April 2018: Reflections on the CSUN conference

Jason opened the meeting by greeting participants who joined via the Zoom conferencing system. Tonight’s guest speaker is Stephen Ricci. He will be speaking about his experiences at CSUN, which is the largest assistive technology workshop in the world. It’s held annually in San Diego.

Jason interjected with a couple of comments and ideas. One thing that isn’t happening as much in this group as we might like, is to have formal time to exchange questions or curiosity about specific technologies. Our meetings have generally consisted of a speaker, then social time, but the idea of GTT is to share information between members of different levels of knowledge and experience. This is what we’d like to encourage, so at the end of the meeting tonight, we’ll have a go-around to ask if anyone has questions they’d like to ask.

Stephen then took over. The conference offers a pre-conference portion, which is a good idea if you’re attending for the first time; it helps orient you to what’s available and how to get the most out of the experience. It’s often true that you learn more after-hours socializing, than you do in the formal workshops. Next year it’s moving to Anaheim. Over 4800 people attended in 2016. It’s not primarily a consumer show. Consumers do attend, but it costs over $500 U.S. to go, and it’s really directed at businesses, high-end users, researchers, professionals and policy-makers. The conference has several aspects, and it’s common for attendees to go with a specific agenda in mind.

The conference is launched on the first night by a keynote speaker. It’s a good way to get into the groove. The speakers range widely, and are usually entertaining. The exhibit hall is a collection of display tables where venders can show their latest products. The exhibit hall runs for around 3 days.

Networking is a huge part of the experience. You meet people, learn about new products, and find out about trends. There are a lot of parties and receptions sponsored by venders. There’s collaboration so that the largest organizations don’t overlap, so you can attend as many as possible. Smaller ones might be hosted by manufacturers, larger ones might be hosted by someone like Microsoft. Awareness, inclusivity and accessibility are the principles of the conference.

Another aspect of the conference is announcements and unveiling. Often announcements end up not being surprises, as the community is a bit small.

Presentations, panels and workshops go on, with a wide range of topics covered. They are categorized by disability streams. The conference covers multiple disabilities, so it’s necessary to focus on the area that’s relevant to you. Stephen said that the presentations and workshops have become less important to him than the networking and exhibit hall.

What’s new at CSUN this year? There are fewer venders, because there have been mergers. VFO was created by Freedom Scientific, Optelec, and AI Squared.

Notable products Steven saw included APH’s new product called Graffiti, a full-page braille display. It’s a tactile device that will render an image on a page-sized surface. It’s not ready for release yet. It’s not arranged in cells, so it can be more flexible in what it shows. Stephen asked around at CSUN about the braille Orbit, and the answer he got is that the problem at this point is inventory. The Orbit is a 20 cell display that’s going to cost hundreds rather than thousands. It’s an international project that has had setbacks, but intends to bring an affordable braille display to blind users, especially in developing countries.

Hims is a company Stephen likes. He finds them to be leaders in innovation, and likes their staff. They’ve released the Polaris Mini, a 20 cell note-taker. It’s on an Android platform, and is being sold mainly to students. It’s braille in, braille out, has a hard drive, and has an introductory price of $4000 U.S. The Polaris, a 32 cell with the same functionality, is $6000 U.S. The Braille Sense U2 and the Braille Sense Mini are covered by ADP in Ontario, the Polarises aren’t covered yet.

Hims has a near and distance camera with a monitor, and they’ve introduced one with optical character recognition. They’re also reselling Handitech products. This is a European company that makes nice braille displays. Those aren’t covered by ADP. While the ADP program has some limitations, we’re lucky in Ontario compared to other provinces. Also, school-age students have access to quite a bit of funding for assistive tech through the schoolboard, and post-secondary institutions often offer bursaries for that purpose.

Every year seems to have themes at CSUN. This year, themes were head-worn tech gear like eSight. There was also OrCam, New Eyes, Patriot Point, Iris Vision, and Jordy. These range in complexity, but all essentially offer magnification in real-time. There was lots of talk of AIRA as well, glasses with a camera that connect you to a trained live agent to answer questions. The advantage of these types of tech is that they’re hands-free.

Other new things in prototype included insideONE Tactile braille Tablet by Insidevision. It runs Windows10, and is a note-taker by a new company trying to break into the market. It’s a tablet with a braille display, and raised braille keys. It’s about $5500 or $6000 U.S. These expensive products are mostly geared for the education sector. Another prototype product is the Braille Me, a 20 cell refreshable braille display from a company called Innovision from India. It has limited note-taking ability, and it’s being sold for under $500 U.S. It’s a direct competitor to the Orbit. The Braille Me is available now, but no one was sure how. The company’s online. They’re looking for distributers in North America, and their device uses magnetics. As a representative of Frontier Computing, Stephen is always on the lookout for new products to expand their line. He likes to stay aware however, that even if prices are cheaper for products from Asia, you need to consider what happens when the products need repair. There is usually no one in North America who can repair them. You need to consider how long will you be without the product while it’s being sent away for repair. Zoomax is a Pacific Rim company who make good products at good prices. They’ve opened a North American office recently, so we may see them coming up as a competitor for companies like Hims. The net effect may be to bring down prices overall.

VFO is shifting so that all of their products will update in the Autumn of each year, and be named for the year following its release. These include products like Jaws, Zoom, and Zoom Fusion. There is still a wide range of portable magnifiers. Table-top magnifiers are becoming more sleek and foldable.

Jason contributed that at CSUN, he got to check out the Canute, a 9 line 40 cell display. You can get about a half a printed page on it. Its best use is for things like math, braille music, or a calendar. Its cost is around $2000. Jason said he will be getting a unit for testing within a month or 2, and will be looking for testers.

A member asked about portable recording devices. Answers included the Victor Stream, the Olympus line, and the Plextalk. CSUN didn’t offer anything new this year. With an Android phone, you can go to the Google Play store, and look for aps with the highest rating. A member described an ap which records speech and converts up to 3 minutes of speech into text.


A member raised the question of good laptops. People generally agreed that there’s not a huge difference between mid-range and high-end models, but that cheaper models can be sluggish, particularly if you’re running multiple functions at the same time. SSD or solid state drives are becoming more and more common.

A member asked whether it’s possible to run a desktop computer without a monitor, and the answer was yes. Macs might freak out without a monitor, but you’re fine with Windows.

Jason asked for ideas for future meetings. A member suggested a go-around in which each member describes an ap they like, and how to get it.

Another member suggested an evening about audio devices in general and book players in particular.

A member raised the question of whether a 3D printer could be used to create music as an alternative to using braille music. He asked for some brainstorming on the idea. Another member described an online process where 3D printing can be crowd-sourced for a fee. The issue is that you need to have the program or blueprint to start with.