By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & Disability Correspondent, BBC News website
Chris Mairs says computers are too visual. A new device that will make Internet content available to blind people without the need for computer skills is to be launched in a few months' time. The SpeakOn gadget has been developed by Chris Mairs, a blind entrepreneur who has founded an assistive technology charity called A-Technic. The device will be able to access MP3 music files, radio stations, podcasts, and website content normally available only as text, like online newspapers.
Mr Mairs says blind people currently have to use assistive technology called a screenreader to interpret what is, essentially, a visual concept. "To use a screenreader, you have to understand the visual paradigm - what dialogue boxes are, radio buttons, and all the rest," he told the BBC News website. "That's the wrong model, as far as I'm concerned - what you really want is a model
that is intrinsically oriented towards a one-dimensional audio stream."
The SpeakOn is being developed in two phases. The first is to produce a simple interface for people who already know how to use a computer.
In the second phase, this technology will be built into a box that should retail for around £300 ($565). The device is being specifically designed for visually-impaired people who are, in
Mr. Mairs' words, "technologically frail."
"By this I mean the sort of person who doesn't have the expertise to use a computer." It is hoped that the SpeakOn will appeal to people who want access to information but who are reluctant to acquire a computer. "You don't need to know that it's a computer. People would maybe consider it to be more like a radio or a tape player," said Mr Mairs.
The SpeakOn will have a simple keypad with about 12 keys, each of which will be easily distinguishable. These would be used to navigate up, down and through lists. Mr Mairs says the concept would be a "tree model" where the user browses through a list of options and, having selected a particular option, would then go
through to the next level.
"An example would be a directory of newspapers. You find the newspaper you're interested in, and then you might find the sports pages, then a match report about your favourite team."
But the SpeakOn is very unlikely to provide access to all internet content - what is planned is more like a "walled garden." Mr. Mairs says that being able to render the content of so many websites in a
sensible form would not be technically feasible.
The first phase of the project is now going into trials and will be given to a larger number of people over the next three months.
The next phase will require some hardware development, which A-Technic hopes will be completed later this year or early next.
The box will require a broadband connection, and the developers hope to link up with a service provider that can offer a complete support package.
"One of the issues, if you plug the box into a broadband connection, is how do you resolve a problem if the connection stops working, and you don't have computer skills," said Mr Mairs. He hopes that a service provider will be able to manage the box remotely in order to overcome this.
If successful, the SpeakOn should help to tackle the problem of digital exclusion, which affects some older and disabled people.