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NLS Press Release

Students to Design Talking Book Machine

For Immediate Release:
June 22, 2001
Contact: Robert E. Fistick
(202) 707-9279 or

Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress, are challenging student designers to create the next generation of digital talking book playback machines. The student design competition, scheduled to begin Jan 1, 2002, could result in a unique product that will help thousands of visually impaired and otherwise disabled people enjoy books and magazines each year. Close to a million new machines will be produced in the first ten years after their introduction.

Current playback machines are the same analog cassette players that made their appearance in the 1970s. "The analog machines have served us well, but they are starting to move toward obsolescence," said Frank Kurt Cylke, director of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Users have started, he said, to expect their talking book playback machines to have some of the navigation features they find in CD and DVD players and computers, such as the ability to skip sections or return to a "bookmark." And as it becomes more scarce, cassette technology will become too expensive. "We need to move on to digital audio to take advantage of improved user features and lower costs," said Cylke.

So why not use existing digital devices? Here's the twist. Both the recordings and the equipment are mailed free to any U.S. citizen who qualifies. NLS is permitted to do this under U.S. copyright law, but the law also requires that the materials NLS circulates be unusable by the general public. For this reason, the current talking book machines and cassettes are different from the conventional cassette players and tapes.

When NLS decided to adopt digital technology, the agency also decided to take advantage of the conversion time to address the total design of the playback machines. "The analog machines were designed by engineers and were built to be functional and durable, " said Cylke. The agency had a chance to design machines that are aesthetically pleasing, light and compact, but with speakers that could be directed for the hearing impaired.

When the idea of a competition was suggested, Cylke said he assigned his reference department the task of finding an appropriate organization to manage the competition. IDSA had just completed the Motorola student competition to design a wireless device for universal access.

"It seemed like a very nice fit. We wanted creativity and unique ideas and the concept of a student competition was even more exciting," said Cylke. He has been working on the competition with Gigi Thompson, IDSA's senior manager of communication and has met several times with Jim Mueller, IDSA, who chairs the Society's Universal Design Professional Interest Section.

Cylke explained that the students will be designing for the future, when baby boomers will be aging. "Many of our users are older people who were avid readers and now can't read. They have to be able to operate these devices," he said. Although the digital devices the students design will be specifically tailored to the disabled, they must also adhere to the principles of universal design, including being simple and intuitive to use, having a tolerance for error and requiring low physical effort.

NLS has approximately 730,000 cassette talking book playback machines in use worldwide today and maintains an inventory of more than 23 million copies of audio books and magazines. "The upgrade to digital versions of not only the talking book playback machines but also the vast audio collection is the greatest challenge NLS has ever faced," said director Cylke.

One student designer has the opportunity to inspire the development of a product that will solve a government mandate and benefit thousands of needy citizens.

The competition begins January 1, 2002. IDSA will offer information on the competition on the IDSA Web site, in its publications, at the National Conference and the National Education Conference in August in Boston, MA, and will distribute competition information kits to all 54 IDSA-affiliated schools. A jury assembled by NLS and IDSA will convene in June 2002 and awards will be presented during the IDSA National Conference, July 20 23, 2002. Watch this fall for more details.

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Posted on 2011-01-10