A New Generation of Talking-Book Machines

Have you ever asked yourself why you must push a button marked "end" to turn on your cell phone? Or why a TV remote might have a control called "bypass" that appears to do exactly nothing?

The answer to these questions is disarmingly simple: often technology is designed by engineers for engineers. They sometimes do not consider the rest of us.

The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) understands this.

For the next generation of talking-book machines, NLS is emphasizing the usability of new technologies. "The digital talking-book player must be intuitive and easy to use by all patrons regardless of age, experience, and physical ability," says Frank Kurt Cylke, the director of NLS. The new device must also be easily maintained and repaired.

With these criteria in mind, NLS has selected the technical and design services of Battelle, a leading technology innovation firm, and a team of experts to develop the digital talking books (DTBs) and audio playback machines. A contract was signed on February 23, 2005.

Serving as subcontractors on the project are HumanWare, formerly VisuAide, a leader in digital talking-book technology; the National Federation of the Blind, the largest organization of blind persons in the United States with more than 50,000 members; and Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which makes information technology and telecommunications systems accessible by people with disabilities.

The completed system will include the digital talking-book machine (DTBM) and the flash memory cartridge that holds the talking book, as well as labeling and packaging. It's a tall order! The machines must be lightweight and portable, yet sturdy enough to survive postal delivery and years of heavy use.

Usability will be critical. "The player and cartridge together form the system with which users will read their talking books. That system will define the reading experience for future users, so it's critical that it be designed correctly," says Michael Moodie, deputy director of NLS. "If the job is done right, a user's focus will be on the book or magazine he or she is reading, and not on the player or the cartridge."

NLS patrons will reap the benefits of this design. By considering the purpose of the product up front and the ways in which patrons will put it to use, the final DTBM should function in a manner that all find satisfying.

More than 60 percent of NLS patrons are over the age of 60, more than one thousand are over 100 years of age, and many are newly blind. Most read books in a linear fashion and have limited need for a sophisticated navigation system. In fact, this group would find a complex player frustrating and thus prefer a more basic player. Blind children and younger adults also use talking books and may wish DTBMs to have more capabilities-such as advanced navigation features. A user interface designed solely for one of these groups will not meet the wants and needs of all patrons.

"The DTBM will be designed with the blind and physically handicapped user in mind. Unlike audio players aimed at the general consumer, it will employ tactile features, color differences, and large-print labels to inform users with various levels of vision about its functions," says Cylke.

The user interface-the way a person interacts with a machine or a device- must be comfortable for people who are blind and/or physically handicapped.

Controls will be spaced so that it is easy to distinguish one from another. Because many talking-book readers like to read at higher-than-normal speeds, the DTBM will include a variable speed control. It will also include controls that allow users to quickly skip from chapter to chapter. Usability studies will be conducted to ensure that patrons are able to easily and successfully run the player, that librarians are able to clearly explain the operation of the device, and that repair personnel are able to support and service the player.

Quality Control

The playback machine must meet a tough set of standards. It will employ current and new technologies and will comply with safety regulations. And most important, it will be a creative and imaginative product that wins the support of patrons.

Over the lifetime of the design, nearly one million copies of the player will be distributed. The design will need to be economically mass-produced. Since the player will deliver spoken audio to readers, patrons need a machine with high-quality sound.

The machine design will consider support issues such as guiding patrons, librarians and repair personnel.

Battelle and their associates, HumanWare formerly VisuAide, the National Federation of the Blind, and the Trace Center will create training materials for the users of the playback device including instructions for use, and instructions in large print and braille that will be shipped with the player.

"NLS plans to facilitate training of librarians in the use of DTBMs through hands-on demonstrations, the provision of written directions, and instructional videos," says Judith Dixon, NLS consumer relations officer.

By 2008, NLS plans to have 60,000 playback units and 20,000 digital talking-book titles ready for use.

Meet the Player Makers

NLS has pulled together a team of developers and experts in the fields of technology and disability to ensure that the new digital talking-book machine (DTBM) will be just what patrons want. Not only will it be smartly designed, but the DTBM will be examined and tested at every turn for compatibility with blind and physically handicapped users. Here is the team that will make it happen.

BATTELLE Contractor - The firm has developed the technology behind some of the products we use everyday such as the copy machine, compact discs and the bar code that allows for automated checkout and inventory control by retailers.

HUMANWARE, FORMERLY VISUAIDE Subcontractor - A Canadian innovation firm and leader in digital talking-book technology, HumanWare produces the Victor Readers. They also created the next generation of GPS-based orientation and the first mainstream pocket computer accessible to the blind and physically impaired.

NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND Subcontractor - The largest organization of blind persons in the U.S. and the world, NFB has more than 50,000 members who work to integrate the blind into society on a basis of equality by removing legal, economic, and social discriminations.

Subcontractor - A pioneer in the field of technology and disability, the Trace Center has developed widely-used guidelines for the design of consumer products to make them accessible to persons with disabilities.

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Digital Talking Book (DTB) Milestones


Start 6/20/03 - Finish 10/1/08
Milestone Date
Web-Magazine Pilot 1/12/2004
Digital data management system development 11/1/2004
Distribution system design and transition planning 12/1/2004
Player and medium design 3/1/2005
Design DTB containers and labels 6/1/2005
Web-Book pilot 6/1/2005
DTB prep for distribution 10/1/2005
Circulation systems design 12/1/2005
Manufacture initial lot of DTB containers and labels 9/1/2006
Distribution system implementation 10/1/2006
Circulation systems implementation 10/1/2006
Media production 3/1/2007
Media duplication 5/1/2007
Full player production 9/1/2007


For Information on the NLS Digital Project contact:

Jean M. Moss, Digital Projects Coordinator
jemo@loc.gov  Fax: (202) 707-1690

To view the strategic business plan on the Web visit www.loc.gov/nls/businessplan/2003.html