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The Optacon: Past, Present and Future

Editor's Note: Several times in recent years we have published articles lamenting Telesensory's decision to discontinue production of the Optacon. Here is Deborah Kent Stein's discussion of this essential tool in her life. The article first appeared in the September issue of "DIGIT-EYES: The Computer Users' Network News," published by the Blind Service Association of Chicago. It is reprinted here by permission. Debbie Stein is First Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois. This is what she says.

Like most blind people of my generation, I grew up with the futuristic dream of the reading machine." I had no idea what this magical invention would look like or how it would work its miracles. But somehow it would grant me entrance to the bookshelves of the world. I would have the freedom to read whatever I wanted and needed without waiting on the whim of some busy human intermediary.

For me the dream came true in the summer of 1977, when I obtained my first Optacon through Associated Services for the Blind in Philadelphia. I spent two weeks in Optacon training at ASB--the standard time required by Telesensory Systems, Inc., the machine's manufacturer. A special grant obtained through the dedication of ASB's Fred Noesner covered 75 percent of the then-astronomical $3,400 cost, bringing the purchase price within the range of most consumers. My dream machine proved to be compact, lightweight, and highly portable. The main unit contained a template or "array" with 144 tiny pins. Connected to the main unit by a slender cable was a camera lens the size and shape of a mini-flashlight. I learned to track the lens across a printed line with my right hand while resting my left forefinger lightly upon the array. The pins of the array vibrated to create a tactile image of each letter viewed by the lens. I could literally feel everything on the printed page.

As soon as I began using the Optacon, I made startling discoveries. I learned that italicized letters are slightly tilted, that chapter titles are sometimes offset with wavy lines or curlicues, that Penguin Books uses a tiny penguin logo while Borzoi Books marks its title pages with a running dog, that the first letter of the first word of a chapter is usually so large it reaches down to the second or third line. I had survived very nicely without knowing these things. Still, such details are an integral part of the world of print--the world from which most people gather so much information and pleasure.

Without a doubt reading with the Optacon was slow. Through steady practice I built my speed to about 100 words per minute, compared with my Braille-reading speed of 250 words per minute or more. But reading speed was not the issue. What mattered was access, and the Optacon provided that. Books, newspapers, magazines, catalogues, bills, record jackets, and the recipes on boxes of cake mix--the barriers were down, and suddenly everything was within reach. For the first time friends lent me their favorite books, sent me clippings, and dared to share their private thoughts in typewritten letters. "So what's the first thing that machine helped you do?" my aunt asked when I brought the Optacon home from Philadelphia. "I cleaned out my purse," I told her. It was true. I didn't plunge straight into the latest best seller. I emptied my purse onto the couch and sorted through several weeks' accumulation of receipts, theater programs, ticket stubs, and random scraps. In the past I would have had to wait for the opportune moment with some patient friend or paid reader who could help me weed out the debris. Perhaps I might simply have taken the matter into my own hands, dumping everything into the wastebasket and hoping I wasn't losing some crucial phone number or appointment slip. Now, with the Optacon, I could check each questionable paper and dispose of it as I saw fit, on my own time, without having to let anyone else glimpse the rat's nest my purse had become.

I have had a Kurzweil scanner since 1990. I no longer use the Optacon for reading full-length books as I often did in the past. But the scanner has never replaced the Optacon in any other regard. They are both tools for accessing print, but each has its own unique strengths and limitations. The scanner can read quickly through large blocks of standard print. It enables me to store material on diskette for future reference, thus building up a small library of books and articles. But the scanner has strong views on what standard print really is. Poor to moderately well-Xeroxed copies, most newsprint, all faxes, print that is unusually small or exceptionally large--all call forth the maddening message: "Page too difficult, may be upside-down!" Pages with more than one column may be read accurately, as long as the space between the columns isn't too narrow. Italicized words often turn into strings of "unrecognized characters." And anything hand-written, no matter how clearly, is totally out of bounds.

With the Optacon, on the other hand, the only limits are my time and patience. With a bit of both I can read virtually anything. Cursive handwriting is the only holdout; I can usually read handwriting if people print. I can also examine charts and tables and can puzzle out simple line drawings and maps. The underlying fact is that the scanner interprets what it perceives, often in its own idiosyncratic fashion. The Optacon shows me what is on the page and allows me to interpret for myself. When I got the Optacon twenty years ago, I believed it would be available to blind people for as long as civilization endured. I never imagined that the company that created and marketed this extraordinary instrument would one day renounce it as obsolete. But by the mid 1980s TSI (the descendant of Telesensory) had moved on to other, more lucrative products. It promoted the Optacon, even the newest model, with waning enthusiasm. In 1996 came the dreaded proclamation. The Optacon would no longer be manufactured. Old machines will be serviced "until the turn of the century," unless the parts run out sooner. The Optacon is an essential part of my life. In my work as a free-lance writer I turn to it a hundred times in the course of the day--to check a page number for a footnote, to make sure the margins are correct on a printed page, to check whether my printer needs a fresh ribbon.

Beyond my working life the Optacon is just as important. I can browse through gift catalogues before Christmas and birthdays. I can sort the mail and read the pieces that are addressed to me. I can use the dictionary, the encyclopedia, and even the Yellow Pages. Without the Optacon I could not do any of these things independently. Each of these small but necessary tasks, plus dozens and dozens more, could be done only with another person's assistance. The Optacon has given blind people a level of autonomy and flexibility unparalleled in history. Yet that gift is being withdrawn. That sense of freedom, that knowledge that print poses no barriers, may be lost to future generations. As a devoted Optacon user I belong to a minority within the blind community. We spend a lot of time worrying, raging, strategizing, and mourning. We stockpile used machines, buying them up at every opportunity. With renewed hope we pursue each rumor that another company will buy up parts, will service old machines, will build new ones. We tell each other that something has to be done. We try to carry that message to the world.

For the most part the response is not encouraging. We are told that the Optacon brought blind people into the age of technology, but its day is done. It will be remembered fondly, like the party line and the wind-up Victrola. After all, no company wants to invest in a dead-end product--in technology without a future. Right now the blind community is focused upon another technological crisis. Looming before us is the growing use of graphics in household products that were once accessible with ease--microwave ovens, tape decks, VCRs, clocks, and even telephones. How can we continue to compete in this increasingly icon-oriented world?

Programmers are employing all their wizardry to make these new gadgets talk to us. They're struggling to turn each new icon into speech. To some extent they have been successful. But every new gadget requires tampering; each manufacturer must be bargained with. The struggle looks to be endless. According to the proverb, a picture is worth a thousand words. At best speech is an awkward medium with which to represent graphics. One often needs to know the layout of the screen, where the image appears, and how it changes when a button is pressed. Surely there is another approach to the whole problem, one that does not depend on speech at all. Why not develop a device to enable blind people to read the screen tactually? Why not turn visual graphics into tactile images? This notion is not as far-fetched as it may sound. For more than two decades Optacon users have been reading computer screens with a specially-designed lens attachment. The Optacon has proved highly useful for navigating in Windows and other graphically-based environments. Couldn't this technology be enhanced to meet the challenges before us? Instead of trying to make each new gadget talk, we could carry a simple hand-held device that would enable us to read any screen we encounter, whether on an ATM machine or the new clothes dryer.

The Optacon was at the cutting edge of technology when it appeared in the early 1970s. Instead of tossing that technology onto the rubbish heap, let us carry it forward and see what the future may bring. For my part, I just want to go on reading my mail and cleaning out my own purse. Those may seem like small things, but they have a lot to do with large issues--such as privacy, dignity, and self-respect.

(Deborah Kent Stein is a nationally-known free-lance writer. Among her more than fifteen books available through the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped are Belonging, Jody, Ohio, One Step at a Time, and Te Amo Means I Love You.

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