Cheap blind-friendly E Ink Kindles with read-aloud and audio nav capabilities: A how-to for Amazon

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Shaun Kane at RobotFestI hope that Amazon’s CEO never becomes a blind visionary.

But if Jeff Bezos’s eyes should ever go downhill in a serious way—a risk for millions of aging baby boomers—he could still enjoy e-books on inexpensive E Ink Kindles.

All he has to do is follow advice from Shaun K. Kane, the Colorado computer scientist in the photo, who has devoted years to accessibility issues.

In the case of dedicated e-reading devices from Amazon, that doesn’t just mean the read-aloud that the earlier E Ink Kindles offered before the company yanked the feature away (despite Jeff’s original ballyhoo of text to speech, introduced for the Kindle 2).

No, it also means coming up with inexpensive navigational aids to help blind people get around within individual e-books and the devices’ virtual libraries, just as iPad users can. Amazon at least made a stab at this with the non-touch-screen Kindle 3, now discontinued.

How baffling that Amazon backed off, given both the need and the profit potential! More than 20 million Americans have suffered blindness or less severe vision loss. Furthermore, read-aloud would also help fully sighted people with learning disabilities but without need for aural navigational aids. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, researchers estimate that 10-17 percent of Americans suffer from dyslexia. And remember, this is just in the U.S. Amazon is also going after international markets, including, presumably, countries with higher percentages of people with disabilities.

The good news is, Amazon and e-reader rivals like Kobo could build TTS and navigational marvels into the next generation of E Ink machines without significantly jacking up the costs.

While a graduate student at the University of Washington in 2008, Dr. Kane coauthored a paper titled Slide Rule: Making Mobile Touch Screens Accessible to Blind People Using Multi-Touch Interaction Techniques. He even created a prototype, shown below in a YouTube, and tested it on blind people. The final verdict? The new technology was not as accurate as button-based menus, but it was faster and the subjects actually preferred Slide Rule.

Today Dr. Kane (above photo shot at RobotFest) is an award-winning assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and in an e-mail Q&A with LibraryCity yesterday, he made it clear that Slide Rule could indeed mean blind-friendly Kindles at minimal expense.

Blind people would not be visually reading off the screens. But they could enjoy text-to-speech reading and piggyback off the touch technology built into the Kindle screens for other users. And programming costs? No barrier, since the Kindle is a high-volume product and per-unit prices would be small.

I’m going to bring Dr. Kane’s work to the attention of the Federal Communications Commission. On January 28, the FCC granted another one-year exemption for e-book makers who otherwise would have had to comply with the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010.

The FCC ruled that E Ink e-book readers were not “advanced communications” products. Trouble is, they are—in the sense that you can use the Web browser to access Gmail, even if Amazon may not have given the browser the attention it deserves.

What’s more, you can use a phone, tablet, PC or Mac to send long e-mail files for you to read as books on Kindles.

While the FCC noted that the advanced communication uses were not the E Ink device’s primary purpose, let’s remember the main intent of the 2010 accessibility act as well as the reason for the waiver. If nothing else, keep in mind the caption shown in the screenshot of the YouTube: “Flick gesture replies to e-mail.” Might not this easily happen on E Ink Kindles as well?

No, no, no, we don’t want to bankrupt companies like poor little Amazon (market cap: $169 billion as of this writing) with burdensome accessibility requirements. And, in fact, we don’t have to. With cheap TTS chip and Dr. Kane’s work, the extra cost of a blind-friendly E Ink Kindle with touch screens would still be somewhere in the Big Mac range. And smaller competitors? If need be, the FCC could grant them at least temporary waivers. But in their shoes, I would want to compete.

After all, TTS and other aural capabilities are an added value for us sighted people who want to hear books while exercising or driving or doing household chores. Not to mention students who can use the audio to whet their interest in books they might otherwise ignore.

The average 15-19 year old in the U.S. spends just six minutes a day on recreational reading of books, newspapers and magazines, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Online reading of Tweets and Facebook isn’t the same thing as, say, a session with To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lest you doubt the potential of the Kindle for the young, keep in mind that it is even “The Official E-reader of the National PTA,” which, ideally, can join me in leaning on the FCC, Amazon and other e-reader makers to do the right thing.

Shouldn’t the FCC and President Obama care about books, too, not just zippier downloading of video games, when they promote expanded broadband coverage? The existence of Slide Rule also has implications for the school and library worlds. If they are to comply with various laws for the disabled, educators and librarians should lean on e-reader vendors to make their devices blind-friendly.

E Ink Kindles and similar devices sell for a fraction of the costs of iPads—now far more blind friendly. And the E Ink devices are smaller and lighter and have longer battery lives. More importantly, free books are available in Kindle format from public libraries, public domain sites and even Amazon itself. Blind people could be more in the mainstream, reading best-sellers and other popular books earlier than they might otherwise. The creation of a national digitial library endowment and well-stocked national digital library systems would make e-book-readers even more useful to blind people and the rest of us.

And now here is my Q&A with Dr. Kane. In case the FCC is interested, I discovered him through use of a super-secret search tool known as Google. Dr. Kane preceded his e-mailed replies with the observation that “The lack of TTS on Kindles is a real problem”—enough of one for blind people to picket Amazon.

Will Slide Rule work on E Ink devices like the Paperwhite or Voyage or the basic Kindle? Why or why not? If it won’t work now, will it in the future?

What our research showed was that it is possible to have a fully accessible user interface just using a touch screen, without any physical controls. While we initially designed these gestures for smartphones and tablets, there is no technical reason why they couldn’t be adapted to work on a device like the Kindle. Unfortunately Amazon doesn’t provide third-party software developers with enough access to implement these accessible gestures themselves, and the current Kindle devices lack the text-to-speech hardware needed, so making this change would be up to Amazon.

How much would this solution cost per Kindle at the start if the answer to #1 is “yes”—and how much after it’s been refined? Exclude the actual TTS costs. Include all the programming costs. I’m looking for just a rough estimate. Methinks the per unit expense would be negligible. But you’re the expert here, and I’ll keep an open mind.

This is a difficult question to answer since I don’t know the inner workings of how the Kindle is manufactured. However, earlier versions of the Kindle (such as the Kindle 2) did have text-to-speech, and so it’s reasonable to think that it could be included without considerable expense. You can probably find the going rate for Amazon software engineers online, and I am confident that this could be developed by a small dedicated team (see my comments in the next section).

How long would Slide Rule take to be adapted for the Kindle?

We developed our first prototype with a single developer (me) over the course of about three months. Obviously this prototype was not as robust or reliable as what would be needed for a commercial product, but I would say that a small team of developers could create accessible gestures for the Kindle in the course of six months to a year. The important thing to note is that the Kindle already does support touch gestures, and so the bulk of the work would be in connecting those gestures to the TTS and providing a way for the user to interact with the device non-visually.

How does it compare in various respects with the special accessibility interface used on the iPhone and iPads?

Both iOS and Android devices, including Amazon’s own Kindle Fire tablets, are fully accessible using a combination of touch screen gestures and speech or Braille output. They both provide slightly different gesture sets, but the general ideas are similar across the two systems. I’d imagine that the e-ink Kindle would use similar gestures for basic functions such as navigating through and selecting on-screen controls.

TTS without special navigation is a different issue. As an accessibility expert, can you estimate how much per Kindle? Presumably not much. Chips, a headphone jack and an extended lip at the bottom of the case to make the jack possible in the slimmest Kindles–isn’t that what we’re talking about?

It’s difficult to estimate the cost per chip at the scale that Amazon produces its devices, but again we do see TTS in the older Kindles and in the current line of Android tablets, like the Fire HD tablet that currently retails for US $100 [starting price of the line]. As for the headphone jack, if the Kindle tablets are too thin to support a traditional jack, they could provide an adapter (see for example the Oppo R5 phone), or use Bluetooth to connect wireless headphones.

Have you or your colleagues been approached by Amazon people or anyone else about Slide Rule? Or have you or your associates approached them? Any patents involved? Who controls them? Would the costs be reasonable?

I’m not aware of any contact between our research team and Amazon about adding accessibility features to the Kindle. The question of patents is a good one, as several companies do have patents on specific gestures or types of gesture-based interaction. However, since we see accessible gestures on most common mobile devices today, including iOS, Android, and Windows, it should be possible to adapt this technique to the e-ink Kindle devices, even if the gestures worked slightly differently. Since this feature is included in many devices at similar price points, I don’t see any reason why the costs would be unreasonable.

David again: OK, there you go. I’m just sorry I didn’t ask Dr. Kane about the inclusion of an all-text bolding option in the Kindle—plus a font optimized for people with dyslexia. Almost surely, however, his reply would have been similar—this all is dirt-cheap-doable for a giant like Amazon. Kobo e-readers even let you vary the amount of bolding of fonts.

I did note with interest Dr. K’s estimate of development time for the navigation features. If Amazon and the rest get serious about accessibility needs, then I’m fine with the FCC giving them one year to offer E Ink devices with TTS and accessible typography, with another 12 months beyond to develop navigational features. But make these deadlines inflexible, and subject the companies to the maximum possible legal difficulties if they fail to comply. Hey, as a steady, long-time customer, I love Amazon’s positives. But that does not exempt Jeff and friends from their obligation to obey the CVAA and other disability laws.

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