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My Memories of Torsten Brand and the Evolution of Talks

16th April 2010 • Dave

The Talks screen reader transformed the way blind people think about and use mobile phones. so, along with thousands of others, I was stunned to learn of the untimely death of Torsten Brand, the Talks Product Manager.

Today, the likes of RNIB publish fact sheets detailing the range of solutions available for blind mobile phone users. But a decade ago before Talks there really was very little a blind person could do with a mobile phone other than make and receive calls. For some users this was adequate. However, for Torsten and many other people who are blind, not being able to fully participate in the mobile revolution was unacceptable. With the help of his friend and talented developer Marcus Groeber, Torsten set about tackling the problem.

Most Talks users probably do not realise the number and complexity of the technical challenges with which Torsten and Marcus were confronted in those early days. How to manage speech output so that it did not interfere with the phone’s audio system? How to keep the Talks system requirements low enough in order that the screen reader would run comfortably with limited storage and processing power? How to keep Talks efficient enough so as not to make the other applications on the phone sluggish and unusable? How to hook the phone’s user interface and convey the content to the user in an efficient meaningful manner? Torsten’s deep understanding of these requirements was instrumental in helping solve these and many other technical problems. These solutions remain some of Talks’ greatest assets.

When I first heard about Talks 7 or 8 years ago, or Talx as it was known then, my expectations were relatively low. No one had previously put a screen reader on an off-the-shelf mobile phone handset, while at the same time preserve the phone’s original user interface. The received wisdom at the time seemed to be that a mobile phone screen reader was an unrealistic unachievable fantasy. Torsten dared to dream, decided it was possible, and he and Marcus made it happen.

The elegance of Talks is its simplicity. You don’t learn how to use Talks; you learn how to use the phone on which Talks is running. Great assistive technologies become transparent to the user, allowing him or her to focus on accomplishing the task in hand. Few people really understood this as well as Torsten. With Talks, the vast majority of common tasks are achieved in almost exactly the same way a sighted user would perform them. This means the main stream phone help and support remains relevant, and on those occasions when a sighted friend or family member needs to use your phone for what ever reason, the assistive technology does not have to be switched off.

I first tried a demo of Talks on a trusting friend’s Nokia 6600 phone in a student bedsit in 2003. Within the hour I was contacting my network provider to place my order for a Talks compatible handset. Those early versions were far from perfect, but right away I was able to do all the things my friends were doing with there mobile phones: send and receive text messages, work with contacts and eventually browse the web.

Talks is one of those products that after you have been using it for a couple of days you wonder how you ever lived without it. It was not long before Talks became the first piece of assistive Technology I use in the morning, and the last one I use at night, not to mention many many times in between.

Within a few days of getting Talks I was being contacted by blind people who wanted to know more about this Talks software about which I was so excited. I have lost count of the number of Talks installations I have done for people. But like many blind people at the time, I truly believed that Talks represented a massive step in to the future.

Torsten was a regular at the Sight Village assistive technology exhibitions in the UK. I had to meet the man who had put a voice inside my phone. I remember waiting in a long line of people eager to meet Torsten. It seemed to take forever to reach the front, not least because the line was so long, but also because Torsten was taking the time to patiently answer questions from enthusiastic users.

On meeting Torsten in person, I found him to be a gentle giant of a man with a deep rich voice and distinctive booming laugh. Torsten was clearly proud of Talks but always willing to pay close attention to feedback from users. Torsten was not afraid of constructive criticism. Years later, I was to learn first hand about Torsten’s no compromise commitment to quality, and his persistent efforts to get the very best from developers.

One of my favourite Torsten mantras is “the user guide is the specification”.

Torsten’s generosity with his time lead to my recording several interviews with him for ACB Radio’s Main Menu – a technology show that I presented and produced for a number of years before working for Dolphin.

Torsten probably never really knew just how many lives were touched by his work. Talks users can be found in dozens of countries around the world. And countless blind people without the means to purchase a full Talks licence simply use the Talks ten minute demo.

When I joined Dolphin in 2006, Talks was one of the products I was raving about. A year later Torsten, Steve Palmer (Dolphin’s Chairman) and I met over a curry in Birmingham as Dolphin began talking seriously about collaborating on Talks for Windows Mobile. Eventually contracts were signed and Talks for WM became available through Verizon in the US.

For the past two years, rarely has a week gone by when I have not had either phone or email communication with Torsten. I will continue to learn from Torsten’s work, miss our weekly meetings, Torsten’s attention to detail, but most importantly Torsten’s unwavering refusal to ever give up fighting for the best possible user experience.

Thank you Torsten. May your legacy live on.

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Do I want my Sight back? – the Guardian

17th July 2007 • Dave

As someone who for the majority of his life has experienced almost complete blindness resulting from Leber’s congenital amaurosis, With the advancing march of medical science, in particular stem cell research, I have been increasingly preoccupied with the dilemma of what I would choose were I faced with the possibility of loosing my blindness. While this has never really seemed like something I needed to consider seriously, it is a question which plays around in the back of my mind. Although I am not quite sure why?

During a casual conversation earlier this year a sighted friend asked if I would like to have full sight, and added.

“it would be great wouldn’t it?”

I think on one level this comment was well-intentioned. But what is it they say about the road to somewhere or other being paved with good intentions? Maybe deep down may be I was just a tiny bit offended? For who would it be great? It’s not like saying of a corpse.

“I wish you were still alive, it would be great wouldn’t it?”. I am very much alive. Doing ok I guess. Hefty mortgage, job, few friends, overseas half a dozen times in the past year, clean bathroom, average health, independence, enough confidence to get me into trouble, etc. Sure, there are far too few books in accessible formats, a lot of people still think if you are a blynk you are also deaf and hard of thinking, no current girlfriend (but that’s prob more to do with general relationship phobia than not being able to see much beyond the end of my nose). I’ve not got too much to complain about really and in my little mind, yeah I know it’s amazing anyone can live in anything so small, I would like to think that under the circumstances, most of which I won’t go into, I’m reasonably well-adjusted? Ah well that’s for others to judge and I guess time will tell.

Last week I started to read Crashing Through, a biography of Michael May. For people outside the assistive tech bubble, Mike is an expert on blindness GPS solutions who was offered sight restoration treatment during the late nineties. I have not finished the book yet but have been fascinated by the factors Mike, an entrepreneur working on a new venture with a young family at the time, is forced to considers when attempting to seriously evaluate the implications of taking such a step.

The story in the Guardian certainly contains more questions than answers. That said, it is well worth a read! The part which grabbed my attention was that results from trials on twelve individuals will be made public in a year!

Suddenly the question of what I would do if offered a choice seems a lot closer than at any point in the past.

Categories: Disability, Personal
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Transforming Lives

11th July 2007 • Dave

Hope everyone out there in Internet land is doing well? A few of you have asked why I have not blogged here in a while. Well I guess I have been busy trying to prove the theory that if you have a life you have no time for blogging! So guess my life is on hold for a few minutes while I quickly post something here.

June was pretty manic with lots going on at work. Some of which I can talk about, some of which I cannot. Dolphin’s screen reader for Windows Mobile Smartphones, Smart Hal, seems to be doing very well with plenty of interest from many quarters. Thank you all. During the final week in June I went to London as part of Dolphin’s participation in Transforming Lives, an event hosted by Microsoft in Westminster. As well as presenting Smart Hal to the great and the good including Anne McGuire, Minister for Disabled People, for part of the day I sat on a panel which explored where we are and where we are heading with assistive technology.

During the Transforming Lives debate, there was some criticism from a leading blindness charity here in the UK to the effect that the Windows environment accessed with screen reader software means that blind users are restricted to consuming and processing information thus relegating blind people to the less affluent end of the economic spectrum. As a screen reader user I take issue with this position which does not seem entirely logical in the context of assistive technology and the information age. So, eh hem, needless to say yours truly chimed in to challenge this gloomy prognosis.

It is true to say many blind people in a wide range of fields, requiring computer access or not, are more likely to be denied the economic opportunities available to sighted peers. It is also true to say that Microsoft Windows the operating system running the majority of modern computers has very limited screen access software built-in. Moreover, comprehensive and powerful screen reading software is absolutely essential in order that a blind person can make effective use of a Windows PC and to get on in an increasing number of careers requiring basic levels of computer literacy. However, the relationship between Microsoft and a rich ecosystem of assistive technology manufacturers actually works to break down rather than perpetuate economic inequality between blind and sighted people by delivering highly effective and targeted products which often meet and in many cases exceed the needs of blind computer users. The screen reader industry is small and the products are often not perfect. However, compared with twelve to fifteen years ago when the received wisdom seemed to be that access to Windows and the web were not really viable propositions for a blind person, in reality we have come a very long way.

Microsoft Windows enables assistive technology developers to utilise a range of frameworks and techniques enabling specialist targeted tightly-focused screen reading and screen magnification solutions to be created for use by people who are blind or partially sighted. Screen reader developer techniques made possible by Windows include but are not limited to: API hooking, MSAA, UI Automation, Document Object Models, Video Chaining, Mirror Drivers, etc. While some of these techniques have better support than others, and while some of these approaches may require a higher degree of creativity amongst developers than others. The practical upshot is that Windows users can choose from any one of half a dozen free and premium highly effective customisable screen readers providing comprehensive Braille and speech output for a vast array of applications used in a wide variety of professional and domestic scenarios.

Many transactions which previously relied on having access to sighted assistance or a transcription service can now, with appropriate technology and training, be successfully completed independently by someone who is blind at the same time as sighted peers without additional cost or reliance on a sighted intermediary. Moreover, this independence can enhance one’s confidence privacy and dignity potentially reducing physical barriers to education and employment.

Absolutely greater accessibility and usability in Windows can potentially improve the experience for everyone, not just those who traditionally have been disabled by inaccessible interfaces. However, the past decade has shown that by working in partnership with assistive technology specialists who have the requisite experience and expertise from working directly with users Microsoft are stimulating an environment where tailored solutions specifically designed to meet the needs of otherwise disabled users can flurrish.

The first tenant of universal design is to recognise the diversity amongst users. Can an operating system developer, even one as omnipotent as Microsoft, realistically continue to support the broad range of specialist hardware such as Braille displays and speech synthesisers used by blind people, accommodate the differences and preferences amongst screen reader users, continually release assistive technology updates to keep pace with new applications and emerging web trends, as well as provide appropriate levels of training and support to educate users relying on speech and Braille output?

To me as an assistive technology user, at least for now it seems appropriate that Microsoft should continue to promote innovation and choice in the assistive technology arena by providing a platform and infrastructure on which customisable assistive technology solutions are built in order to meet the needs of this diverse user community.

Consuming and processing information is a means by which an individual can acquire education, experience, skills which are ultimately marketable commodities. When funded along side appropriate training and as part of a balanced programme including Braille literacy, screen reading software products providing access to Windows applications and the internet can substancially enhance the education, independence and economic mobility of blind and partially sighted people by providing a gateway resulting in widening participation in a knowledge economy.

There is not a mortgage repayment goes buy when I do not think of those teachers in school who tought me how to read Braille, how to type and use a computer. Thank you Miss King, Mrs Duffy and Mr Irvine.

I certainly do not wish to underestimate the significant assistive technology challenges which lie ahead. There is a lot to do with Web 2.0, and in the area of set-top-boxes hardly anyone has even begun to scratch the surface. At the same time one should not underestimate the achievements to date and Microsoft are now more aware of the needs of assistive technology users more so than at any point in the past.

Categories: Disability, Opinion, Technology
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RNIB digital tv questionnaire

15th May 2007 • Dave

If you have ever experienced difficulties seeing the menus on digital TV set top boxes in the UK then it may be worth your while helping the RNIB in their quest to gather more information and formulate policy on this issue.

Categories: Disability, Technology, TV
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Blind Iranians

8th May 2007 • Dave

I am not usually taken to recommending feel good programmes on disability. If you want to feel a good disabled then go out and find one! Many would welcome the attention! 🙂

However, this week’s BBC Radio 4 In Touch, which sounds like it may have been in the can for a little while waiting for Pete White to have a week off, really shatters any preconceptions which one may form while reading the blurb. These blind Iranians are really just getting the hell on with it. They are not blogging, complaining about the lack of accessible traffic signals or waiting for audio description, navel-gazing about tv documentaries on blindness, etc. That’s not to say I shouldn’t, there’s room on this world wide webbie thing for all of us. These guys are simply figuring out what is important and the last thing they want to be thought of is as some hard luck charity cases.

In my best Points of View voice then.

“Well done BBC!”

This episode of In touch will be available through the Beeb’s listen again until 15 May. and let tis be a lesson to ya! 🙂

Guess it’s back to whinging about the lack of guidedog hotels and the like next week.

Poodle tip…

Categories: Disability, Opinion
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