Live Mail, Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, the JAWS Results Viewer, Adobe Reader to name most of them. There's probably one or two I've forgotten.

LeaseyPoints has the potential to be of huge advantage to people who are studying and in the workplace. Much more than a regular bookmark, you can set up multiple LeaseyPoints for each Microsoft Word document for instant retrieval.

LeaseyPoints however are particularly helpful on the internet. Not only can they immediately through keystrokes take you to required parts of web pages, but they can also react to specific text events input by the user. So, if you are working in a browser-based application, and you want to be alerted when a particular phrase is present, Leasey can do that for you.

There are many other features including LeaseyWeb (for HTML composition), LeaseyCuts (for storing shortcuts to web pages, documents and folders), and LeaseyNotes for those long text passages you need to type on a regular basis. Oh, and I forgot to mention a feature we hope to implement, LeaseyCloud. You can store your settings on LeaseyCloud and download them to another computer of your choosing.

So What Is The Future for Leasey?

Well, first, you can come and meet her at Sight Village this week if you are visiting the exhibition. We would be very pleased indeed to welcome you to the Astec stand! Please remember that, while we are dying to show Leasey to you and want you to be as excited as we are about her, this is a prototype of the program. We hope the first version of Leasey will be launched in November with pricing information available at the time of launch.

But as for the future, there is no limit. We have a plan for the next six months or more of features we would like to see included, and of course many more will we hope be driven by potential user input. But very realistic examples would be the introduction of a radio and audio CD player, Skype, support for iTunes, Spotify, Amazon's Kindle and more. Louise and I together with the team at Astec think creatively. We're quite tired of hearing what isn't accessible and what we're lead to believe we can't do. We're more interested in what we can do, and, through Leasey, encourage other people to use the computer to its full potential.

In closing, I should say that in addition to comprehensive written documentation, Leasey will come equipped with a Getting Started tutorial in DAISY format, talking you through many of Leasey's features together with important Windows concepts. And of course, because it is in DAISY format, you can hear it on your portable player or indeed by using Leasey herself!

Whether you're a computer newby or a power user, Leasey could be your friend for life!

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