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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Farewell to Project Paddle Odyssey and Errata

Today, I have two subjects on which I will write.  The first describes the closure of Project Paddle Odyssey and the second corrects a couple of errors or misleading statements I made in yesterday’s post.

 

A number of years ago, I founded a non-profit organization called Project Paddle Odyssey (PPO).  The goal of the project was to develop electronically guided kayaks that blind people could use to go fishing, paddle for exercise and/or join their sighted friends without needing to use a tandem kayak.  The PPO software was based on GPS and Windows Mobile PDA and Smartphone devices running Code Factory’s Mobile Speak Pocket or Mobile Speak Smartphone.

 

The incomplete software, which I will soon release as an open source project for anyone interested in playing around with it, has two modes – leader and follower.  For the first version, we accepted the limitation that a sighted person would need to take the leader role and that the blind paddlers would follow.  The system worked by creating an ad hoc Wi Fi network among the participants over which positional information would be transmitted.  The follower units would announce which direction the user should point their boat to remain in line with the leader.  The software had some pretty interesting heuristics to smooth out the path of the followers by finding an average line between the precise points sent out from the leader kayak.

 

Project Paddle Odyssey had a really awesome board of directors, a terrific advisory board that included people like Eric Weinmeier and other high profile individuals from the world of outdoor sports.  We had a pretty good group of volunteers, some of whom got credit at the university level for working on some aspects of the system and others who worked on the software just for the love of hacking and the desire to see this very cool technology deployed.

 

PPO also had a terrific group of sponsors, ranging from AT companies like AI ^2 and Dolphin to companies that manufacture fishing tackle like DOA Lures and Quasi-Jig.  Unfortunately, PPO started falling apart when Freedom Scientific forced two of the organization’s founders to resign from its board of directors with the claim that, in some really weird alternative universe, someone might think that a non-profit that makes software to guide kayaks might in fact be considered competition to the AT giant.  One of these people had, at that time, also been the single largest financial donor to the project so his absence took a chunk out of the organization’s ability to conduct business.

 

Throughout 2006, PPO made a little progress here and there with work from volunteers but my time started growing more scarce as I found myself working on a lot of different research projects, writing articles and working on various projects which I had hoped would result in a profitable outcome for Susan and me.  Thus, PPO took a back seat to other personal goals and as the organization developed into one in which almost all roads pointed to me, many tasks went undone and the project came to a halt due to my inattention and lack of leadership.

 

Last month, the Project Paddle Odyssey board of directors voted to dissolve the organization and donate its remaining assets (about $1000) to Southeastern Guide Dogs, the organization where both Mike Calvo, a PPO board member, and I received the amazing animals with whom we now share our lives.  Those of you interested in this terrific guide dog school should take a look at their web site and read the comment Mike posted to Dena’s article yesterday.

 

When my partners and I get our new web site up and going, I will post the source code to what currently exists of the PPO program and perhaps we can assemble a unofficial group of people who want to do some hacking on a free form GPS program that encourages people to play follow the leader while in paddle craft.  The code base might also be useful as a basis for a Windows Mobile GPS program with goals outside of anything involving water so, as the code carries a free software license, I will encourage people to use it as they see fit for whatever application they might have for the code.

 

I’m pretty sad about how PPO devolved and then had to disappear and I really hope the little bit of software we did build finds a second life.

 

Errata

 

In yesterday’s post about the AT&T/CF deal, I incorrectly identified the EasyLink 20 as, in combination with a smart phone and MSS, providing a very cost effective way for a user to assemble a portable system with Braille.  Roselle from Code Factory called me over Skype and told me that I should have written EasyLink 12 instead of 20.  So, in my haste to dictate the article yesterday, I wrote the wrong number and readers should note the correction.

 

Also, in the “Afterward” to yesterday’s post, I mentioned that Brian Hartgen’s excellent review of popular screen readers in Office 2007 said, “some of the JAWS bugs Brian demonstrated are truly unacceptable in a released product.”

 

As Brian wrote in a comment he posted to the article, he also demonstrates, “a large

number of deficits I find to be troublesome to work with in relation to the other two screen-reading products [Window-Eyes and System Access],” which I neglected to mention in my post yesterday.  Brian is absolutely correct in this assertion and anyone who listens to his entire piece will hear lots of difficulties with the other screen readers discussed in the review.

 

The reason I singled out JAWS as having severe problems was because Brian’s review demonstrates how, on some occasions, JAWS will say “blank” when there is actually text in a Word document.  I felt that almost all of the other defects that Brian described in all three of the screen access programs he surveyed were definitely troublesome but, in my opinion, a screen reader that will sometimes miss entire chunks of text in the most popular word processor is unforgivable.  The most minimal actions a word processor user ever performs is writing, editing and saving textual information which, if this cannot be done reliably and consistently, all of the other features no longer matter.

 

Brian’s article is much more fair and balanced than almost anything ever written in Blind Confidential.  His effort included a meticulous, word by word, keystroke by keystroke comparison of the three AT products he discusses in his review.  I have not read such a detailed comparison of screen access programs in a very long time and anyone considering Office 2007 should listen to Brian’s piece as it will definitely help you figure out which features of Word and Outlook work best with your favorite screen reader.

 

-- End

 

 

1 Comments:

Anonymous Will Pearson said...

"Unfortunately, PPO started falling apart when Freedom Scientific forced two of the organization’s founders to resign from its board of
directors with the claim that, in some really weird alternative universe, someone might think that a non-profit that makes software to guide kayaks might
in fact be considered competition to the AT giant."

Bastards...

I still remember the monday afternoon that you sent out the email announcing the launch of PPO. At the time, as I still do today, I thought it was the most innovative thing in assistive technology for blinks. PPO was truely novel because it aimed to enable blinks to participate in outdoor pursuits more independantly than they can now, territory that I don't think anyone has given any attention to before or since. There's more to life than being able to use Word, browse the web, or other things that more conventional AT, such as a screen reader, enables someone to do.

I don't believe that the AT industry holds the view that blinks should have leisure time. The products that they produce limit a blink to working slower than their sighted counterparts and slower than blinks are physically capable of doing. This means that blinks have to give up some of their leisure time just to produce the same amount of work as their sighted counterparts can produce during a normal working day. So, it's no surprise that the evil scientologists should try to wreck a project that tried to give blinks a better leisure experience.

Seeing as the software for PPO will soon be open source I'll have to see if I can find the time to take a look at it. I think there's plenty of potential to expand it to other activities. Letting PPO die would be a shame as there's not much on offer for the average blink in terms of leisure activities.

9:24 PM  

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