Microsoft Unveils a Pocket PC For the Blind

A new handheld device from Microsoft is expected to give some relief to people with severe vision problems that want to participate in the digital revolution.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant Thursday introduced the PAC Mate, a mainstream PDA product the company developed with the help of Freedom Scientific, based in Washington D.C. The company makes devices for the blind and vision-impaired including software, notetakers, Braille displays, embossers and products for those in special education and learning disabilities.

Built on the Microsoft Windows CE platform and tightly interwoven with Microsoft Pocket PC applications, the PAC Mate is equivalent to Pocket PC devices for sighted users, supports many of the same third-party applications, such as the ability to take notes and make and keep track of appointments in real time.

The PAC Mate’s internal JAWS screen reader converts objects and text to speech so the vision impaired can hear documents, images and Web content. In addition, the PAC Mate works with desktop software and other Pocket PC devices through either the devices’ cradle or through infrared wireless transfer.

Executives with Freedom Scientific say the device promises to play a key role in empowering and increasing the productivity of persons with disabilities in the work force.

“This is the first handheld device that allows people who are blind to download the same information as a sighted person with little or no modification,” said Freedom Scientific CTO Glen Gordon. “As a person who has been blind since birth, I know it is vital that people with disabilities have access to data and computing products that enable them to perform on the job without limitation. The PAC Mate is successful in providing this level of functionality.”

According to the 2000 Census, there are an estimated 2 million to 3 million visually impaired and an estimated 120,000 blind people in the United States. In addition, according to a 2000 Harris Interactive telephone poll, approximately 70 percent of those with severe disabilities surveyed were looking for work but remained unemployed.

“Through more than a decade-long commitment to accessibility, Microsoft realized long ago that information technology is one of the most significant workplace tools for people with disabilities,” said Madelyn Bryant McIntire, director of the Accessible Technology Group at Microsoft.

Freedom Scientific said the PAC Mate should retail for $2,595 and ship by the end of the year.

Conversely, The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Thursday announced a partnership to collaborate on the development and first field testing of a prototype device that will allow the blind to “feel” electronic images and graphics.

The prototype uses refreshable tactile display technology – 3,600 small pins that can be raised in any pattern and then locked into place to hold the pattern for reading. The pins then can be withdrawn and reset in a new pattern, allowing a person to feel a succession of images on a reusable surface.

Each image is sent electronically to the device through the use of software that determines how to create a tactile display matching the image.

The inspiration for the prototype came from a “bed of nails” toy found in a novelty store.

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