By Peter Abrahams, Practice Leader

The computing and storage power inside a modern PDA is being used to create a variety of specialised assistive technologies. Google alerts for 'blind technology' have made me aware of the following and I am sure that there are more.

The K-NFB reader can scan any printed document, turn the words on the paper into text in the computer and then use a text to voice engine to vocalise it for a blind user. Very useful for reading menus in a restaurant or junk mail through the door.

En-Vision I.D. Mate is a portable barcode reader with a built-in database of American universal product codes (UPC) which includes not just the name of the item but other product information such as ingredients and warnings. A blind user can now be certain that they have taken the right package from the freezer, but this could be useful to any one who finds reading the labels on packaging a serious effort. The prototype of this device was created to enable a poker player who was going blind to continue playing using cards with barcodes printed on the face; this suggests that there are many other otential uses for this device.

En-Vision also produces ScripTalk Talking prescriptions. Medicine containers in general are small and do not have a barcode on them. However, RFID tags can be produced and attached that will securely identify the medicine.

Ensuring that the right medicine is being used is even more important than finding the right package in the freezer.

The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) Book Port is a flexible book reading device consisting of a small portable unit with a keypad, earbuds, and accompanying software. The device allows the user to download and read electronic text files with synthetic speech or digital recorded books (including DAISY books) with human speech.

My Garmin nuvi satellite navigation device has a pedestrian setting so that it can be used for walking and it is accurate enough so that its Nuance text to speech could be used by people with some vision or maybe even for a dog for the blind.

A variety of mobile phones and PDAs that have text to speech output and in some cases voice recognition for controls and even limited text.

Domestic appliances (microwaves, dishwashers, televisions etc.) are going digital with flat screen output and touch screen input. These are more inaccessible than older models with mechanical switches and dials. Text to speech is being incorporated into some of these devices but it is difficult to justify as a standard fitting.

It is wonderful that technology is being used in these ways to improve the life of many disabled people; but there are several problems:

The products are bespoke developments for a limited market and therefore individually expensive.

There is a lot of duplicated technology (processor, storage, text-to-speech engine, voice activation etc) and that means the total cost is prohibitive.

All of them are useful during the day so just carrying them all around could become burdensome.

The management of them, storing, finding, recharging, upgrading of the devices becomes an issue.

My view is that the industry should consider how to modularize the components so that any device could be created by a plug and play solution connected to one processor. An architecture like this should significantly reduce the development cost of new devices and reduce the cost of the components. This should make the devices more usable and affordable as a group.

More flexible configurations and a reduction in the individual costs might open these devices up to a much larger market. A proper book reader would be of interest to commuters or anyone who can not hold a book for a long time.

A portable RFID reader could have all sorts of applications in manufacturing and high value retailing. A single device that could control all our home appliances would be attractive to most households.

Is it not time someone developed a configurable micro computer?