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Originally published March 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 10, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Tech-abling tools worth the wait

The computer industry has a lot to offer those with disabilities — from voice synthesizers to screen readers, from Braille printers...

Special to The Seattle Times

The computer industry has a lot to offer those with disabilities — from voice synthesizers to screen readers, from Braille printers to large-font displays.

So why is the immense potential of computers to enhance this kind of access to technology slow to be realized?

The many reasons include some realities of the technology business. First, finding a large initial market is critical to companies in new areas of technology. Great ideas are first developed into products with widespread, rather than niche, markets.

Second, some of the most promising technologies for enhancing accessibility are at the cutting edge, where new products are more expensive to develop and bring to market. This is certainly true, for example, of voice-recognition technologies.

Fortunately, many large vendors — spurred in part by federal regulations — are now devoting more resources to developing accessibility-enhancing products and to ensuring that existing technologies are easier to use.

The new Microsoft Windows Vista operating system, for example, includes features aimed at enhancing accessibility, including Narrator, a basic screen reader, and speech recognition for voice control of certain operations.

What's more, some hardware vendors are paying more attention to accommodating disabled users. Many laptops now feature designs that allow them to be opened with one hand. And many include screen magnifiers as standard equipment.

Here is a look at several new products that aim to make life easier for disabled users.

Cyrano Communicator

Those who have a speech disability will want to take a look at One Write's Cyrano Communicator, named after that famous surrogate speechifier, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Cyrano Communicator runs on a Hewlett-Packard iPaq rx3715 handheld personal digital assistant (PDA). Cyrano provides a context-based navigation system that helps users with text displayed on the iPaq's screen and recorded speech to communicate with others.

The trick is to provide quick access to a broad, customizable array of messages to suit unexpected situations of daily life. Cyrano does this by offering visual blocks grouped on pages. The graphic images on the blocks represent different life situations, such as school or meals.

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Each page can contain from one to 35 blocks, as preferred by the user. The blocks are customizable, and you can use the embedded 1.2-megapixel camera to take pictures for use in the blocks.

Each block can contain an image, a text message, an audio clip, a jump to another page or a link to launch another program.

If the prerecorded messages don't do the job, users can turn to Cyrano Shorthand, an application that lets users type in and store any message. Select an item, tap the stylus on the Speak button, and the speech will be read aloud in any of the four provided "voice personalities." (If you don't like typing on the on-screen interface, you can purchase an optional wireless keyboard.)

You can also record new phrases using the unit's built-in audio recorder. And if you want better sound you can buy an optional speaker case, which holds both a palm-size speaker and the iPaq.

One of the best things about the Cyrano is its size. The iPaq fits in a shirt pocket and weighs less than 6 ounces; it also supports Wi-Fi, infrared and Bluetooth connectivity.

The Cyrano Communicator has a base price of $1,199. To learn more, go to www.cyranocommunicator.com.

Emprint Braille printer

Braille keyboards have long been available to help those with impaired vision enter data into computers. But what about output?

The Emprint Braille Printer combines a Hewlett-Packard inkjet printing engine with paper-embossing technology to produce pages that can be read by both sighted and nonsighted readers. In addition to the inkjet printing, documents can include Braille printing and embossed graphics (including raised text and math characters).

The Emprint printer also offers flexibility. You can select from three different levels for each mode. Ink can be printed in draft, normal or "best" mode; embossing can be printed light, normal or heavy.

The printer isn't exactly a speed demon, but it should be fast enough for most users. If you're printing with ink alone, it can handle three pages per minute. With embossed pages, you can get two pages per minute. And if the pages have both ink and embossing, you'll max out at 1.4 pages per minute.

iCommunicator

Where Cyrano can speak for you and Emprint can generate documents, iCommunicator fills yet another niche: converting speech to text or converting text to sign language.

The iCommunicator software package, from PPR Inc., employs the Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice-recognition engine (from Nuance Communications) to accomplish the speech-to-text conversion. Once the embedded Dragon engine has converted the speech to text, iCommunicator steps in and quickly converts the text to sign language. It then generates a video clip with the content communicated in sign language.

If the program encounters a word for which there is no sign, it will finger-spell the word. But don't count on having to resort to finger-spelling very often; iCommunicator has a 30,000-word signing library.

The video in iCommunicator replays the signing relatively smoothly — not quite like a live signer, but certainly effective. And the program allows users to speed up or slow down the signing.

The program also can convert human voice to computer-generated voice, which can be handy if the voice needs to be amplified. Both the speed and pitch of the computer-generated voice can be adjusted.

Finally, iCommunicator includes the iText program, which provides batch translation of documents, Web pages and e-mail.

iCommunicator has a list price of $6,499. To learn more, go to www.myicommunicator.com.

Pocket Hal

Have trouble seeing the details in a handheld computer's display? Me, too.

If your vision is compromised enough, you may want to check out Pocket Hal from Dolphin Computer Access. I tested the Pocket Hal screen reader on an HP iPaq hw6500, but the program will run on any PDA running Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition or Windows Mobile 5.

With Pocket Hal, you can navigate your PDA as the program's computer-generated voice tells you what's going on and what your command options are.

The program includes a large number of hot keys. You might press 5 on the number pad, for example, to have Pocket Hal repeat the current word. You'd press another key combination to have Hal read menu-bar items.

Pocket Hal does a pretty good job of guessing what users want to know about a display, providing descriptions automatically. You can set Pocket Hal's level of "verbosity." If you turn it up, you'll get more detailed explanations. If you turn it down, the explanations will be briefer. You can also toggle on and off keyboard speech, character echoing and other features.

Pocket Hal supports a variety of folding keyboards for use with PDAs, and the program also can be used with Braille displays.

The iPaq hw6500 with Pocket Hal we tested has a list price of $465. To learn more, go to www.yourdolphin.com.

Patrick Marshall writes the weekly Q&A column in Personal Technology.

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