Proposed VersaBraille-Apple Computer Project (letter written in 1980)


TeleSensory Systems, Inc., the company that builds the Optacon, have a new product, called VersaBraille on the market. It is a paperless brailler. It works as follows a C-60 cassette is inserted in the small portable instrument. The user can enter braille information from a small 6 key pad plus a space bar (on key for each dot in a braille cell), the information is stored electronically on the cassette is blocks of 1,000 characters (pages) for a total of 400 pages on a cassette. The information can be played back on an electromechanical 20 cell display. The information can be edited (characters, words, paragraphs can be inserted, deleted or changed). There are also clever search capabilities so that, for example, a telephone directory can be quickly searched. There are also modes for storing audio as well as braille information. There is also (soon) a model with a standard computer interface. There is also a $5250 price tag. Caryn called the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, and they have agreed to pay $2500 of the cost.

I intend to buy a small computer made by the Apple Computer Co. that seems best suited to interfacing with the VersaBraille. I will develop a package of computer programs that will greatly enhance the already considerable powers of the VersaBraille machine. Examples of proposed programs: display on a TV screen for sighted what the VersaBraille is doing, data entry programs for sighteds using a standard keyboard, checkbook programs, telephone directory system (including merge and sorts), large scale text editing (the VersaBraille has a limitation of editing within a page of 1,000 characters, a computer hookup would eliminate this restriction), some data communication functions which would allow the VersaBraille to function as a computer terminal in a wide variety of applications, etc.

I also have some ideas that would require a lot of time and skill, but would be spectacular. One idea is for a data entry system for map information. A sighted person would use a light pen to draw a map on a TV screen, and then type in information on names of streets and any special comments about them. The computer could then be used to plan routes or learn about a neighborhood. Or the information could be summarized and dumped on a VersaBraille cassette for later use.

The computer system that I intend to use costs around $3000, so that if the combination VersaBraille, computer and my software would cost around $9000-$10,000. If I sell around ten units of the programs, then I could recoup the equipment costs. If the project flops as a business, then Caryn and I would have spent several thousand dollars for equipment both of us would find very useful. But there is a possibility that I could set up a thriving computer service business for the blind, using this system as leverage to buy or lease other equipment (a minicomputer, hard disks, 9 track tape drive, braille printer, letter quality printers, optical scanner, etc.). But that is several years in the future, if at all.

In reading this, I realize that I have not said much about Caryn's role in all this. As a student in computer science as well as math, she is in a position to make a major contribution. Even though I have worked as a programmer for several years, I have little academic background in the subject. In any event this should occupy my free time for some time to come.

PROPOSAL FOR A VersaBraille-Apple Computer PROJECT

The VersaBraille is a portable, sophisticated paperless brailler. The forthcoming P-2 version will open up many new applications for the blind in the field of data processing. In the past, I have worked on the development of plans for a small computer system for the blind. I envisioned hardware such as braille printers, sound and/or direct Optacon output, or printers with programmable character fonts (which would allow for the editing of even the most difficult mathematical or scientific texts).

Beside high cost, these "dream systems" have a major flaw: the system can not be moved. The blind user is faced with the paradox of making notes "out in the real world" with slate and stylus and then entering this information into the computer.

The VersaBraille eliminates this difficulty. A user can take the VersaBraille anywhere, and then plug it into the static computer system for specialized editing another applications to be described in this proposal.

The small computer system that I feel would be best interfaced with the VersaBraille is the Apple II. There are several reasons for this:

VersaBraille is a trademark of TeleSensory Systems, Inc. Apple is a trademark of the Apple Computer, Inc.

The proposed system would consist of:

*to simplify program modification, it will be necessary to keep the I/O routines for the VersaBraille resident on a ROM card in the Apple computer.

The cost of the system hardware listed, with the exception of the VersaBraille, is under $3500.

APPLICATIONS of the VersaBraille / Apple II plus combination


These applications will require a longer set-up time and some more working capital; they are all well within the range of my ability.

Tentative Schedule and Project Outline

(after my wife receives the P-2 VersaBraille that she has ordered)

Some Comments on my relationship to TSI

I believe that I am in a position to provide a quality, low cost product which will greatly enhance the utility of the VersaBraille without cost to TSI in capital outlay, design time, marketing or other effort. In return, I expect that my software design & marketing operation to be a company separate from TSI (called "Raised Dot Computing"). If this is not satisfactory, I will gladly work on any other basis, provided that the terms can be worked out.

I will provide a complementary (except cost of media) copy of all program disks, ROM cards, and documentation to TSI for evaluation purposes. It is my sincerest hope to generate a product that is easy to use, fully documented, bug free (as much as humanly possible, and well engineered. This includes constant and appropriate messages on the braille display so that the user is never confused as to what is going on (as long as they have read the instructions). I also would like to see a "standard system" so that users can exchange software. Given the relatively small size of the VersaBraille/small computer market, it would be a shame if it were further fragmented. I also intend to provide all programs in "unlocked mode", so that users can examine, and modify the programs, if they choose.

Things I need from TSI

1) The specifications of the 1/0 jack, and any pertinent information on the overlay system. 2) Some means to inform VersaBraille purchasers of the existence of the system, perhaps through a TSI approved mailing. 3) Forewarning of any action on TSI's part which, would have any, impact on the proposed system. I am willing to do what TSI may require to bring the system to its standards. In return, I would expect that TSI would inform me of any, product or service which it-would like to offer which would conflict or overlap with this proposed system. I would also like to be in a position to generate updates to the software if there are any changes to the VersaBraille.

My Background and Work Experience

I have a strong interest in computer applications for the blind, since my wife is A blind graduate student in mathematics and computer science, and I work as a computer programmer.

I graduated with a BS in Electrical Engineering at MIT in August, 1976.

I worked from Aug. 1976 to Jan. 1978 for the now defunct Mohr Labs Inc., where I wrote a BASIC interpreter in 6502 assembly language (also used in the Apple computer. Because Of the firms difficult financial position, I accepted a computer in lieu of wages. I will use this computer for the VersaBraille simulator.

I worked Jan. 1978 to April 1980 for the University of Wisconsin Clinical

Cancer Center, where I programmed in MIIS (an interpretive language optimized for text handling. I Worked primarily on database and medical programs.

From April 1980 to the present, I am working for Clinical Convenience

Products of Madison as a programmer in Business BASIC. I work on payroll and accounts receivable programs, as well as a database of products and services for the disabled. My employer, Don Warren, will offer assistance and advice on my VersaBraille project.

Caryn Navy, my wife, intends to work on systems design, data formats, and final system checkout. She had a summer job finding bugs in a new compiler, and she promises to be an uncompromising quality control engineer. The household we live in also includes an industrial engineer, and an architectural draftsperson with an interest in computer science. We own two computers and have access to the financial resources to see this project through. More documentation is available on request.