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All Ears: Library Service Seeks New Digital Player

>From today's Washington Post regarding the National Library
Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped here in the U.S.
and its progress toward serving patrons with Digital Talking

All Ears: Library Service Seeks New Digital Player

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 15, 2002; Page C01

For 71 years, the Library of Congress has served as the nation's guardian
angel of literacy, ensuring the blind and reading-disabled free access to
millions of talking books and magazines. Now the digital revolution is about
to make that task easier -- or harder still -- depending on how well the
library succeeds in its new role as design patron.

The library is planning a $75 million, three-year conversion from cassette
tapes to microchips -- the audio program's first technological update in
three decades.

The goal is to trade 23 million cassettes for memory cards, just as vinyl
was supplanted by tape back in the 1970s. To do so, the library, which
supplies special playback equipment, will need by 2008 a new digital device
to serve 730,000 reading-disabled people. As many as 3 million people may be
eligible for the program, which is operated by a branch of the library known
as the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
Director Frank Kurt Cylke calls this "the greatest challenge NLS has ever

Consumer electronics are among the most evolved of modern designs,
incorporating the latest technology, dazzling aesthetics and
user-friendliness. But those involved in the talking-book program believe
the library's next-generation machine will need features not available in
standard off-the-shelf products. While PCs and cell phones are becoming
throwaway equipment, the library is focusing on the kind of durability that
has enabled its current machine design to survive so long. "We can't afford
to go through massive, wrenching changes like this very often," explains
Michael Moodie, NLS research and development officer.

To figure out what such a machine might look like, and how it might work,
the library enlisted the Industrial Designers Society of America,
headquartered near Dulles airport. IDSA turned the quest into a contest
involving industrial design students across the country. June 7 was judgment

More than 140 prototypes were spread out on tables in a conference room at
the NLS offices at 13th and Taylor streets NW, in Petworth. There were
pocket-size players and tabletop entries. Some models resembled silvery
boomboxes and retro phones. One device was shaped like a football. Another
looked like Darth Vader's helmet. A silvery "Lady Bug" had all the sleekness
anyone could expect in the 21st century but broke the contest rules by
requiring a separate docking station.

Students had been asked to incorporate real-world needs of users: tactile
markings for sightless readers; large controls for arthritic hands to
manipulate; portability, but also extraordinary stability. All were supposed
to be impervious to spilled drinks and able to withstand occasional shipping
in little more than a Manila envelope.

Agile young minds responded with a mind-bending array of buttons, levers,
hinges and even a zipper that could activate functions. Most of the youthful
designers had taken inspiration from the tools of their environment: PC
gaming gadgets, MP3 players and contemporary "blob" architecture.

But as the jury of six professional designers and senior library staff
members worked their way around the room, a clear preference emerged for
something familiar. First prize went to a prototype in the shape of a book.

The winner was "Dook," a rectangular device that opened like a standard
volume. Designer Lachezar Tsvetanov, a junior at the University of
Bridgeport in Connecticut, put the controls in one half, speakers and memory
card in the other half, and volume regulator in the hinge.

Tsvetanov, who grew up in Bulgaria, chose the form for two reasons. He
thought a book would be immediately familiar to seniors, who make up half
the program's users and are seen as wary of new technology. The designer was
also determined that people who needed talking books be able to blend into
the world around them.

"Users want to be like anybody else," he said. "If you see a young blind
person walking down the street and holding an odd-shaped product, it would
really stand out."

Tsvetanov will be awarded $5,000 for ingenuity at the industrial design
society's annual conference July 20-23 in Monterey, Calif. And his device
will be displayed at the library's Madison Building on Capitol Hill, along
with four second- and third-place winners.

The contest was not intended to produce a design for manufacture. The NLS
hoped merely to glean ideas for the next step in the process before asking
Congress to put millions into the 2005 budget for a total upgrade.

Director Cylke estimates the cost of converting to the new system will be
"an additional $25 million a year for a three-year period." The current NLS
budget is about $48 million.

Design innovation has empowered the audiobook program from the start.
According to the NLS, the long-playing record was invented for the talking
book program in the 1930s. In the 1970s, the library developed a special
player for its four-track tapes, which can play for six hours. (Copyright
law requires that NLS materials be usable only by program participants.) The
1970s-era tape player, which is large and ungainly by today's standard, is
still in use today.

Throughout the judging process, Moodie worried aloud about the potential for
breakage, the difficulty of manufacturing, and the cost. Fellow judge Brian
Matt, an industrial designer from Boston who teaches at MIT and the Rhode
Island School of Design, held out for something smart and aesthetically
pleasing. Thomas Bickford, an NLS senior reviewer for audiobooks, couldn't
see and didn't care what color the buttons were, only whether he could feel
his way around the controls. Jim Mueller, an industrial designer in
Chantilly and an IDSA expert in universally accessible design, was taken
with the idea of a digital book.

"I can't think of anything that could be a more eloquent format," he said

The NLS began on an experimental basis transferring cassette titles to
digital format last year. By the library's own count, at least 1 million
digital machines will be needed.

There is also a move to make use of PCs. A software-based talking book
player is being tested on a PC. Some eligible readers have DSL lines or
cable and are asking for Internet delivery, which the NLS hopes to begin in
a limited fashion in 2003.

But Moodie believes there will be a need for a playback machine for a long
time to come. "You can't say to somebody, 'You have to buy a PC if you want
to read,' " he says.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company
				Janina Sajka, Director
				Technology Research and Development
				Governmental Relations Group
				American Foundation for the Blind (AFB)

Email: janina afb net		Phone: (202) 408-8175

Chair, Accessibility SIG
Open Electronic Book Forum (OEBF)

   Please avoid sending me Word or PowerPoint attachments.
   See http://www.fsf.org/philosophy/no-word-attachments.html

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