Computer Aids Visually Impaired

Australian talking lap-top model with Braille keyboard gives blind users fingertip control

GARY FARMER has a job. It's not a ``blind person's job'' but a real job. After 300 job applications and 18 months of rejections, he has been hired by the Australian Defence Department to make sure contractors deliver Army orders on time, on budget.

He credits the Eureka A4 - an innocuous black computer no bigger than a thick pad of notebook paper.

``It's not a magic wand,'' Mr. Farmer says. ``It doesn't eliminate blindness. But without it, I would be unemployable in this type of job. Without it, I'd be answering phones or weaving baskets. And that's just not my cup of tea.''

The personal-computer revolution has largely bypassed the blind. High-tech communication channels - computer screen, standard keyboard, printouts - are highly visual. A few adapted or dedicated computers have been available. But most of them are expensive and cumbersome.

The Eureka is different. It's the world's first talking lap-top computer designed specifically for the visually impaired. Weighing in at only 1.6 kilograms (3.5 pounds), it packs a powerful punch by any computing standard.

The system has a built-in word processor, calculator, telephone directory, database communications software, four-voice music composer (nine-voice optional), calendar, alarm clock, and voltmeter. Extra software includes games, talking spreadsheets, banking programs, and a phone-answering machine program.

It's similar to a standard computer with eight function keys, four cursor control keys, and shift key, but it's operated by using a seven-key Braille keyboard that repeats out loud (there's an earphone for ``silent'' operation) each character, word, or sentence. (The robotic voice does take a bit of getting used to - like someone speaking with an accent.) Built-in batteries provide eight hours of continuous use between overnight charging.

And, the price is comparable to mass-produced computers: A$3,000 (about US$2,300) for the standard model; A$3,500 (US$2,700) for the advanced model - or less than half that of the nearest competitor.

David Blyth, director of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind, calls Eureka, which has been on the market for several years, the ``best thing since Braille was invented [in 1824].''

Blind singer and composer Stevie Wonder was so impressed when he used the Eureka on a recent Australia tour that he bought six and gave one to singer Ray Charles.

Whether it is used by famous or ordinary ``blokes'' like Gary Farmer, this electronic companion not only simplifies life, but offers blind people greater independence, confidence, and the opportunity to lead more productive and satisfying lives.

For example, Melbourne grade-school student Brett Scarr was struggling with schoolwork. His papers weren't being handed in on time. His parents were advised to ``just get him through to 10th grade and get him a basic factory job.'' Since he latched on to the Eureka last year, there's been a turnaround. Brett uses it to take notes in class and print out assignments. Now his parents and teachers are talking about his tertiary [college] education.

And Melbourne lawyer Frank Nowlan's secretary complains that the Eureka is putting her out of work. Mr. Nowlan used to rely on her to access legal databases and read the information to him. Now the Eureka, complete with internal communications modem, does it.

``In terms of getting a bang for the buck, it's unbelievable the range of things it can do,'' Nowlan says. ``It really opens up the information windows for me in regard to everything going on in the office.''

Remarkable for its size, power and price, the Eureka's origins are also somewhat unusual. It's not made by IBM, Apple, or Hewlett-Packard. Eureka comes from Robotron, a shoestring startup operation founded by Czech immigrant Milan Hudecek.

An electrical engineer with entrepreneurial aspirations, Mr. Hudecek left his homeland in 1981 frustrated by the lack of business opportunities. Looking for an application for a homemade speech synthesizer led him to the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind (now a distributor) and ultimately, with a A$130,000 [US$100,000] federal grant, to develop the Eureka.

More than 1,000 units have been sold in two years. Seventy percent of the sales are to 17 overseas countries. English, Japanese, and Swedish models are now available. Spanish, French, German, and Arabic are planned.

In 1989, Robotron won Australia's ``New Exporter of the Year'' award given by the nation's leading industrial trade organization. Sales this year are expected to double.

``We found a niche ignored by the big computer companies. Roughly 1 percent of the population of every country is visually impaired,'' explains Hudecek.

But just as satisfying as beating the big companies to a market is meeting a need. ``It's great to receive phone calls from people all over the world, who say, `You've changed my life, I've got a job now.' or `Now I'm studying at university.' It's great, the feeling of being useful to society,'' says Hudecek.

Within six months, the ``Steve Jobs'' of computers for the blind, plans to introduce two more revolutionary, low-cost products: a color scanner and a document reader, no bigger than a pack of cards, that plugs into the Eureka.

Gary Farmer, with his sights on a promotion, sees the Eureka portable optical reader as the key to ``providing the next level of independence.''

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