Archive for September, 2008

Fourth generation iPod Nano Really Does Talk

September 24, 2008

I got one of the new iPod nanos two days ago, and I’m impressed. All I had to do was check one check box, and most menu items, song names, and artists talk. The iPod is very responsive; I can quickly find the artist, album, or song I want though I have over 10 GB of music on the player. I can switch between EQ presets, change the playback speed of audiobooks, shuffle the whole iPod or all the content by a particular artist or any other particular thing I might want to shuffle, turn Sound Check on and off (when it’s on, the iPod attempts to play everything at the same volume), turn CrossFade on or off, find out the title of the currently playing track, and more. I am told when the iPod moves from a menu to Now Playing, and I’m told where I am when I turn it on. The search feature doesn’t talk, but I can use it if I’m willing to count clicks (searching is accomplished by scrolling to the desired letter of the alphabet and pressing the center button, and since the list of letters doesn’t wrap, I can count from either end to find the letter I want). I wish that feature were more accessible, but since scrolling works so well, I can find what I want quickly even without it. Because there’s no screen reader, options involving text (such as reading lyrics or notes) don’t work, and it’s not possible to do things like set the time, but everything involving the playing of music, audiobooks and podcasts works really well. It is unprecedented access to a mainstream device.

I love how easy it is to turn on accessibility. Some people will need to take a few more steps to get everything working than I did, but the process still isn’t difficult. My iPod apparently came with its language set to U.S. English; if it hadn’t, a sighted person would have needed to set the language. I had also already set my computer to use the voice and speech rate I wanted; I did that when I used the scripts to voice file and folder names in Rockbox. If you’ve never done this, you’ll probably want to. In Windows XP, go to control Panel, choose Speech, then press CTRL+TAB to go to the text-to-Speech page. In Vista, go to Control Panel and choose the Text-to-Speech link. On that page, you can choose the voice and speech rate you want to use. That’s all you have to do – there are no special scripts to run and no special commands to learn.

One thing that can be annoying is that if you turn the iPod sideways, Cover Flow turns on. This is a method of selecting music by looking at pictures of album covers, and it doesn’t talk. There seems to be no way to turn off this feature. Your best bet is to turn Hold on when you’re not working with the controls; Cover Flow does not come on if Hold is on. Despite this glitch and the few features that aren’t accessible, Apple is to be congratulated for creating such an accessible iPod.

Brian Hartgen will soon release a podcast demonstrating the use of the new nano. He has already produced one on iTunes 8 where he demonstrates the basic accessibility available with JAWS 10 and Window-Eyes 7, and the additional functionality that will be available in J-tunes version 4 (this version should be released soon). You can download both podcasts, when they are available, from the T&T Consultancy Blog and Podcast page. Jonathan Mosen demonstrates iTunes accessibility with JAWS 10 in his

Rockbox 3.0 Released

September 24, 2008

Rockbox 3.0 was released yesterday. This means that if you have a player running Rockbox, you can now choose between loading a version under development (as before) or running a stable release. Having a stable version available should make Rockbox more palatable to users who don’t want the hassles of using beta software. Congratulations to everyone who has made this release possible.

You can download Rockbox 3.0 here. Voice files are available on this page, but if you prefer, Andre Louis has created voice files using the high-quality VWKate and VWPaul voices.

New developments in Reading Commercial eBooks

September 17, 2008

The past few months have been eventful in terms of access to commercial eBooks, and most of the changes are positive.

Secure Adobe eBooks Don’t Work

I’ll get the bad news out of the way first. Secure PDF eBooks — some of which were accessible using Adobe Reader 7 and earlier versions — are completely unusable by a blind person using Adobe Reader 8 or 9. IF you have one of the later versions of Adobe Reader, you must read secure pDF eBooks using a program called Digital Editions. For sighted users, this program has nice features, such as the ability to transfer secure eBooks to more computers than before, including mobile devices. However, no portion of Digital Editions talks, not even the installation or registration dialog boxes. Even using a screen reader’s mouse cursor, I can’t read anything — no menus, no buttons, no dialogs, and no text of a secure eBook. I tried the betas of JAWS 10 and Window-Eyes 7 to no avail. I sent a message to access at adobe.com to see whether anyone had any suggestions, but my message bounced twice. Customer service was particularly unhelpful, giving me inaccessible links to pages with videos describing how to open a web case to ask for help. I finally opened a web case, to no avail. So though Accessibility is the first link on the Adobe site, I am forced to conclude that for now, at least, accessibility is a low priority with Adobe.

MP3 Books available from OverDrive

Fortunately, there is excellent news on other fronts. OverDrive has started offering some of its audible eBooks as MP3 files. These are the books you can download from many public library systems. In the past, all OverDrive audiobooks were in protected WMA format, which limited the number of players the books would work with. Books in MP3 format, on the other hand, work with virtually all portable MP3 players. As with WMA eBooks, you can only play these audiobooks on your PC during the lending period — which is typically two or three weeks — and you must agree to delete copies on a portable player after the lending period is over.

Unfortunately, not all libraries using OverDrive offer MP3 books. To find out whether yours does, visit the main page for audiobooks and search for “mp3” using your screen reader’s Find command. You can also examine the combo box where you choose a book format to see whether MP3 is one of the options.

Since I live in a state that offers MP3 eBooks, I tried out the service today. I was able to transfer a six-part book to my Victor Stream with no problems. To do this, create a folder within the $VROtherBooks folder on your Stream, and choose to transfer the book to that folder. You make this choice in OverDrive Media Console (the software used to download OverDrive books, burn them to CD, and transfer them to portable devices). On the screen where you choose which parts to transfer, press the advanced button; you will be on a screen where you can choose the folder you want to use. The great thing about reading an OverDrive book on the Victor Stream is that your place is saved even if you listen to other files. And since all the files are treated as part of one audiobook, assuming you put them in one folder within $VROtherBooks, you don’t have to remember which part you were listening to; you simply select the book and resume where you were last reading.

PAC Mate’s Reader Mode Increases Accessibility of EReader, PDF, and other Formats

Another great development in eBook accessibility is Reader Mode in version 6.1 of the PAC Mate. Reader Mode lets you read using typical word processor commands in document-reading programs where you would ordinarily need to use the JAWS cursor, such as EReader and PDF Reader Mobile by Orneta. In the past, if you wanted to use such a program, you had to switch to the JAWS cursor, read a page, give the command to go to the next page (which often involved switching to the PC cursor, giving the command, and returning to the JAWS cursor), and moving to the top of the screen in order to read it. Using Reader Mode, you still have to give a command to switch pages, but one of the options for Reader Mode is “On with auto top of screen.” When this feature works well, as it does with both programs I mentioned, you read a screen, give the command to go to the next one, read that screen, etc., making reading much easier than before. Here are details of using Reader Mode with the PAC Mate Omni BX and QX. You must be running version 6.1 to use this mode.

EReader allows you to read books in protected and unprotected Palm format. A wide selection is available on both the EReader website and at Fictionwise. Click the EReader pro link and choose the version for “Windows Mobile Smartphone and PocketPC 2003 or Later.” The download is a zip file that includes the EReader software, a program for installing eBooks on your PAC Mate, and a Readme file. Be sure to read the Readme, as it walks you through the installation process in detail.

Once the program and at least one book are installed, open EReader and select a book. It’s best to install only one book to start with because the initial dialog where you select a book doesn’t speak well. If the book is in a secure format, you will need to unlock it with your name and the credit card number you used to purchase it. The dialog for doing this is very accessible. Then the book opens, and you can start reading. The next time you open EReader, you will automatically be focused on the page you were reading when you closed it. There are also menu commands for going to the next page, the first page, the page of your choice, etc.

Orneta’s PDF Reader Mobile does not let you read the secure PDF eBooks discussed above, PDF files that contain only images, or files with certain security restrictions. It does let you read standard PDF documents, however, such as product manuals and company newsletters. It costs about $20, and there is a demo you can try. During the purchase process, I was asked to choose which Smartphone I planned to install it on. I chose one of the HP IPAQ models, but was told by Maria Cristic on the PAC Mate mailing list that it doesn’t matter which device you choose. I had to use the PC to install the version I downloaded, but it is also possible to download a CAB file that you can install directly on the PAC Mate.

A nice feature of this program is that you don’t have to wait for an entire PDF to load before you start reading it; you can read a page as soon as it has been loaded. Depending how much memory is available on your PAC Mate, the program can handle quite long documents. It choked on the 297-page cell phone manual I tried, but was able to handle the 80-page iPod manual. It includes a Save to Text option on the File menu, which can be handy if you plan to use a long file frequently, as the text version will be smaller and will load faster. Like EReader, this program includes commands that let you choose the page you want to read.

Converting PDF to text or HTML on PAC Mate and PC

If you have an earlier version of the PAC Mate, you want a free option, or you want to convert PDF files to text or HTML and don’t care about reading them in PDF format, try PDFMate, created by Ken Parry from Blinksoft. It works with the PAC Mate Omni as well as earlier versions and can handle the same types of PDF files as PDF Reader Mobile. When you open the program, you are in a list of all the pDF documents on your computer. Press Enter, work through the save As dialog, press Enter on the Save button, and the new file is created. I was impressed with how quickly PDFMate converted my 80-page iPod manual to text. I found that for that manual, at least, Jamal Mazrui’s PDF2TXT program for the PC did a much better job organizing the manual in a logical way than either PDFMate or PDF Reader Mobile. So if you have access to a PC, I would recommend this program; it’s simple to use, extremely fast, and good at figuring out the structure of most documents. But if you need to read a PDF and don’t have a PC handy, either of the PAC Mate options is a good choice.

In short, it’s wonderful to see the number and type of reading materials available expand. I hope the trend continues.

RFB&D Starts Book Download Service

September 11, 2008

Recording for the blind and dyslexic recently began offering many of its recorded books as downloads to members in the U.S. See the RFB&D Auyio Access FAQ for details of how the service works. Books are in protected WMA format, and if you want to play them on something other than a PC, your player must be able to play subscription-protected WMA.

There are some great things about this service:

  • Books are available as quickly as you can download them.
  • You don’t have to purchase or install a user authorization key to use the books.

There are also significant disadvantages:

  • Few accessible players can play these books. As far as I know, your only options are the PAC Mate and some mobile phones, and my experience with the Nokia N75 suggests that even if the phone can play the format, it may be difficult to transfer the books to it (more on that in another post).
  • The only level of navigation available is by page. Each page is in a separate file, so you can use your player’s Next and Previous Track buttons to move by page, but there’s no way to move by section or chapter. If your player has search functionality, you might be able to search for a portion of a file name, such as a page number, to get to the right place, but this would probably be tedious.
  • Many players that can play these books don’t keep your place. If you need to reset your PAC Mate or you shut down Media Player, for example, your place is lost. And the limited navigation mentioned above means it’s not easy to find your place again if you’ve read very far in the book.
  • Most players that can play these books don’t include speech compression, so you generally won’t be able to listen quickly.
  • You have to use Windows Media Player 10 or 11 to transfer the books to your player. This is doable, but version 11 is not the most pleasant piece of software to work with.

The service certainly has value. You can order both the downloadable and CD versions of a book, so if you found out on the first day of class that you needed to read a chapter of a book available in this format by the next class period, you could order both formats, download your book, and use the downloaded version until the CD arrived. And this service makes the books available to people who don’t have or can’t afford a DAISY player. However, RFB&D stated in a recent newsletter article that the organization will soon offer downloadable books in DAISY format, and I, for one, will find that a much more convenient option.

AccessWorld Reviews Portable Media Players

September 11, 2008

AccessWorld is in the midst of a three-part series on the accessibility of various portable media players. The May issue includes an overview of player accessibility and the experience of using an accessible player. The July issue includes a review of the accessibility of popular mainstream players. A review of adaptive players will be in the September issue. The portable media player scene changes quickly; several players covered have been updated since the articles were published. The articles are well-written, though, and they give you a good overview of a variety of players.

Apple Produces Accessible iPods and iTunes

September 11, 2008

Apple released a new generation of the iPod Nano and a new version of iTunes on Tuesday, both of which are breakthroughs in accessibility.

According to the manual, the new Nano can be configured to speak menu options, tracks, artists, etc., using a voice on your computer. We’ll have to wait until people start using them to find out how well this will work, but certainly it has the potential to be great. The new Nanos hold 8GB and 16 GB and cost $149 and $199.

iTunes 8, the new version, is available, and it is vastly more accessible than earlier versions. Scripting is still required to get the most out of iTunes, however.

GW Micro has worked hard to make iTunes 8 work well; this functionality is available in the latest beta of Window-Eyes version 7. You can browse the music store as though it were a web page. You can buy a track by pressing the Context key or Shift-F10 while focused on it and choosing to buy from the menu that pops up, and there are well-identified buttons that let you buy albums and tell you how much they cost. It’s fun to be able to read album reviews and other information as well. On my system, Window-Eyes is a bit sluggish in other parts of iTunes, and I can’t move to the top and bottom of a track list with the Home and End keys or change the order of tracks in a playlist, but access is reasonably good.

There are currently no JAWS scripts for iTunes. I can do things like play albums, burn cDs, and transfer a single track or a whole playlist (using Select All) to an iPod. I can’t do other important things, however, like move to the beginning and end of a list of tracks, select continguous tracks (necessary if I want to transfer some, but not all the songs in a playlist) reorder a playlist, or browse the music store. Brian Hartgen has said that he will update J-Tunes to make all these things and more possible in iTunes version 8.

It’s wonderful that Apple has made iTunes so much more accessible and has released talking iPods. I hope the company will continue to produce increasingly accessible products.

Book Port Sold Out

September 9, 2008

APH has run out of Book Ports to sell. They plan to produce another media player, but can share no details at this time.

New Multimedia Features in Braille and Voice Sense

September 9, 2008

Over the summer, GW Micro released a new version of the Braille Sense called the Braille Sense Plus. Its media playing capabilities are similar to those of the Voice Sense, except that it can record in MP3 as well as WAV format.

GW Micro has added new multimedia capabilities to both the Braille and Voice sense. they include:

  • The ability to play Format 4 Audible books.
  • The ability to speed up audio files without changing the pitch.
  • The ability to make files over a user-specified length save your place. This is a particularly innovative feature, since in most cases, it should allow you to save your place in audiobooks and podcasts, but start each song at the beginning.

The Braille Sense Plus also includes 8 GB of memory, so it can hold a large book and music collection. It’s great to have these sorts of media playing capabilities in a notetaker.

Victor stream adds Braille, Podcast, and WMA Support

September 8, 2008

Earlier this summer, Humanware released an update to the Victor Reader Stream that includes several great features:

  • The Stream can now read braille files, including contracted braille, UEB, and several other languages. No translation is necessary; you just tell the Stream what sort of braille it is through the Configuration menu and load the files, and the Stream reads them.
  • Podcasts are easier to listen to. If you put them in the new $VRPodcasts folder, each episode is treated as a separate book even if it’s in a folder with other episodes of the same podcast. That means your place is kept in each one, and you can delete individual episodes instead of having to delete the whole folder.
  • Unprotected WMA is now supported. Protected WMA — the kind used by Unabridged, some state library systems, and Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic — is not, however.
  • Stream Companion, software that provides an easy interface for transferring material to the Stream, has been improved. If you download audiobooks from the NLS pilot project or any other service that delivers content as zip files, it lets you transfer them to the Stream without unzipping them first. It also lets you select music files and add them to a playlist. You can’t reorder the playlist, but at least you can create one.

You can read more about the new features here.

Icon Plays Audible Books and Works closely with SA Mobile Network

September 5, 2008

An update to the Icon and Icon Braille Plus, which was released over the summer, adds some nice capabilities. Here are the ones that are related to playing books and music.

  • You can now play Audible books on these products. I assume they need to be in Format 4, but I don’t know for sure.
  • You can use both products with the system Access Mobile Network as you would a PC, to do things like check e-mail and listen to or download described movies.
  • The hard drive on new units has been increased to 40 GB.

You can listen to a Main Menu interview about the new features with LevelStar’s Mark Mulcahy here.

I-Tell Makes iPods Talk

September 5, 2008

Cobolt Systems, a UK-based company, recently released the I-Tell, a device that attaches to most iPods with docking ports (including all generations of the iPod Nano and Video, but not the Shuffle or Touch) and speaks the names of albums, tracks, artists, and playlists; lets you shuffle the whole iPod or individual albums or playlists; and more. It costs £59.95, which is currently about US$100, according to Google. You can listen to a detailed demonstration of the I-Tell created by Brian Hartgen.

CDBaby Sells Downloadable Albums

September 3, 2008

I was excited to discover recently that CDBaby, which has been a good source for independent music on CD for quite a while and sends out the most amusing order acknowledgments I’ve ever seen, now offers some of its music as digital downloads. As with eMusic and Amazon’s MP3 store, the music is in MP3 format and no digital rights management is used, so you can easily play the music you download on any MP3 player. The sound quality is excellent. Only complete albums are sold; you can’t download individual tracks. Album prices are set by the artists, so they vary widely. Some nice features of this service are:

  • Each album comes with a text file that includes a track list and other useful information about the album.
  • You can download any album you buy as often as you like, so if something happens to your hard drive, you haven’t lost your music.
  • The artist gets 90% of the purchase price.

It’s wonderful that CDBaby has added this option to their already great site.