...most importantly, the DAISY Consortium has been (and still is) a collaborative effort to help people who have a print disability to have more efficient and effective access to information.
Twenty-one years ago Gilles Pepin formed a small company named VisuAide. In 2005 VisuAide and New Zealand-based Pulse Data International merged to form HumanWare. A man, who at a young age came to realize that there was a better way for people to access information, has played a major role in the development of DAISY players and other access technologies in use around the world. Gilles Pepin is President and CEO of HumanWare.
My DAISY adventure started on a beautiful morning in October 1994 when, in my office in Montreal (Canada), I received a phone call (email was just starting to take off then) from a Swedish guy by the name of Lars Sönnebo. I had seen that there was something unusual about one of the first orders we received for our brand new MagNum product. It was from Sweden. But I had no clue that this phone call would change the course of my career and of the company I had founded a few years before...
It was a very exciting time for all of the twelve VisuAide employees. We had just launched our latest product, MagNum, which we had been developing for two years. MagNum is the French acronym for "MAGnétophone NUMérique" or 'Digital Recorder'. When I completed my Master Degree in Digital Speech Coding in 1984, I never thought I would use what I had learned in the real world. But when I started working for the Institute Nazareth et Louis-Braille in 1986 and saw how visually impaired people were using their cassette recorders; I immediately knew that the use of digital speech coding would be a great improvement over this product.
Lars had received some information about MagNum and quickly understood this would be part of the technology foundation for the great plan he had in mind. He wanted to change the way visually impaired people would have access to information. He explained to me that he and some colleagues at the Swedish Library for the Blind (TPB) - now the lead in the Swedish DAISY Consortium - had developed a digital audio indexing format specification to make books and other documents easily navigable. MagNum had some basic features needed to make his dream a reality, but there were also some significant limitations. A few months later at the 1995 CSUN Conference, I finally met with Lars who was accompanied by Kjell Hansson from TPB and Jan Lindholm from Labyrinten Data AB. After a nice meal, a couple of beers and passionate discussions with the Swedish trio, on Third Street in Santa Monica, I was convinced that the underlying technology of MagNum had to be turned into a digital talking book player ... the Victor Reader line of players was born!!!
The DAISY Consortium was just starting up at that time, with TPB being one of the lead players. The format specifications were proprietary. Politics had to be played to convince the rest of the blindness world to jump onto the 'DAISY train'. Technical discussions were progressing slowly. It took a few years before things were settled and we could start working on a real product that would read these revolutionary DAISY books. Our journey into the world of DAISY had begun.
In June 1999, we launched the Victor Reader Pro. The Pro was intended for students and professional who would want to really move around (navigate) a book. It was based on a tray CD drive, the ones you find in laptop computers. Our biggest challenge with this player was to convince the DAISY members that visually impaired students would be able to manipulate a bare CD and that there was no need for a caddy to protect the CDs. We really believed in using standard technologies and not overprotecting visually impaired people, and as it turned out we didn't really have the option of providing a player with a caddy, since Plextor, our main competitor in DAISY player development, was the only manufacturer of caddy based CD drives in the world!!! Our ride on the 'DAISY train' has challenged us many times, and has always inspired us try to develop and deliver the best we can.
With Victor Reader Pro available to provide students with the advanced reading features they needed, we needed to then address the needs of the senior population which represented more than 80% of the membership of the DAISY world. However, we now had to prove that elderly people would also be able to use bare CDs. We worked with RNIB Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), CNIB - now the lead in the Canadian DAISY Consortium - and other libraries around the world to test some concepts. What we found was that the best CD drive for the elderly population would be the slot-in CD drive, the one you find in cars. RNIB worked closely with us to finalize the design of our new product for the elderly and in 2001 we launched the first Victor Reader Classic and Classic +. The following years for HumanWare/VisuAide have been a magnificent journey of partnership and collaboration for the implementation of Digital Talking Book libraries around the world. Yes, during that period we enhanced and improved our players with a few additions like the Vibe and the Wave, but the focus was really helping libraries implementing their transition to the digital world.
And now another exciting period is starting - the transition from DAISY content being delivered on CD to DAISY download. We all know it will happen, it has started already, but this change will not happen overnight. There are many, many challenges both for developers such as us and for organizations (or companies) providing content. Three years ago, we introduced the Victor Reader Stream, the first DAISY download player. The Stream was truly a revolution in DAISY players, first because of its size, but the addition of text to speech opened up a myriad of applications for computer users who want to have access to text based documents on a very portable device. Our next 'revolution' was the ClassMate, the first DAISY player designed to meet the reading needs of learning disabled students. The adventure continues...there is still a lot to be done.
I have fond memories of many DAISY related meetings in exotic countries. I have fond memories of the extraordinary people I have met through the DAISY Consortium, many of whom I now consider friends. I have fond memories of cocktails, dinners and after dinner drinks we have sponsored at conferences and events over the many years of our involvement with DAISY. For me the DAISY Consortium has been a great forum to develop my personal skills. It has been a great forum for HumanWare to develop business relationships and most importantly, it has been (and still is) a collaborative effort to help people who have a print disability to have more efficient and effective access to information.
I would like to acknowledge the leadership of people like Hiroshi Kawamura, George Kerscher, Ingar Beckman Hirschfeldt (first President of DAISY) and Stephen King who really drove the Consortium forward to the success of today. But the DAISY Consortium was and still is really a collaborative effort and many people like Lars Sönnebo, Kjell Hansson, Hachiro and Moto Kaneko (Shinano Kenshi Co., Ltd.), Markus Gylling, Dominic Labbé, Tatsu Nishizawa, Gerry Chevalier, Lynn Leith, Peter Osborne, and many others have all contributed in a very significant way to make the Consortium what it is today.
My life has not all been work, VisuAide, HumanWare and jumping onto the 'DAISY train'. In Canada, nature is present everywhere. It is a beautiful country, as you know if you have visited or live here. I love being close to nature and since I was 16 years old, every year I went for canoe-camping expeditions with friends and in later years I have gone with my two boys and my wife. More recently, I bought a piece of lakeside land and built a log cabin. It is a great way for me to escape the pressure of my job and go back to the basics of life. I had never built anything with my hands before and I now feel very proud when I look at the staircases or the deck that I have built for the cabin.
My other escape from stress is sport. I bike, jog, swim, play tennis and ice hockey, I cross country and down hill ski, I kayak and enjoy almost every other sport you can think of.