So much to read. So many ways to read it.
For those among us who grew up as braille readers in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, the notion that we might one day have more to read than we could possibly ever consume was, well, unfathomable! Fast forward to the era of the Internet, Web-Braille, and Bookshare, and it is not surprising that it is sometimes difficult to keep all the possibilities and technologies sorted out. With the advent in recent years of downloadable audio books from sources both commercial and specifically for blind and low-vision users, many are now asking not only about content and sources, but also about the devices on which to play that content.
Talking books from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) are the audio books most familiar to the blind. They have been around the longest, for one thing (for 77 years compared with just 10 or 15 years for commercial audio books), and they're free. When NLS books became available for download and the NLS machines for playing them were not yet available for distribution, a product called the VictorReader Stream from HumanWare enjoyed an almost unprecedented popularity when it was introduced three years ago. The product was shown at the summer 2007 conferences, and blind people everywhere were clamoring to buy them. The initial attraction was the ability to play NLS books on them, but it wasn't long before many other sources and formats were rendered compatible as well.
Since the release of the VictorReader Stream, the accessible audio book player market has changed considerably. The NLS machine became available in 2009, so all eligible NLS patrons have received or will soon receive one free of charge. Other new devices have come on the market, and a few that preceded the VictorReader Stream have scrambled to play books from additional sources to be competitive. For many blind and low-vision lovers of books, however, so much so quickly on the audio book front is confusing. Some mistakenly believe, for instance, that only the VictorReader Stream can play talking books. Others understand that NLS books can be played on the NLS machines, but are unaware that other materials can be played on those machines as well. Some have encountered only one of the many devices available and are unaware that there are competitors. This article aims to present the current line-up of possibilities, highlighting strengths and weaknesses where relevant, and alerting consumers to the good news that, for once, we have loads of choices!
For efficiency's sake, let's talk first about the most popular sources of audio reading material currently available to blind and visually impaired people. This is by no means a complete listing of available content, but any one of these sources could supply a book lover with more material than could likely be exhausted in one lifetime. They provide, in other words, a bountiful beginning
The common denominator for reading material for blind people is the NLS. The first downloadable books from NLS were books and magazines transcribed into braille. In 1999, the Web-Braille site was launched, making digital files of brailled books and magazines available for download. These files are in Grade 2 braille, formatted for production. A person downloading a book or magazine from Web-Braille could produce it in hard copy with a braille embosser or read it on a braille notetaker. With software on a computer capable of "back translating" the Grade 2 to uncontracted braille, a person could also have the file read aloud via text-to-speech software. Some of the players in this article also offer this capability (i.e., the ability to translate Grade 2 braille files for listening via synthesized speech).
NLS Digital Talking Books
The launch of Web-Braille was followed by the NLS's download site for digital talking books (DTB). Today, it's called NLS BARD, and it offers eligible patrons downloadable digital recordings from the NLS talking book collection.
Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic
Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D), the principal source for human-voice recordings of textbooks at all educational levels, was a leader in using DAISY mark-up for both audio and text navigation. Simply summarized, DAISY mark-up gave one the ability to navigate a book or other document by chapter, section, or other subheading, thereby providing an equivalent function to that enjoyed by a sighted reader using print. From the RFB&D website, books can be downloaded by eligible patrons and played on some handheld devices.
Audible.com is a commercial online source of books recorded by professional readers. Audible offers thousands of titles recorded by major publishers. These are the same recordings available in bookstores and public libraries on cassette or CD. Various purchase plans are available, but books are generally considerably less expensive than if purchased from retail stores. Audible has approved a number of the handheld devices used by blind people to play Audible content.
Bookshare.org is a tremendous source of digital books for blind or visually impaired people. These files are text only, not human voice recordings. Files can be downloaded in either DAISY or translated braille formats. A membership is required to confirm eligibility, but membership fees range from free to $50 annually.
Material from all of the above sources is encrypted. That means that files from these sources can only be played by eligible members or patrons and only on players rendered compatible by the content source. On all of the players currently available, various other types of content can also be played, ranging from music and described movies to your own text documents. Your own needs and the type of files you will most likely want to access will be factors in your choice of player.
Who Are the Players?
At this writing, there are seven known machines that play books from NLS and other sources. One of those seven is the NLS digital talking book player itself, which was reviewed in the August 2010 issue of AccessWorld . All of the remaining six are available for purchase from a variety of sources, range in price from approximately $300 to $1,400, and have an equally wide range of capabilities.
The NLS DTB machine, provided free of charge to all eligible NLS patrons, has a USB port on the right side to accommodate a USB flash drive. The NLS talking books downloaded to this drive can be played on the NLS machine. This machine can also play digital books from RFB&D, podcasts, and MP3 files.
As the first commercially available handheld book player capable of playing the NLS DTB, the Stream is mistakenly understood by many newcomers to be the only handheld player capable of playing such books. It isn't. The Stream can also play books from Audible.com, RFB&D, and Bookshare. It can play and organize music and other MP3 files, and it can play text documents. It has a built-in speaker and microphone, and is an excellent recorder for personal notes, lectures, or other materials. It sells for $349, and its controls are intuitive and easy to learn.
Perhaps the smallest of the handheld players designed for blind consumers, Book Sense is a sleek product from GW Micro that plays NLS DTB, RFB&D books, books from Audible.com, and a variety of music and podcast formats. It uses the NeoSpeech voices of Paul and Kate for listening to books from Bookshare, National Federation of the Blind Newsline, and a variety of computer-generated text files, including Microsoft Word's .doc and .docx files. The Book Sense has a built-in speaker, microphone, and excellent recording capability. There are two Book Sense models. The basic Book Sense offers the above features, whereas the Book Sense XT has the addition of an FM radio tuner and 4GB of internal memory.
Icon and Braille Plus Mobile Manager
These two devices come from the same root product, the Icon created by LevelStar, but have some distinct differences. Unlike the other players in this article, these two players are far more complex in the features they provide. They are basic personal digital assistants with wireless capability, and thus the ability to search the Web, read and write email, download podcasts, and stream audio content from the Internet. Each also includes a word processor, address manager, planner, calculator, and Web browser. For data input on the Icon, the telephone keypad is used, similar to the method used to text message on cell phones. The Braille Plus Mobile Manager adds a Perkins-style braille keyboard for data input. The Icon is available from its original developer, LevelStar, and the Braille Plus Mobile Manager is available from the American Printing House for the Blind.
These two devices are included here because they are also excellent tools for playing books from NLS, RFB&D, Bookshare, Audible.com, as well as a variety of music and podcast files. They are the only players on this list employing the Eloquence speech synthesizer, familiar to many blind computer users. Each contains a 30GB hard drive, an internal speaker, and a microphone for recording capability. Each sells for approximately $1,400.
The PlexTalk PTR1 was one of the very first portable digital book players appearing on the market nearly a decade ago. It weighed just over two pounds and was noted for its superb engineering quality. Available from the same Japanese manufacturer, Shinano Kenshi Corp., the PlexTalk Pocket is the size of an average cell phone and incorporates many of its predecessor's features along with new upgrades to make it competitive with today's handheld book players.
The PlexTalk pocket plays digital books from NLS, RFB&D, Audible.com, and Bookshare. It can play your music and other MP3 files as well as text files. It has a built-in speaker, microphone, and excellent recording capability.
Book Port Plus
The newest player on the scene is the Book Port Plus, designed by the American Printing House for the Blind and intended to replace its earlier Book Port, one of the first handheld book players designed specifically for blind users. The Book Port Plus uses the same hardware as the PlexTalk Pocket, so it is quite similar in appearance. It can play digital books from NLS, RFB&D, Audible.com, and Bookshare. It plays text files, music, and other MP3 files. It has a built-in speaker and microphone for personal recordings.
The above are meant to be mere overviews of the products available to blind and visually impaired users for playing audio and text versions of digital books. Many other nuances set these machines apart from one another. Variables include the increments and ease with which one can navigate material, the degree to which music files can be cataloged and tagged, the kinds of generic sound files that can be played (WAV, OGG, WMA, etc.), and the sophistication of recording capabilities. All are in the $350 price range, with the exception of the Book Sense XT at $499 and the Icon and Braille Plus Mobile Manager, which, as outlined above, offer far more functionality than simply playing digital books.
For more detailed descriptions of any of these products, please read previously published AccessWorld product evaluations or the following manufacturer websites: VictorReader Stream, Book Sense, Braille Plus Mobile Manager and Book Port Plus, PlexTalk Pocket, and Icon.
AccessWorld® - September 2010