Opinion: Could the Amazon Echo Be Our Next Reading Machine?

With Amazon Echo devices which have a camera, such as the Echo Look or the Echo Show, there’s a capability which I think needs to be pursued which I’ve not heard anybody else mention. I’m talking about OCR. In plain English, this is the capability where you place a printed page on a scanner or in front of a camera and run a piece of software which is able to convert that picture of text into actual text which anybody can read or edit, including users who rely on screen readers. In Windows, we use programs such as OpenBook, Kurzweil 1000 or FineReader to perform these tasks for us. We’ve had these capabilities for decades. Recent advances with smartphones and tablets have given us the same capability with a more portable package, using apps such as KNFB Reader or the free Seeing AI app from Microsoft. Amazon is promoting their new Echo Look product as a sort of electronic fashion adviser. If this is all you’ll be able to do with the Echo Look’s camera then I feel we’ve missed a great opportunity to turn the Echo devices into the next print reading machine. Imagine if we had skills for the Echo devices, such as KNFB Reader, Seeing AI and other OCR apps. You could hold out a sheet of paper in front of your Echo’s camera and issue a command, such as “Alexa, ask KNFB Reader to read this for me.” The camera would take a picture and, within less than a minute, Alexa would read the page for you. Specially made stands, like the Fopito, could be manufactured and sold to allow a blind person to conveniently read one page after another of a book or magazine. True, you wouldn’t be able to edit the document on your Echo device but it would give blind people a quick and convenient way to at least hear the information on the page. If you had an Echo Show, Alexa could then allow that particular device to display that document on its screen, allowing you to review it using the built-in VoiceView screen reader. Additionally, you could issue commands to export that document to another location, such as being able to say “Alexa, send this to my OneDrive” or “Send this to my Dropbox”, allowing you to use your PC, phone or tablet to open and/or edit that file.

There are other scenarios which should also be possible, such as currency identification. Imagine how cool it would be to take a bill out of your wallet and say, “Alexa, identify this currency” or “Alexa, ask Seeing AI to identify my money.” The camera would snap a picture and Alexa would respond, “This is a five-dollar bill.”

I can also envision skills used to help us to identify objects. Imagine being able to hold a can of some unknown food items to your Echo’s camera and saying something like, “Alexa, ask TapTapSee about this object.”

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against having an Alexa device being used to take pictures of the various outfits which might be hanging up in your closet. However, it strikes me that a voice assistant with a camera could be used for so much more than that, which would tremendously serve both blind and sighted users alike. I would like to encourage software developers to consider writing such a skill, which so many people would benefit from.

How to Install the Google Play Store On An Amazon Fire Tablet

As my wife recently bought an Amazon HD 10, I have now acquired her sixth-generation HD 8. These are nice tablets, but Amazon does not, by default, have the Google Play store installed, instead preferring users to download apps directly from their own app store. This would be fine, except that Amazon’s app store doesn’t offer all of the apps available from the Google Play store, which I find annoying. There are a few methods for installing the Google Play store on a Fire tablet but I’ve found a rather simple method for doing this, which just involves a tiny bit of preparation beforehand on the tablet. What follows is a message I posted to the Visually Impaired Kindle discussion list about how to do this.
First, a few warnings. Amazon offers no support for any of this. Don’t think about calling them if you run into any issues or if you have questions. There is no guarantee that all apps from the Google Play Store will function properly on your Fire tablet, although most of them should. Finally, it’s possible that doing this could void your tablet’s warranty.

There are a few methods for installing the Google Play Store on a Fire tablet. The way that I’ve done this in the past was to run a file which, essentially, installs all 4 files at once, without the user needing to download and install each file one at a time. This tool has worked for me in the past but it did not work reliably on my HD 8 with Fire OS However, after doing some searching I found a similar tool from the same source, which worked.
First, here’s the instructions for how to do this.

Although the article advises that you extract the zip file into a specific folder, this is not necessary for just installing the Play Store.
The only preparation you need to do for your tablet is to enable a few settings in Developer Options within Settings/Device Options. However, if you go into Device Options you’ll see that Developer Options is not shown, as it’s hidden, by default.
To unhide Developer Options, go into Settings/Device Options.
Look for the serial number.
You’re supposed to tap it 7 times, which means that VoiceView users need to double-tap it seven times.
Once you do this, you should see a new tenth option called Developer Options.
If this still isn’t showing and if you only see nine options in Device Options, try double-tapping Serial Number 7 or more times again. Eventually, you’ll see Developer Options.
Double-tap Developer Options and look for the option USB Computer Connection. Double-tap this and set this for Camera, ptp.
Go back to the previous screen.
Next, look for Enable ADB, which will be off, by default. Double-tap to turn it on.
Next, run the tool. Here’s a direct link to it.

Extract the zip file to a place where you can easily find it.
Open the folder containing the files and you will see two folders.
The first folder is for the Mac, which you can ignore if you’re using Windows.
The second folder is the Supertool folder, which is what you want to open. Even though it has the phrase "fifth gen" in the title, I can tell you this worked on my sixth generation tablet.
Within this folder, look for the file called 1-Amazon-Fire-5th-gen.bat, which is what you want to run. Make sure the tablet is connected to your PC before you run this file.
Choose option 2 by pressing the number 2, followed by enter, which should, if all goes well, install the Google Play Store.
During the installation process, you may hear VoiceView say "Google Play Services error" several times but just ignore this.
Once the files are installed, it is recommended that you completely power off your tablet.
Once it’s powered back on, Google Play Store should appear in what is called the app grid (the list of apps) on your home screen.
At some point while downloading your first app, you will likely be prompted to update your Google Play Services, which you can safely do.
At this point, I would go back to Settings/Device Options/Developer Options and turn off ADB Debugging.
I would also recommend going into Developer Options and setting the USB connection to Media Device.

I hope this method will be of some help.

November 10/How to Stay Safe and Secure While Shopping Online: Next Phone Meeting for the Philadelphia Computer Users’ Group for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Shopping for products is one of those activities which we all need to do and which we pretty much take for granted, as it’s such a necessary activity, whether it’s purchasing food for our sustenance, items for our homes or gifts for others. During this time of year, many of us purchase gifts, either for ourselves or for friends and family. The computer has made shopping so much easier and convenient and provides many advantages for those of us who are visually impaired. With mobile devices such as smart phones, tablets and even iPods, shopping is even more convenient. We can now pull our phone from out of our pocket or unlock our iPad, fire up an app and browse a store’s virtual shelves from practically anywhere. However, there’s a dark side to this amazing level of convenience. Computers can be hacked and we’ve all heard horror stories about how this occurs, both with well-known corporations, as well as with individual consumers. Just one virus can not only cripple a computer by corrupting and deleting files but account credentials, such as your credit card information and account passwords, can be stolen. We’re also now hearing about a newer type of malware known as ransomware, which makes all of the files on your computer totally inaccessible unless you pay a specific amount of money to cybercriminals.
With all of these threats, it’s no wonder that some people may be very afraid to perform an activity as simple as purchasing a product online. Is it safe to engage in these activities? Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves against these form of attacks?
The good news is that we can do quite a lot to protect ourselves. This is the topic of the next phone meeting for the Philadelphia Computer Users’ Group for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Computer security expert Jackie Mcbride of Brighter Vision Technologies will talk about the topic of online security and how to stay safe and prevent being a victim of a cyber attack. Even if you don’t engage in online shopping, this topic is relevant to any of us who use computers or mobile devices to go online. Jackie will also take your questions about this important topic. In her own words, here’s a bit of information about our next guest speaker.

From Jackie Mcbride …
I’m a veteran in the security trenches for 25 years. My first exposure to computer security took place in 1992, when a boot sector virus took out a blind children’s services computer, & I couldn’t fix it. I vowed I’d never be in that position ever again. I’m trained in computer forensics & am a certified Cisco Networking Academy instructor. I’ve primarily worked on PC’s till 2010, when I switched my emphasis to websites. Since that time I’ve hosted, developed, & repaired websites, including those that have been compromised. I still clean malware from PC’s when the need arises. But I try very hard to prevent people from becoming victims, as opposed to having to clean up the mess once a compromise has occurred. The holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year for the cyber thugs, & I’d like to try to keep folks from being victimized, if possible.
I recently finished my book entitled “My Site’s Been Hacked, Now What?” & I hold a support contributor badge on the wordpress.org forums.
On a personal level, I’m a mom, a grandmom, & a pastor’s wife. Hobbies include singer/songwriter/musician & creative writing, w/an emphasis on trying to make biblical times & characters real to modern readers. In that context, I’m the technical heavy lifter for an online creative writing group.

Date: Friday, November 10
Time: 8:00 PM Eastern time

To participate, the number to call is
(712) 432-3900
When prompted for an access code, enter
391477, followed by the pound key.

October 7: An Online Conference to Celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Braille ‘n Speak from Blazie Engineering

The following announcement is taken from the mailing list of BITS, the special interest technology affiliate of the American Council of the Blind. Anybody is welcome to participate in this conference. It is not necessary to be a member of BITS or the ACB in order to participate. Here is the announcement from Earlene Hughes, with some writing from yours truly.

Hello to all…
I am pleased to announce the Braille ‘N Speak 30th Anniversary presentation to be hosted by David Goldfield and Tom Jones.
From David Goldfield:
"On October of 1987, a new product was introduced in the blindness assistive technology space. It was small in size, only had seven keys and had a rather odd-sounding name from a company which was just getting off the ground. The product was the Braille ‘n Speak. In many ways, it started a revolution, performing tasks with an efficiency some of us could scarcely believe. While the Braille ‘n Speak was released thirty years ago, the effects and influence of that little device can still be seen in some of today’s more modern devices which we still sometimes refer to as notetakers, a term which probably originated with the Braille ‘n Speak.
When I heard about the product in 1988, I was incredulous and couldn’t believe that a product of this type actually existed. Once I got my hands on one I knew I had to have it. I had my wish and became a Braille ‘n Speak owner in February of 1989. As the product became a daily part of my life, I wanted to go beyond owning it and realized that I wanted to work for the company which, in so many ways, revolutionized my life. In May of 1991, that dream became a reality as well and I had the honor and privilege of working for Blazie Engineering for nearly seven years, working with the Braille ‘n Speak, as well as the many products which followed it.
On October 7 at 8:00 PM we invite you to celebrate the legacy of Deane Blazie’s company, along with that company’s products, with emphasis on the Braille ‘n Speak as we celebrate its 30th anniversary. We’d love to hear your own memories of how the Bns, as well as other Blazie Engineering products, have touched or changed your life. We are reaching out to former Blazie Engineering employees to invite them to this presentation as well. As of this writing we don’t know how many of them will be able to attend. We make no promises as to who might make an appearance but we may have a few surprises.
Please spread the word to anybody you know who has used the Braille ‘n Speak to share their own memories and stories with us.
We’ll see you on October 7. Have your "Braille ‘n Speak ready."
Date and Time: October 7, 2017 8:00 PM Eastern, 7:00 PM Central, 5:00 Pacific.
To participate in the presentation, select one of the following meeting options:
1. If you have an iPhone or similar device, search in the App Store for Zoom.
Select, download and install the "Zoom Cloud Meetings" app.
Next, select "Join meeting", and enter the meeting ID, 356 588 666.
2. Join from PC, Mac, Linux, iOS or Android:
3. Or iPhone one-tap :
+14157629988,,356588666# or +16465687788,,356588666#
4. Or Telephone: Dial(for higher quality, dial a number based on your current location):
+1 415 762 9988 (US Toll) or +1 646 568 7788 (US Toll)
When prompted, enter the Meeting ID, 356 588 666.
5. International numbers available:
If you have any questions, feel free to email me, call me, or better yet, zoom me! earlene
Earlene Hughes, Chair
Presentations and Workshops Committee
Vice President, Blind Information Technology Specialists, INC. (BITS)

Farewell to Window-Eyes: Fond Memories Of a Unique Screen Reader

On May 19, we celebrated Global Accessibility Awareness Day. It is ironic that, four days earlier on May 15, GW Micro (VFO) announced the news that the Window-Eyes screen reader would cease development. All users who were using the commercial version of Window-Eyes would be entitled to upgrade to JAWS, with users of version 9.0 or later being given the chance to receive a JAWS 18 license at no additional cost. Users of the free Window-Eyes for Users of Microsoft Office version, such as myself, are an exception and would not be entitled to upgrade to JAWS at a discount price.

This news was both sad and, for many, hardly unexpected. After AI Squared became a part of VFO Group, Jonathan Mosen interviewed David Wu on Freedom Scientific’s FSCast podcast. Mr. Wu was formerly CEO of AI Squared and is now VP of Software Business at VFO. While Mr. Wu tried to keep the tone very positive and upbeat, reading between the lines made it clear to me that JAWS and Zoomtext were VFO’s more popular products and Mr. Wu seemed a bit less reassuring when discussing MAGic or Window-Eyes, although these are clearly my own impressions of the FSCast interview from June of 2016. Maybe he didn’t mean to present that impression but that’s what I came away with when I heard the podcast. Perhaps it’s true that JAWS is the world’s most popular screen reader. I’ve been a user of JAWS since version 1.0 shipped on several floppy disks, along with Eric Damery and Ted Henter providing tutorials on cassette tapes, and I’ve seen the program evolve into a powerful and capable screen reader. JAWS 18 is most definitely one of the most feature-rich screen readers you could install onto your Windows computer and its popularity is certainly well-deserved. However, one of the things which I value is consumer choice. While I regularly use Microsoft Office 365 to perform the majority of my word processing tasks I am grateful that we have worthy alternatives, such as the free LibreOffice, to allow users to perform similar tasks using quality software. While I respect the feature set of Microsoft Outlook I prefer to use Mozilla Thunderbird for sending, reading and sorting email while I’m at home.

The same is true for screen readers. I’ve already expressed my admiration for JAWS and feel that it’s an amazing access package. However, for financial reasons I use NVDA as my screen reader of choice and occasionally have used the free version of Window-Eyes for users of Microsoft Office. Consumer choice is an important thing when it comes to access. One screen reader may meet the needs of an individual more than another, for a variety of reasons. Sadly, VFO buying AI Squared has taken one of these choices away from us, which I feel is a tremendous loss.

I’ve been a trainer and, to some extent, a user of Window-Eyes since the late 1990s. It offered some very unique features and capabilities which, in some ways, weren’t always available in other screen readers and I’d like to take some time to celebrate the unique features Window-Eyes brought to the table.

First, let’s consider the way we browse the Web using our preferred browser of choice. Nowadays, screen readers are able to reformat complex Web pages and render them in the same way that a word processor opens a document, allowing the user to navigate the Web page using standard arrow key navigation. This is now a given and something we’ve come to expect when using a screen reader on the Web. This capability exists with JAWS, NVDA and in VoiceOver on the Mac. However, it was Window-Eyes which was one of the first screen readers to offer this feature, a year or so before JAWS implemented it, if memory serves. True, in those early days it took a long time for some Web pages to load and so the feature wasn’t always a joy to use. Admittedly, when JAWS implemented the feature they did it much better in those days, with Web pages loading very quickly. Over the years, Window-Eyes improved by also loading pages much faster but the point is that Window-Eyes may have been one of the first screen readers to have pioneered that feature which we all take for granted now. As an update, I have changed the wording to this section as I was reminded of a feature known as Web Pilot, found in Artic’s Winvision, which may well have been the first screen reader to have offered this capability.

Window-Eyes was also the first screen reader to support Mozilla Firefox, something which we now enjoy with JAWS as well as NVDA. Back in the day, if you were a screen reader user and you wanted to browse the Web you had to use Internet Explorer. Other browsers, at least in Windows, just weren’t an option. I believe that Window-Eyes was the first screen reader to give us access to Mozilla Firefox.

Window-Eyes is probably the only screen reader with the capability of launching with speech, when possible, in safe mode. This is a feature I have yet to encounter in other screen readers.

If your system’s volume was muted or at a low level, Window-Eyes could be configured to load, forcing the volume to be unmuted and raising the volume level. This solves the problem where someone accidentally or intentionally muted your speakers, causing a minor nightmare when you tried to load your screen reader and receive no speech output. These are capabilities I’d love to see in other screen readers, such as NVDA and JAWS.

One of my favorite Window-Eyes features is actually something which was probably in the earliest versions and was also found in the Vocal-Eyes screen reader for DOS. The feature to which I’m referring was known as cursor keys. It differed from the other hotkeys in that, with hotkeys, the function you assign to a key bypassed that key’s original function. In other words, if you assign the hotkey ctrl+L to read the current line under the caret or cursor the line would be spoken when the key was pressed. However, if you pressed that hotkey while in Word to left justify your text the key wouldn’t function, instead reading the current line (unless you used the Bypass key first.) However, the cursor keys feature was unique in that the original function of the key you chose to define would not be lost. Therefore, if you wanted the Home key to speak the current character you could assign that function to the Home key, without interfering with the key’s original function. When the key was pressed, the key would move the cursor to the beginning of the line as designed, followed by the function or functions you assigned to that key. This allowed for some amazing flexibility which is not even available with JAWS, unless you’re willing to learn scripting.

Speaking of scripting, I’ll end my Window-Eyes memories with a discussion of that program’s most amazing feature, utilized in a way not found in other screen readers.

Starting with version 7.0, Window-Eyes added the ability for its users to write customized scripts in order to add additional functionality to the screen reader. Many people may be quick to remind me that JAWS has had this feature since the very beginning, first with giving users the ability to write macros and, starting with JFW version 3.0, calling them scripts. While this is true, there are some differences in the way this capability was being offered.

First, GW Micro allowed its users, as well as their staff, to upload scripts to a central repository on their Web site known as Script Central. Later, they made the brilliant decision to do a bit of rebranding and scripts, which sound scary and challenging, became apps, which sound like a lot of fun. Let’s face it; nobody knows anything about what a script is but anybody with a smartphone or tablet is an expert on apps. With this change, Script Central became App Central and Window-Eyes had its very own, user-friendly app store. Apps were quite plentiful, grouped into categories and users could add their own comments on the various apps which they liked. Window-Eyes even came with an app which allowed for easy navigation to this specialized app store. Apps could then easily be downloaded and installed, using similar screens which you would encounter when installing any piece of software. You could navigate through the Window-Eyes Apps menu to examine the list of apps you had installed and could easily remove apps you no longer wanted. Apps could even alert you when they had updates and those updates could easily be installed. The concept was positively ingenious. I never understood why JAWS, with its powerful scripting language, never offered a similar repository. In the screen reader’s early days Henter-Joyce did offer some scripts on its Web site but this is no longer the case. If you want to locate scripts for your copy of JAWS you must locate them on third-party Web sites.

To be quite honest, Window-Eyes was far from perfect. In spite of its innovative features there were times when I felt I was using a not quite ready for prime-time beta, rather than a final release. Of course, no software is without its bugs but, to me, it always felt as though Window-Eyes had more than its share of them and I sometimes found it to be frustrating to use.

In spite of this I still feel that the assistive technology landscape has been greatly diminished at having one less screen reader for users to work with. It is a regrettable consequence of AI Squared becoming a part of VFO Group and I am sorry for all users of Window-Eyes who are now forced to switch to a new screen reader.

In closing, I would first like to ask VFO to respectfully consider donating the Window-Eyes source code to the community for further development. If you feel that you no longer wish to develop the screen reader please consider releasing it to the community as there are many Window-Eyes users who don’t want to see the demise of their favorite screen reader.

Finally, I would like to thank the developers of GW Micro, both for their work with Vocal-Eyes for DOS as well as with Window-Eyes. You have made an important and memorable contribution to users of blindness assistive technology. I sincerely thank you for providing us with a unique, easy to use and customizable screen reader.