My earliest technologies

1 May 2018

Steve TylerBy Steve Tyler

As a student and a braille user, I used a Perkins Brailler, a manual writing system built like a tank and certainly as heavy as one. It was my pen and paper — I could write notes and read them back to myself.

Although of course sharing was an issue for non Braille readers.

The Perkins technology has never been beaten even today. The pressure required to push pins through paper that would produce a substantial enough dot is vast.

Convincing beeps, whirrings and stutterings

Another early experience of technology for me was in our school computer room. At the time it had two computers; one was a very mysterious device made by a serious sounding company called Research Machines.

It had a key (similar to a car key) which started it up and after a lot of very convincing beeps, whirrings and stutterings of printers, it displayed on its screen an ominous ‘c:’ – with no other guidance at all. This was the earliest form of DOS (disk operating system) and that ‘c:’ even today is buried in Windows and many other systems and is known as the command line.

The other computer was much more exciting! It was an Apple ii – and this was the one most of us gravitated towards. It had lots of games, most notably ‘Lemonade’. Imagine the scenario: you are a lemonade vendor in New York and based on the weather and other variables you had to decide how much lemonade you would make and how much you’d sell it for! We would spend hours being fascinated by that game.

The other thing which t was delivered to that room was a donation. It was known as the Kurzweil Reading Machine built in the early 1980’s. It was about as tall as a medium sized fridge, had a glass platform on top, and would read print. It was astonishing! At a cost of £45,000 it was the precursor to the £50 or less scanner we have on desks everywhere today.

Ray, it’s inventor, is someone I have worked with through Google. He recently helped deliver the KNFB reader – the distant cousin of his original invention but this time as an App on an Iphone.

A breakthrough in Braille

The real breakthrough was on arrival at University in the form of the VersaBraille mark ii. It was lugable rather than portable, had an electronic Braille display and a basic translator so that it was possible to write on a Braille keyboard and print the output to a printer.

Despite its temperament (it needed to go back for engineering support at least once a term), I became popular as a student. As a fast Braillist, I was able to take more or less accurate notes of lectures, that meant that other students need not actually attend them since I could provide printouts. In return, and with the help of the University library, I had a ready pool of willing readers who would record book segments and journal articles for me on to cassette tape.

The amazing nature of this device meant that for the first time many of my exams or written work could be produced independently by me without needing a scribe.

Becoming connected

I remember vividly sitting in one of our University labs with a now old friend logging in to a University computer in the US, thousands of miles away, and being able to view the research they had been doing!

I think for me that was the blue touch paper – the idea, in reality, that you could access data and share yours with people you had never actually talked too! My excitement, much to the mild irritation of tutors, wasn’t anything to do with the data itself – it was the fact you could get it in this way.

I should remind those of you who already know, and tell those of you who don’t, that you should put away any notions of instant or fast – this was a painstakingly slow process! Today, in my very privileged setting, I get annoyed if web pages take more than two or three seconds to load – here, we’re talking minutes of just waiting!

My next blog will focus on my career and my work with different technology companies.

Steve Tyler is the director of assistive technology​ at Leonard Cheshire Disability.

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