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The Tool Box

Editor's Note: Editor's note: The following article provides important information on new products that will be of assistance to blind and vision-impaired people.

SCANACAN

SCANACAN was developed by a Manchester, S.D., couple whose Ferguson Enterprises develops products to assist the blind. To use the program, a scanner reads the bar code and a synthesised voice provides information. The user requests a simple description of the product or, in the case of food, how to prepare it. SCANACAN costs $600. (US $) The price includes a bar code scanner and the software package, which has a database with bar codes for about 30,000 grocery items. The program allows users to create more databases and will hold up to two billion bar codes. For now, customers must manually enter descriptions of products whose codes are not already in the program. But the manufacturer is seeking databases from more manufacturers to expand the software's usefulness.

Free E-Mail Service

EPOST is a global first 3/4 a national, private, and secure electronic delivery system for communication and transactions. All Canadians can now register for a free Electronic Post Office Box at EPOST, the world's first national secure electronic delivery system. EPOST was launched recently by Canada Post Corporation and Cebra Inc. at an event held in Toronto.

EPOST will help companies save money in the distribution of bills 3/4 an application that requires security, privacy and links to bill payment systems. While companies realise the efficiencies of electronic bill presentation, Canadians will be able to pay bills online. They will also be able to use their Electronic Post Office Boxes (EPOB) to communicate with each other, businesses, government departments and agencies for all types of information, including letters, advertising and statements. In the future, they will be able to receive and send forms and intelligent applications.

All messages sent by EPOST are protected by sophisticated encryption technology. Each message delivered to an EPOB will carry a digital electronic postmark, creating a "virtual seal" around each transaction so that any alteration of its contents is immediately identified for the recipient. Mail sent to an Electronic Post Office Box can be reached by the intended recipient from virtually any computer with Internet access.

An important feature of EPOST is the control it places in the hands of mail recipients. When users set up their EPOB, they can specify from whom they want to receive commercial mail and the nature of the mail they choose to receive - from bills and statements to flyers and advertising. Canada Post Corporation is a Crown corporation established in 1981 to provide postal services that were formerly the responsibility of the Post Office, a department of government. Its business is to serve all Canadians, businesses and organisations through the secure delivery of messages, information and packages to any address in the world. Each year, the corporation and its subsidiary, Purolator, are entrusted with nine billion messages and parcels that are processed through 22 major plants and other facilities for delivery to more than 13 million addresses in Canada.

Cebra Inc., a member of the Bank of Montreal Group of companies, is a leading provider of Internet-based business-to-business solutions. Since its inception in April 1996, Cebra has gained a pre-eminent position at the leading edge of the Internet industry and grown to 175 employees. Cebra works closely with both private and public sectors to design, implement and support innovative solutions that bring together technology developers, trading partners and communities of interest.

For further information on EPOST, please visit the EPOST web site at www.epost.ca.

A Web Search Tool for the Blind from NASA

"Iliad" can grab text - and even some graphics - and deliver it via e-mail to visually-impaired surfers. When we think of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA), most of us envision U.S. astronauts landing on the moon, the Hubble Telescope, or robots scouring the surface of Mars 3/4 all the work of great scientists who have dared to boldly go where no man (or woman, for that matter) has gone before. It may surprise you to know that, as part of NASA's decades-long mission to discover commercial applications for its space-related technology, the agency also develops assistive technology products. Take the "Iliad", a navigational tool on the Information Superhighway. An acronym for Internet Library Information Access Device, Iliad is a powerful NASA browser that can retrieve text-based information quickly off the Internet. It was originally developed as a classroom aid for teachers - who are among NASA's biggest consumers of information about the space program. Many teachers have limited computer access, so they needed a simple, time-saving way to quickly search the Web. But NASA soon realised that Iliad had more than one audience. Just so happens its text-based e-mail interface is ideally suited for Internet users who are either blind or visually impaired. That's because blind and visually- impaired Web surfers much prefer using text-based e-mail search tools over graphical Web browsers (see BW Online, 8/25/99, "A Browser That Reveals the Web to the Blind").

FOR SEEING EYES ONLY

Internet accessibility has been an issue for blind and visually-impaired users ever since the Net took off a decade ago. Early on, all software primarily ran in text-mode under MS-DOS.

Blind users could access information using DOS-based screen readers and e-mail programs. But as computers and software technology expanded to reading graphical material, text-based software became almost obsolete. To add to this problem, Web designers rarely, if at all, include accessibility features when designing sites. It's not just that blind people can't see the graphs and charts. The problem is, information in charts and graphs can't be read as text by most browsers. That's where the Iliad system comes in. Not only does it search out text-based information on the Web, but it can also strip the coding from some graphical material and present the information in a text-based format. Then blind and visually-impaired cyber-surfers can use computer-voice programs to have the data read to them by their computers, or magnify the text to read via enlargement programs. They can also print out the information in Braille.

QUICK TURNAROUND

Iliad was designed to be quick and extremely easy to use. Blind or visually-impaired users send an e-mail message to the Iliad home address and type in the search request using keywords. The program allows users to send keyword queries to multiple search engines on the Web. The program screens out highly graphical and duplicate documents, performs searches off-line and has search results e-mailed as full-text documents, all in a quick turnaround time - usually 15 to 30 minutes. Specialised options include sending keywords to a single Web search engine, receiving search results with embedded hyperlinks or as an HTML document, and retrieving documents from a specific Web address.

Of course, the receiver must then have the means either to magnify the text, have it printed in Braille, or have it read. Fortunately, most computers today come equipped with zoom-text features. And text-to-speech software can be purchased for only a few hundred dollars. Most Iliad users receive the results of their searches as individual text documents in their e-mail.

The project is sponsored by NASA's Performance Computing & Communications Program education effort, the Learning Technologies Project. A few years ago, NASA's Technology Transfer Office at Stennis Space Centre in South Mississippi upgraded the accessibility of Iliad to the blind audience, with the help of the Rehabilitation Research & Training Centre on Blindness & Low Vision at Mississippi State University.

MINIMAL REQUIREMENTS

"Computer users who are blind or severely visually impaired realise that cyberspace is jammed with exciting information," says Brenda Cavenaugh, research scientist at Mississippi State. "Unfortunately, the vastness and highly graphical nature of its resources often make it difficult to locate specific topics. With Iliad, you can search the Web without having to use a graphical browser, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator."

The Iliad Web site is located on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, and at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston. The American Foundation for the Blind in New York is exploring the possibility of hosting Iliad on its server as a permanent home. Since becoming operational in spring 1998, the Iliad site has had more than 10,000 visits, with the NASA site averaging approximately 1,000 search requests each month. There's no charge and hardly any minimum hardware requirements to use Iliad. All you need is a computer (even an antique pre-Commodore 8088 will do), a modem of any speed, and an Internet service provider to access the site. Iliad is also accessible from a mobile phone.

To receive instructions on using Iliad, send an e-mail message to: iliad@msstate.edu, iliad@prime.jsc.nasa.gov, or iliad@rosy.tenet.edu. Leave the subject line blank, and type "start iliad" (without the quotes) in the body of the message. You'll get an e-mail back that will walk you through your first session. Iliad should be promoted to a greater degree among the major teachers' organisations and other teaching outlets in the country. It also would be ideal for a commercial venture. Any risk takers out there?

Medical Technology

CORNEAS GROWN IN LAB

Researchers have created the first laboratory-grown human corneas, prompting excitement that the tissue could replace some chemical testing on animals' eyes and marking a major step toward development of artificial corneas for transplant.

The cornea is a window into the eye, a transparent protective covering that focuses light to the proper spot for vision. Some 40,000 corneal transplants are performed each year using corneas donated at death, enabling people whose corneas became damaged or clouded to see again.

But there are barely enough donations to fill that need, leaving little for researchers to use. The short supply also means manufacturers often must test the toxicity of chemicals and medications on animals, usually rabbits' eyes, prompting protests from animal rights activists.

The new advance, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Science, is a first step toward development of a supply of artificial corneas for eye surgery. The artificial cornea's first use probably would be for medical research. Manufacturers are studying whether the corneas could be mass produced and properly respond to toxicity testing, in hopes that they could replace some animal testing.

EYE CHIP MAY HELP RESTORE VISION

BALTIMORE (AP) - Scientists say wireless video goggles and a laser-powered microchip stapled to the retina could someday give blind patients a small measure of sight. The intraocular retinal prosthesis, or "eye chip," uses a small video camera in a set of goggles to send images to the microchip fastened to the back of the retina. Electrodes on the chip form an image that can stimulate the retina and be "seen" by blind people. "The beauty of it is that you're hooked up to the most powerful computer in the world, which is the human brain," said Dr. Mark Humayun, an ophthalmologist at Johns Hopkins. See http://www.infobeat.com/stories/cgi/story