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Back to Home >  Opinion > Columnists >

Leigh Weimers

Posted on Thu, May. 29, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Service allows user to surf Web by phone

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 mercurynews.

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 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 isn't perfect.

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 made.

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's list. After the show, it peaked at 32. That's power.

Contact Leigh Weimers at or (408) 920-5547. Fax (408) 288-8060.
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