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Home > Technical Writings > Digital Talking Books, Planning for the Future > Planning for the Future
Today the rapid pace of technological change forces all of us to alter the way we think, act, and see the world. In the domain of library service to print-handicapped people, incredible advances in computing and communications are making possible many tools and techniques to access information that were unthinkable just a few years ago. But the pace of change and the bewildering array of possible technological solutions make it difficult for agencies serving this population to know what course to chart. We at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) are trying to discern the most promising path to the digital future.
Five elements drive the design of the NLS program and affect any changes that may be considered. Some elements have a legal basis, others are long-standing policies, but all are core concepts that shape our planning for the future. The elements are these:
NLS has made three assumptions in planning for the next- generation talking book system.
Given these assumptions, how do we get from where we are to where we want to be? Such a conversion is a complex undertaking. When NLS changed its delivery medium from phonograph records to cassettes, only the medium, its mailing container, and its playback device were replaced during the transition; otherwise, the system stayed the same. Now we are planning a change that will certainly affect many aspects possibly every aspect of our talking- book system, from recording through distribution. Very little in our current system will remain unchanged. We should not underestimate the complexity or difficulty of such an undertaking.
NLS has identified twenty tasks that will be required in the design and implementation of a next-generation talking-book system. Following is a discussion of the eleven tasks in the design phase; the nine tasks in the implementation phase will be discussed in a later section.
The starting point in the design process should be the users, who must define what they want in the next generation of talking books. NLS has begun this process in conjunction with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D), the DAISY Consortium, and many other groups, working under the auspices of NISO, the National Information Standards Organization. NISO is a standards-creating body in the United States, accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) organization.
Members of the NISO committee on DTBs met first in May 1997 and have continued to meet regularly. Outcomes of these meetings will include a standard describing the file specification for a DTB, which will ensure that agencies recording talking books in accordance with the file specification will be able to read each others' books on standards-compliant playback equipment. Other products of the NISO process will include technical reports that list and prioritize the desired features in digital talking books and talking-book players and describe the production steps necessary to implement those book features. Draft standards and technical reports are due in November 1998, with final versions following perhaps a year after that.
This task will allow NLS to test patron interest in different features and experiment with various ways of implementing them before proceeding too far into the development process. By linking easily modifiable control panels to the PC, we will also be able to test different user interfaces. In order to control risks such as rapid obsolescence and high cost, we propose to build several simulations based on different software approaches.
We see this tool as critical to assessing the economic viability of different DTB options. Because a talking-book program is a complex service with many interrelated parts, one must look at the whole system when making cost comparisons. We plan to develop a spreadsheet-based cost model that will allow easy comparison of different approaches or combinations of approaches. Feeding into the model will be historical costs from our current system as well as cost projections based on forecasts of long-term trends.
Feedback from evaluators will be used to produce software modifications. In addition, software must be developed to test candidate DTB systems for compliance with the NISO standard.
This archiving system is the heart of the DTB system. Once fully implemented, it will contain the entire digitized content of our talking-book holdings, approximately 140 terabytes of data. It must contain capabilities for long- term archiving as well as supplying DTB files for production, if we choose to use a physical medium, and for distribution, if we opt to disseminate audio books via a telecommunications channel. Software must also be created to convert current analog recordings into NISO-compliant digital files.
As mentioned earlier, U.S. copyright law requires that NLS limit access to its materials to eligible users. Authors and publishers are concerned that our books and magazines will be disseminated to the sighted community, possibly damaging the market for commercial print or audio materials. Once we enter the digital domain, such dissemination will become increasingly likely, so we will need to build in adequate safeguards.
Based on the results of the NISO process, NLS will design or, if a suitable system is available, select a digital recording system capable of implementing the features identified by NISO participants. While most of NLS's books are recorded in professional studios under contract, many books and magazines produced by our network libraries are done in small studios with very limited budgets. NLS will need to ensure that these studios have the tools they will need to work in the digital domain. NLS must also develop software to allow users to play a DTB based on the playback features specified in the NISO standard. This software must be compatible with multiple platforms. Finally, NLS will establish a facility for maintaining the many pieces of software developed for the DTB.
NLS will develop a variety of designs for distribution systems, including electronic systems that deliver books and magazines directly to patrons from regional or national centers as well as mail-based systems that deliver a physical medium to the patron. Cost issues will address national and regional production, playback units, storage, packaging, distribution, and other concerns. In focusing on convenience, NLS will consider ease of system operation and use by patrons, librarians, machine-lending agencies, volunteer producers, and international borrowers. Using the cost-analysis tool described in task 3, NLS will develop a written comparison of the different distribution options, identifying the most promising candidates.
Wherever feasible, NLS will use components of popular entertainment hardware to assure cost control and user acceptance. NLS will design and test user interfaces incorporating the features specified in the NISO standard.
To minimize risk, NLS will build and evaluate several different prototypes and allow users to evaluate them. Subsequently, prototypes will be evaluated to assess their effect on the operations of regional libraries, machine- lending agencies, the U.S. Postal Service, manufacturers, and repair organizations.
NLS staff will predict the theoretical reliability of playback units and test them for actual performance, thereby identifying vulnerable components. A maintenance plan will be written, specifying which components can be repaired, which must be replaced, and the range, depth, positioning, and value of spare parts. Finally, NLS will predict the life-cycle cost of each prototype and forecast the payback point for NLS using the cost model developed in task 3. These design-phase tasks represent only an overview of the process of moving to a digitally based talking-book system. Although the tasks are listed sequentially, many will proceed in a parallel fashion. Furthermore, these tasks address only the process of designing a DTB system. Implementation issues are addressed in a later section of this document.
There is a great deal of work underway around the world focused on bringing digital talking books to blind readers. Some projects are already producing DTBs, while others plan to begin delivering books before the end of the decade. NLS, in contrast, does not foresee full implementation of a DTB system for five to ten years. Why is that?
Earlier, we discussed a few of the benefits DTBs will bring to readers. While several features, such as improved sound quality and decreased manipulation of the playback media, will be useful to all patrons, they are marginal improvements that by themselves do not justify a major change in technology. The most significant improvements, such as enhanced navigation and text-related features, will mostly benefit the more sophisticated users and the more complex books that is, students reading textbooks. While some NLS users and books are in the category that will gain from the use of a digital system, most patrons and books will see only moderate improvements. For this reason, NLS is less motivated to change in the near future than are other agencies that serve primarily students.
Furthermore, we are not currently aware of a medium or a delivery system that is low enough in cost or that offers enough advantages over our current system to justify a change. As an example, let us discuss the pros and cons of a CD-ROM-based delivery system, the most viable current option.
First, the costs of CD-ROM players and media are roughly comparable to those of our current cassette system, so there would be no significant cost savings to motivate a change. The last time we began a transition from one medium to another, in the early 1970s, our budgets were expanding every year, so it was easy to finance the parallel production of old and new playback machines. Now NLS finds itself facing several years of level or only marginally growing budgets, so we hope that whatever digital system we select will offer enough savings to at least partially finance the transition; otherwise, change will be extremely difficult.
Second, we are concerned with the longevity of the CD-ROM technology. How long will CD-ROM be a viable medium? Already the digital video disk (DVD) is emerging. NLS has an enormous investment in machine and media inventory over 800,000 cassette and disc players and more than 16 million copies of audio books. It would take a long time to convert that inventory. We introduced cassettes in the early 1970s, yet it was more than fifteen years before we stopped producing books on rigid disc. Nearly thirty years later, we are still transferring titles from disc to cassette format. Given the shorter and shorter life span of individual electronic technologies, we wonder how many years we could use CD-ROMs before we were forced to begin the transition to yet another medium (especially if we don't begin to use CD-ROMs for another five years or more).
Because of our enormous inventory, we need to adopt a technology early in its life span so we can use it for the maximum number of years, and we can consider only those new technologies that promise a relatively long life span. Most of the libraries in the NLS network have volunteers or volunteer agencies that record and duplicate materials locally. They contribute a significant number of books to the collection every year and record many magazines. This entire network must be able to use any technology we adopt. So we must consider the expense and complexity for these groups as they move to the new technology, and we must ensure that such a change will be an enduring one so they do not have to replace all their equipment again after a few years.
Third, we are very uncertain about the costs of maintaining CD-ROM players. Most of our books and machines are sent to and returned by patrons through the mail. The machines undergo considerable stress in transit. In addition, our patrons use the machines heavily, and we know that the machines are sometimes dropped, liquids are spilled on them, and in general they receive a fair amount of punishment. We wonder how well the precision elements of CD-ROM players would hold up under such conditions.
We repair about one-fifth of our inventory of machines each year about 120,000 cassette players. The work is done by a large network of volunteer groups. NLS calculates the value of their labor at about $4.5 million annually. We are concerned that repair of sophisticated devices such as CD- ROM players would be beyond the skills of volunteers, forcing NLS to pay commercial rates for the repairs an expense we could not afford. Indeed, the new devices may be repairable only by replacing subassemblies, which would also be quite expensive.
Considering the uncertain life span of CD-ROM technology and its higher maintenance costs, we project the life-cycle costs of a CD-ROM-based system to be significantly higher than those of our current system. Other candidate delivery systems suffer similar drawbacks when compared to the present cassette-based system. Therefore, it seems prudent to continue using 4-track cassettes until a better alternative is identified.
Moving from our current system to a digital one will be a challenging and exciting process. In a recent article, Robert Lucky, vice president for applied research at Bellcore, formerly Bell Labs, highlighted the difficulties of planning during this time of rapid change. "Moore's law," he said (referring to the pattern in computer technology of constantly increasing power at a decreasing cost), "guarantees that technologies become obsolete and that economics become overturned at a rate that is incompatible with most infrastructure planning and financing." This is a frightening statement for those of us with large inventories of equipment. It forces us immediately to confront complexity and risk. Because our users are a very diverse and widely dispersed population with special needs and evolving expectations, our service is intrinsically complex. Risk is inherent in building a future based on technologies that have continuously changing capabilities and costs.
The key to handling complexity will be to separate the production process and the product into parts that are manageable, replaceable, upgradeable, and extensible. For example, the software must be modular so that it can support playback systems that evolve and users who have diverse preferences.
The key to managing risk is to support as many process and product alternatives as affordable. There is considerable uncertainty regarding which technologies will be most affordable and popular, especially when major investments are being initiated. Sponsoring several approaches through prototyping and field testing permits expensive decisions to be made with more confidence.
Certainly this will be an exciting process. As digital talking-book systems are brought into being, they will bring a great range of benefits to blind and physically handicapped readers. Many of the marvelous capabilities of the printed book will be combined with the power of computers to create a tool of unprecedented flexibility and power. We look forward to making this tool a reality.
John Cookson, Head, Engineering Section
Michael M. Moodie, Research and Development Officer
prologue planning NISO activity planning 20 steps 9 tasks consumer involvement
bibliography appendix i: details in implementation appendix ii: overview of contracting approach
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Posted on 2013-06-28