Lars Sönnebo (Part 1)

"Ideas tend to come around in lightning bolt style, at least this one did – quite some time ago now, though my memory of it is still clear and vivid."

Lars Sönnebo, Tokyo, Japan, DAISY meeting, 1996 A young man travelling on a train one dark, wet, late November evening came up with a rather brilliant idea – a system that would make audio books as navigable as print books, for people like himself who were unable to read print. "I asked myself 'what can a thing like this be described as, what is it anyway?'. It did not take me long to write down 'Digital Audio Based Information System'. Believe it or not, I wrote down the acronym 'DAIS', but I was not satisfied. It took me several minutes to realise there was a 'y' in there also, and that extra letter made all the difference." DAISY was born.

(This is the first part of a two-part story)


Just a moment…

Ideas often strike fast and can be gone before you realise they may represent something truly new and special. In my case the idea was sort of a fragile insight accompanied by a feeling of relief, a sense of hundreds of tiny pieces all of a sudden fitting together. It was all over in less than two seconds, I'm sure. But then, luckily enough, I realised this could be something really important.

Making sense

When an idea flashes into your brain it is good to have a way of remembering the initial inspired moment. I guess it's a matter of using the more rational side of the Mind to transcribe and put into words what has been created by the wilder and more intuitive parts of oneself. Without this kind of co-operation amongst various part of the Mind, ideas can easily be lost, once again being vaporised into … well, I don't know what, really.

Anyway, it was lucky for me that night that I had a portable computer at hand. I still keep that laptop, though it's been a very long time since I used it. With the help of that computer I started transcribing that brief moment of inspiration into words.

That document became a general specification for a radically new way of recording, storing and accessing narrated audio. I must say, I felt more like a spectator than an inventor at the time – I only had to type it down and was amazed by what came out.

What's in a name?

After documenting the outline of my idea, I had just enough inspiration left to try to come up with a sensible name for the system, the concept, the project, the product or whatever it was I had thought of.

I knew very well how important a role a good name can play for the success of a new concept, and I am still quite convinced we may not have succeeded in turning this concept into something big if I had decided to call it "X-FLR-6" or something similar.

The original DAISY logo, before the DAISY Consortium was formedI asked myself "what can a thing like this be described as, what is it anyway?". It did not take me long to write down "Digital Audio Based Information System" – that was what I thought it was about. Believe it or not, I wrote down the acronym "DAIS", but I was not satisfied. It took me several minutes to realise there was a "y" in there also, and that extra letter made all the difference. Would this particular information system still be in use if the name had been "DAIS" rather than "DAISY"?

Why was I so happy just because this acronym was also a girl's name? Well, if you've ever seen the movie "2001 – A Space Odyssey" you probably know. The song "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do…" is sung by a computer with a very nice and natural sounding voice in that film. Since I first saw it, that song and that girl's name have, to me, forever been associated with computers and speech. It just felt natural to grab this name for the concept, like fitting the last piece into a jigsaw puzzle.

Actually, after having made that change to the document I was really content and smacked my laptop shut, believing I had come up with something potentially very big. It was all over in less than a quarter of an hour – that was just the beginning…

Prolonging the moment

All that happened about seventeen years ago. I was on a train travelling through the central parts of Sweden one dark, wet, late November evening in 1992. (It's late November 2009 as I begin to write this article, and the concept of DAISY has just turned seventeen years of age.)

November, 1992 – I was on my way to a meeting with Jan Lindholm, my new business partner, who incidentally also happened to be my father-in-law. We were to meet to discuss potential product ideas and business plans for our future co-operation. My role in the IT consultancy company, Labyrinten Data AB, would be to develop new ideas based on my experience from computer programming, music and audio, multimedia, and the field of assistive technology. I felt triumphant when I got off the train, telling Jan that I thought I had really come up with something interesting. And he agreed.

Seventeen years ago that was, and the rest is history. So many others have become involved and have contributed to the development of that lightening bolt of a concept. The meaning of the acronym has been slightly modified since then to "Digital Accessible Information System", but DAISY is still here, very much alive and kicking it seems.

In retrospect

I still keep a printout of the document I wrote that evening in '92, and I sometimes take a look at it. It's amazing that those ideas and concept descriptions still seem quite fresh, after all those years in the hectic and constantly changing field of information technology. So much of it has become real and so much is still valid and in use. And so much more might become real through future development and new DAISY-related innovations.

What made it last?

As I see it, DAISY has been able to grow and develop because of some important aspects laid down in that first document:

  • The whole idea comes out of real need, as defined by a true user. I'm partially sighted myself and like to read a lot. I wanted a working solution that could make Talking Book reading quicker, easier and better than what it was at the time.
  • It is a concept and a set of needed functionality, not a feature description for a particular device. Gadgets come and go, but more general concepts can be shared and adopted by many. Concepts can become standards and can be developed over time.
  • It's a complete reading system, not just a reading device. The original spec covers tools and methods for producing the Talking Book material, how to store and distribute it, as well as how users could make use of the books.
  • The data structure laid down for DAISY was modeled upon printed books and similar publications. The general idea was to invent a data structure that would allow audio to be handled in units corresponding to informational elements in the original print book. These principles have become known as structured navigation and structured access.
  • Maximum flexibility was a ruling principle – the system was not tied to any particular kind of storage medium, operating system or compressed audio format. This ensured future safety for DAISY publications, while still allowing us to make use of future technical developments. That's why the first generations of DAISY books and players were based on CD-ROM, while we now rapidly move towards broadband distribution and flash memory storage.
  • The whole concept was built on standard computer technology and software engineering principles. The initial idea was to implement the system using standard PC technology with some additional customised software. This made it possible for DAISY to surf on the waves of technical development and the dropping prices of the technology involved.
  • The original document is clear on the importance of basing DAISY on standards and standard principles as much as possible, and also points out the importance of quickly establishing DAISY as a standard for Talking Books, preferably also internationally. A widespread standard was needed to attract new and brave developers, such as those willing to build specialised hardware to support the DAISY format.

DAISY and her friends

Plextor logo; Plextor Co. Ltd. is a subsidiary of Shinano Kenshi Co., Ltd.; Plextor was  one of the first Friends of the DAISY ConsortiumHumanWare logo; Visuaide, now HumanWare, was one of the first Friends of the DAISY Consortium The concept and later on the format specification were published as a suggestion for an open standard without any demands for licensing, royalties or the like. This worked as an invitation to a larger community for co-operation, and so we saw the DAISY Consortium come to life and all the Friends of DAISY getting together within just a couple of years. I have been told that in technology this is a remarkably quick development for consensus and standard.

So here we are, seventeen years after that lightening bolt idea, and we still have something quite young and fresh, with a potential to grow even further. I am indeed proud of having been a part of all this.

Part 2 of Lars Sönnebo's story DAISY and the 3 Musketeers will be published with the April issue of the DAISY Planet.