MP3 and Digital Book Players
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It seems like every teenager has an MP3 player, often an iPod. You may be wondering which player is right for your child who is blind or visually impaired. This article will help you decide.
Apple's iPod is certainly the most well-known product in the category of devices referred to as either MP3 players or portable audio players. There are off-the-shelf players and players that are designed specifically for people who are blind or visually impaired.
Along with the line of Apple iPods, other off-the-shelf players include the Creative line of players, the Microsoft Zune, the Sony Walkman and E Reader, the Amazon Kindle, and others. Players that are designed specifically to be accessible to people who are blind include the BookCourier and the Victor Reader Stream.
Listening to Digital Books
Digital books are also a large part of the digital audio revolution. Many blind people are familiar with the large, bulky Talking Book cassette players available free from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS.) In the next several months, NLS will begin replacing these large cassette machines with specially designed, proprietary digital audio players.
Here is a brief look at both off-the-shelf players and commercially-available players designed for people who are visually impaired.
The New iPod Nano 4th Generation
The exciting news about the iPod Nano 4th Generation is that Apple has designed it
to be accessible to people with visual impairments. It has speech output for accessing
nearly all its menus and functions and speaks the names of all your songs and other
content that you load onto it. The Nano is priced at $149.99 for the 8 GB model or $199.99 for the 16 GB model.
Although the Nano's voice is not enabled out of the box, it is automatically enabled
when your child connects it to a computer and goes through the initial setup process. The
voice will also use the speech settings that your child uses for his screen reader, such
as speed and pitch, but you cannot adjust these settings on the Nano. To change the
speech settings, you first have to turn off the voice using the Nano's menus, then
adjust the voice to your liking on the computer, and finally reconnect the Nano to
the computer to reload the audio files with your new settings.
What Does the Voice Support?
Although the voice does not support every single feature and function of the new
Nano, it does support all the major ones. It reads all the main menu items, which
include Music, Videos, Photos, Podcasts, Extras, Settings, Shuffle Songs, and Now
Playing. Other than Extras, it supports all the menus and features that are related
to these items, except for just a few of the Settings--those that relate to the time
and date and choosing to have certain menu items not appear.
It does a great job of supporting the features related to listening to music, which is, of course, the main function of the iPod. You can browse your collection by playlist, artist, album, song, genre, and composer, and you can stop playing at any time and press the center Select button to learn the song's title and artist. One of the really nice features of the Nano's spoken menus is what Apple calls "ducking," which
automatically lowers the volume of the music if you access the menus while listening
to music. Then, the music volume is automatically brought back up to the previous
listening level. It's a small thing, but it makes a real difference in the intelligibility
of the voice, so you don't miss something you were trying to hear.
Other Off-the-Shelf Players
Other off-the-shelf players are much less accessible. For one of these players to be usable, it has to have buttons that are easy to identify and use by touch, and you have to be able to feel or hear the button presses. The menu structure is the other major factor in predicting whether a particular player is going to be usable. If, as with Microsoft's Zune player, repeated presses of the Up and Down buttons take you in a circle around the menus with no indication of what is highlighted, the player isn't usable. On the other hand, if your child can get the menu selector to a predictable location and hear or feel the button presses that are required to get it to where you need to go, then he may be able to learn how to use the device.
All these devices have display screens for viewing the fairly complex, multilevel
menu system, so some initial sighted assistance to learn the layout will definitely
be necessary. A large-print or braille cheat sheet would also be helpful for learning
and using the menu layout.
The Apple iPod Classic
The Classic is a bit larger than the other mainstream players, but it has a huge hard drive, available in 80 GB or 160 GB versions, allowing you to carry up to 80,000 songs in your pocket. The 80 GB version costs $249, and the 160 GB version costs $349. Unfortunately, the Classic does not have the speech output that the Nano has.
The Kindle from Amazon
Recently, Amazon.com introduced a new version of its Kindle book reader. The Kindle has a screen and allows you to read books. It does not play music. Amazon boasts that the Kindle has text-to-speech that can read books outloud. Unfortunately, the text-to-speech does not work in the Kindle's menus, so a person who cannot see the screen cannot operate the device. The Kindle will speak part of a book, but without speech in the menus, this function is useless to anyone who is blind or visually impaired.
These players were designed specifically for people who are blind or visually impaired. They can play music, as well as books in DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) format. DAISY books allow your child to navigate by word, sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, and more, depending on how the books were created.
Priced at $395, the BookCourier is manufactured by Springer Design. The BookCourier
has 15 keys with various sizes and shapes, measures 5 inches by 2.5 inches by 1 inch,
and weighs six ounces with batteries. It plays electronic files in text formats using
the DoubleTalk speech synthesizer for reading those files, and although DoubleTalk
is not the most popular synthesizer on the market, people who are familiar with using
speech synthesis can certainly get used to it. The BookCourier also plays audio books
recorded by live narrators. It plays books and music in several formats, including
MP3, WAV, HTML, TXT, RTF, BRF and Microsoft Word DOC, and books from
Bookshare.org, audible.com, and Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D.) It does not yet play the new downloadable books from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS).
The BookCourier gives you several ways to navigate text files, including by page,
paragraph, sentence, and word. The volume, pitch, and speed of the synthetic voice
are adjustable, and you can switch between DoubleTalk voices. The BookCourier keeps
your place in books and music when you turn it off or when you move to another book
or song, but it does not have the ability to shuffle your music or use playlists.
It has a built-in recorder to record voice memos, such as a telephone number or a
to-do list, and allows you to set bookmarks in files, a valuable feature for students
who need to highlight sections of textbooks.
The BookCourier stores your books and music on compact flash cards, up to 4 GB in
size. It runs on 2 AA batteries and has a command to tell you the remaining battery
level. It does not have a built-in speaker, so you have to use headphones or an external
set of speakers. It has accessible documentation on board.
The Victor Reader Stream
Priced at $329, HumanWare's Victor Reader Stream is a versatile player and one of
the most popular products to come on the assistive technology market in quite some
time. It measures 4.6 by 2.6 by 0.9 inches and weighs 6 ounces, including the rechargeable battery.
The Stream plays several types and formats of audio files and electronic text files.
You can choose from three English-speaking voices, and it has synthesizers in seven other European languages.
For complete reviews of the players mentioned here, read the following AccessWorld articles by Darren Burton.
Now Speaking: Apple Adds Speech Output to the iPod Nano, January 2009
Now Playing: A Review of the Accessibility of Digital Audio Players, Part 1, July 2008
Now Playing: A Review of the Accessibility of Digital Audio Players, Part 2: Assistive Technology Players, September 2008