It was years ago that disability activist Dennis Holter
sent me a copy of Playboy magazine -- in Braille. Holter, whose
sense of humor functions fine, although his eyes and various other
body parts don't always, was mock-lamenting that this Playboy had no
centerfold. He did add, though, that the Braille dots enabled him to
read the articles -- something every other guy says is the reason
for buying Playboy.
More recently, though, Holter has been telephoning to discuss
other articles, things he's read in the news, particularly the
Mercury News. Well, not exactly read -- there's no Braille
involved. He's been using a new service called net ECHO, developed
by San Jose-based InternetSpeech, which lets the visually impaired
and elderly surf the Internet by telephone. ``It's a very good
service,'' Holter says, ``and expanding.''
``We've developed an engine that can scan Web sites and render
them into audio text,'' explains InternetSpeech founder and CEO
Emdad Khan. Thus, Holter and others can phone netECHO and,
using voice commands, have it look up Web sites such as
com, skim through them and read aloud the articles the
user selects. Customers can tell the service to search the Web
through Google, Yahoo or MSN and have the results read -- no
personal computer needed.
``What netECHO won't do,'' Khan acknowledges, ``is fill
out forms online, such as for shopping. But in about three months,
we hope to.''
You can check out netECHO at (408) 360-7730 and http://www.internetspeech.com/.
Most of its programs cost less than $20 per month. That's how Holter
keeps up these days -- even having netECHO read Playboy articles to
him. The service can't describe the centerfolds, though, but life
WRITE STUFF: Technology for the
disabled shows that Silicon Valley still has a heart. If you need
other proof, stop by the Los Altos History Museum on Tuesday at 7:30
p.m. to hear historian Phyllis Butler discuss her latest
book, ``The Valley of Santa Clara -- A Guide to the Heart of Silicon
Valley.'' (OK, Butler's take is more geographical and architectural
than physiological. But some places, like the Hewlett-Packard
garage, pretty much qualify on all counts.)
Menlo Park travel writer/photographer David Laws also has
something on the subject -- a photo essay/guidebook titled ``Silicon
Valley: Exploring the Communities Behind the Digital Revolution.''
Laws' effort has garnered words of praise from Jerry Sanders
of Advanced Micro Devices, Leonard Shustek of the Computer
History Museum and valley chronicler Michael S. Malone. If
the book can get some on-air exposure next, Laws should have it
For example, National Public Radio recently aired a feature on
Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist and model for Doc in
John Steinbeck's ``Cannery Row.'' In passing, the narrator
mentioned Katie Rodger, a former grad student at the
Steinbeck Center at San Jose State University, and her new book on
Ricketts, ``Renaissance Man of Cannery Row.'' Before the NPR
exposure, the book ranked about 700,000 at Amazon.com's list. After
the show, it peaked at 32. That's power.