A Newspaper for Blind People p.

By: Robert O'Connor Britain's Guardian newspaper began offering a daily home service in March
BLIND PEOPLE HAVE always been dependent on others for their news.
While books are widely available in Braille and very large type, newspapers have remained outside this process: Their frequency and sheer mass make such conversions uneconomic.
The blind usually have to content themselves with broadcast news, Braille magazines and the cassette digests of events that are expressly prepared for them.
That is beginning to change. In March, Britain's Guardian newspaper began a daily service for the blind, based on electronic transmission of the entire paper ? minus the advertising ? into specially equipped personal computers.
""This is the first time a newspaper has gone into the home in total, not through the letterbox,"" said Guardian managing editor Ian Wright. The newspaper launched the research that led to the service after being approached by the Royal National Institute for the Blind. The Guardian now hopes that other British newspapers will join.
Paola Fabrizi, technical research manager at Royal National Institute for the Blind, said the project grew out of a pilot study that the institute had carried out a few years ago. The study, she said, demonstrated ""how popular such a service would be and what demand there was for a daily electronic newspaper.""
""For deaf-blind people,"" she said, ""there is no other way of getting the news, and for people who can use radio or TV news but can't read a newspaper, having it in this form has the advantage that they can choose what to read when they want to read it.""
For Mark Prouse, blind since the age of two, the service has opened up a new world. Prouse, who is high-tech officer for the Royal National Institute for the Blind in London, had no real conception of what a newspaper is.
""I was amazed when I first started using it,"" he said, ""just how much information is in the newspaper. I was really very excited about it.""
He can now read the less prominent stories that do not make it to radio or television, and he enjoys reviews of concerts as well as articles on his specialty, technology.
""It's a bit frustrating,"" he admits. ""You never feel as if you have enough time. I guess everyone feels like that about the newspaper.""
The Electronic Newspaper project took three years to put together at a cost of about $750,000. It involves transmitting the newspaper via a television signal. The principle, known as vertical blanking interval, has long been used in Europe to broadcast news and other information in the form of teletext to television screens. The Guardian system is also connected to Britain's four main television stations as well as broadcast teletext services.
The Guardian is sent out in two separate 20-minute broadcasts: one at 12:30 a.m. and another at 5:30 a.m. The second transmission repeats the first, correcting errors that may have been caused by atmospheric conditions.
The signals are received by a normal television aerial before going to a special decoder card, which is fitted inside the user's personal computer. The data is then converted into text and stored on the computer's hard disk. Material can be automatically deleted periodically to make room for more issues of the paper.
Subscribers can use the service in three ways: by listening to a voice synthesizer reading from the paper, by using a Braille adapter attached to the computer or by reading letters on the screen that can be expanded to as much as an inch high.
Prouse believes that many of Britain's one million registered blind people would be able to read this lettering. Prouse, who is totally blind, prefers the voice synthesizer because it is faster than the Braille attachment.
Prouse is now ""more aware of the kind of comment that is appearing in the papers, and it means that socially, at tea breaks, or on the tube ? whenever people are discussing things ? I'm a little more part of that. It will be even more exciting when there are more papers.""
Readers can browse the paper or seek specific items by typing search words onto their Braille keyboards. The voice synthesizer will read headlines before getting into the stories. Software written at the institute, Fabrizi said, has ensured ""easy navigation through the system."
The headline display and the search facility ? which can go through an entire edition in 30 seconds ? mean that users do not waste precious time looking for items of interest.
The production process involves comparing printed pages with electronic ASCII text. This task, Wright explained, is carried out at the same time the Guardian's staff is preparing the first edition.
""We were doing that anyway for our database services,"" he said, ""but we were doing it the next day. We said, 'Why should the blind have to wait? Why shouldn't they have the thing at breakfast time?' ""
The television broadcast is done through Data Broadcasting International, based outside London, which runs a range of data broadcasting services. DBI receives a digitized signal, by telephone, from the Guardian and relays it to Channel 4, one of Britain's two commercial television stations, for broadcast.
""They have the rocket,"" Wright said of DBI, ""we have the payload.""
Intelligent Research, a London high-tech research and development company, provides the software that gets the material onto the personal computer's hard disk. David Weston, technical director of Intelligent Research, noted that there are still technical barriers to wider application of this broadcast principle.
""The transmission costs restrict applications to a wide-target audience,"" he said. ""It's difficult to do very specialist things because you pay for transmitting across the whole country.""
Other work is being done at Aptech, based in Newcastle in northern England, which specializes in speech technology. The project is being managed by Electronic Text Network Associates, which was established by Aptech.
""One of the obstacles,"" said James Kelway, managing director of both Aptech and ETNA, ""is the quite vast amount of information that has to be transmitted in the form of text. Something like half a million characters of information have to come down during every transmission.""
To save on transmission costs, the data are compressed before they are sent and decompressed at the receiver's end. DBI says it has no problems with the volume.
""We can deal with very significant amounts of data,"" said Peter Mothersill, sales and marketing director at DBI. The volumes, he said, are below what would be accommodated through satellite broadcasts: ""Satellites will handle 64 kilobits per second very easily. We tend to handle data rates anywhere from 600 baud up to 16,000 baud.""
The project has obvious commercial application.
""We are very interested in extending right across the board for general electronic information transmission,"" Kelway said, ""and this is an extremely good test bed for it. But also, from an altruistic point of view, it provides something which a deprived part of the community can take advantage of.""
The cost structure, Mothersill added, is likely to encourage thoughts of expansion.
""It is insensitive to a volume of users,"" he said of the broadcast technology. ""It costs the same amount to send information to one person as it does to a thousand people. You're only broadcasting the signal once.""
Within Britain's borders, he added, ""it is insensitive to distance. It makes no difference whether we are transmitting the information to John O'Groats in Scotland or just around the corner in London.""
At the Guardian, Wright said, ""We're keeping our powder dry [on the wider commercial picture] because we want to see this thing on its way. But we've done various bits of transmission that persuade us that there are a whole series of things that are possible, and we're quite excited by all that.""
The Guardian, Wright added, is interested in the whole area of dissemination of text: ""If you've lived most of your life with the nonsense of chopping down trees and rushing tons of newsprint through the night, you feel that that can't go on forever. There are an awful lot of nineteenth-century characteristics that newspapers have, both in the economies and technologies of production.""
Aptech recommends that users of the Electronic Newspaper have a 386 computer for speed of processing. This costs about $1,100 in Britain. A standard 286 machine, which can also be used, costs about $750.
On top of this, the necessary computer card and software will cost about $600, and the annual subscription to the paper costs about $320.
With many blind people on low incomes, Fabrizi said, the cost is ""expensive but not prohibitive."" She is hoping for widespread installation of the devices by public libraries.
Kelway expects first-year sales to hit 300 units, above the 250 break-even point, and he predicts that the total will rise to ""the low thousands"" within five years.
""With the economies of scale, the price may well start coming down quite dramatically, which will increase the take-up."" The project, Kelway believes, could lead to the sale of such related products as scanning devices and Braille displays.
""Although one could be accused of taking business from the existing suppliers,"" he said, ""we believe that the whole market will be enhanced quite dramatically by bringing equipment like this to people who wouldn't have gone anywhere near it before.""
As a community, Kelway said, the blind ""have always been very much more technologically orientated than any other classification of handicapped people.""
The Guardian, Wright said, was well suited to take on the project because of the way it had originally installed computers in its newsroom. The paper, he said, made a firm decision that the new technology would remain under the control of the editorial staff.
""There wasn't a sort of technocratic elite that did all this for us,"" he said. ""It was actually directed by the editorial department. We put it in, and the technology people worked for us. So we had command and control over that, and we could subsume these things into our costs."nE&P
? It involves transmitting the newspaper via a television signal. The principle, known as vertical blanking interval, has long been used in Europe
to broadcast news and other information in the form of teletext to television screens.
? (O'Connor is a free-lance writer based in London.)
? The volumes, he said, are below what would be accommodated through satellite broadcasts: ""Satellites will handle 64 kilobits per second
very easily. We tend to handle data rates anywhere from 600 baud up to 16,000 baud.""


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