Lars Sönnebo (Part 2) - Three DAISY Musketeers

"Was DAISY really the right way to go – wouldn't the world explode with Digital Talking Book concepts now that it had seen the first one?"

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

Lars Sönnebo talking with a mock up of a 'talking computer robot' during a presentation Although their names weren't Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, the Three DAISY Musketeers were nonetheless daring and committed to introducing the world to DAISY and all of its benefits: "How could we ever hope to arrive at an international standards agreement? Would it be possible to gain the full support of all the major players in the field...A bit of 'missionary' work was needed. Together with TPB's Kjell Hansson, Jan Lindholm and I formed a core team, travelling and working together to spread the message. We came to look upon ourselves as a modern and somewhat more peaceful version of the Three Musketeers."


Two guys and a good idea…

In Part 1 of my story I described how the initial idea for DAISY came to me, how the name came about, and how I teamed up with Jan Lindholm to try to develop this 'new little concept'. In Part 2 I'd like to share with you some of my views on what happened in the important and rather hectic few years that followed.

Finding friends and funds

Having a good idea is one thing, but turning it into reality is quite often much harder work. To take DAISY from concept to concrete, there was need for financial support for software development. But it was equally important to get out the message and the product to the users. Clearly, we needed to find a good business partner. And we soon did – Jan and I were extremely fortunate as we were able to establish a close and deep co-operation with TPB, the Swedish Library of Talking Books and Braille.

I cannot fully express how important a role TPB played in the creation and success of DAISY. Without them, DAISY would most likely not exist today. Amongst the most prominent people involved in the first steps were Mr. Kjell Hansson and TPB's highly distinguished manager at the time, Mrs. Ingar Beckman Hirschfeldt. They saw the great potential this new technology had to offer both to readers and producers, and they also trusted and believed in the people who had conceived the idea. They were supportive of concrete, and sometimes also quite painful software and standards development efforts, and were also brave enough to let the concept develop dynamically.

Perhaps they could envision how much their users, the Talking Book readers, could benefit from not just moving from analog to digital technology, but from moving into the realm of structured navigation and the information access offered by DAISY. It takes a lot to see the future before it happens, but these people did and were prepared to fully support the growth of DAISY.


In autumn 1993, Labyrinten Data AB, a small IT consultancy company, got a long-term software development contract with TPB. At the time the company mainly consisted of Jan and me, although with these new financial resources we were able to hire some additional staff.

The initial goal was to create a working prototype which could be used to demonstrate the attributes and benefits of the concept. We believed hands-on experience would be of great importance to fully convey what it was all about. DAISY was pioneering technology and TPB wanted to be able to clearly demonstrate the concepts to their users, as well as to prepare their Talking Book producers for the new methodology that was to come with DAISY.

Start spreading the news

But TPB did not just want to create new technology for their own purposes and for the benefit of their own users, they also wanted to introduce DAISY internationally, and ultimately also try to establish it as an international standard for others to use and develop. This may seem a rather grand goal, but it was strongly supported by many, not just within TPB.

The underlying thought was that an open, broadly accepted standard was the best way to increase interest and further future development efforts. With a standardized data format and a large market it would also be easier to attract hardware manufacturers that would be willing to develop DAISY Digital Talking Book players for the market. Everyone involved would benefit from one standard rather than running the risk of fragmenting the whole area of information access for people with a print disability.

The first prototype was demonstrated in the spring of 1994 at a conference for special needs libraries in the Scandinavian countries. Yes, there was a lot of interest in the project from the start; a lot of people were eager to see it themselves, to get DAISY books – and soon. Others may have been impressed but were hesitant. Was DAISY really the right way to go, wouldn't the world explode with Talking Book concepts now when it had seen the first one? What could and should really be expected from Digital Talking Book technology anyway?

All for one…

How could we ever hope to arrive at an international standards agreement? Would it be possible to gain the full support of all the major players in the field, and could we reach consensus on future development in order to get everybody working toward the same goal? Could we really reach this just by talking to our colleagues and friends throughout the world and by showing them a working prototype?

Lars Sönnebo, Jan Lindholm and Kjell Hansson - the 3 DAISY MusketeersA bit of 'missionary' work was needed. Together with TPB's Kjell Hansson, Jan Lindholm and I formed a core, team travelling and working together to spread the message. We came to look upon ourselves as a modern and somewhat more peaceful version of the Three Musketeers…

And so, equipped with computers with special software, audio cards, speakers and CD-ROM drives, these DAISY Musketeers toured parts of the world, spreading the DAISY message. The system was far from completely developed, but we were at least able to demonstrate the power of structured navigation in a Digital Talking Book, the concept of having a complete book on a single medium and other advantages. We didn't have to talk a lot to get the message across; we could let DAISY 'speak for herself'.

We had a first version of a format specification which described how DAISY data was stored and organized. We invited all we met to take an active part in the future development of DAISY. We did not actually sell anything and we did not pretend we had a perfect, final solution to offer. Personally, I think this played an important role in DAISY's future success.

One for all…

1994 and 1995 were busy years for us and for DAISY. We went to exhibitions, conferences and seminars; we held demonstrations and meetings with potential producers, libraries, user organizations, financiers, politicians and we engaged individuals. In most places, we found a good deal of interest and signs of willingness to support a common standard based on what DAISY could deliver. Some wished us to develop the system further and just let them use it, while others wanted to get more involved in order to influence technical developments.

It was quite fascinating to me how "right" DAISY really seemed to be; it certainly seemed that many had been waiting for this to happen. When we met with the European Blind Union, for example, and learned their requirements for a new generation of Talking Book players, it was clear that DAISY fulfilled them all, and even offered a bit more. The time was ripe; DAISY was the solution people were waiting for.

It was a long and sometimes painful 'mission'. It took a great deal of effort to get the message across that this technology could actually deliver what it promised, even though we did not have the finished solution. It also took a lot of diplomacy to make people realize that a single technical solution would work for all types of reading material so that DAISY would not end up as just a tool for advanced reading and the reading needs of students.

I'd really like to mention a lot of names here – so many people played an important role in those early days. However as there is not enough space here to list everyone I will have to settle on mentioning just one of them, and that is Mr. Hiroshi Kawamura. As he became chairman of IFLA/LPD (Libraries Serving Persons with Print Disabilities Section) he took on a central role in connecting decision-makers and user demands from different countries and continents. Hiroshi also had important contacts with companies interested in DAISY development, companies such as Plextor.

The important players

Lars Sönnebo dancing with a very early version of a Plextalk DAISY Player held high over his headWe must never forget how important it was for DAISY to get the support from hardware manufacturers such as Plextor and VisuAide (now known as HumanWare). Reading books on a PC can be far from ideal, even though we now have access to neat and highly portable computers. With the arrival of dedicated playback devices, DAISY could really begin the move to replace the existing analogue reading technology.

Those pioneering hardware manufacturers did not just have the necessary technical skill and understanding to do a good job, they were brave and bold enough to do all this for a market that really did not exist at the time. I think we are all in indebted to these people; it is no wonder these companies still play an active, lead role in the field. In more recent years numerous other developers enter the scene and there is now almost a DAISY player for every possible need.

Looking back

Now, many years later, it is sometimes hard to really understand how we actually succeeded in establishing DAISY as the basis for an open, international standard for Digital Talking Books, but we did. We succeeded not just because DAISY was in the right place at the right time; we succeeded because we found so many brave and talented people to work with and to support the common effort.

In my view, the success of DAISY was not merely due to the technical merits of the concept. DAISY grew and developed thanks to the people involved – people who were willing and able to trust in each other and keep the all-embracing goal of supporting print disabled users clear in their minds at all times. I therefore find DAISY more of a humanistic rather than a purely technical effort.

In May 1996 I knew we were home, 'safe and dry', as the DAISY Consortium was formed to support and develop the standard. It did not take them more than about a year to develop the next version of the DAISY format specification, which was in turn a prerequisite for several highly important organizations from the United States to join the DAISY Consortium's efforts.

Photograph Lars Sönnebo taken in 2008, with a clear blue Swedish winter sky in the backgroundAs for myself, I could begin to relax now that DAISY was very far from being just an idea of mine; it had become a matter of interest and concern to so many others. In 1998 I joined TPB to take part in the full-scale transition to DAISY in Sweden.

And now…

To this day I am still a heavy DAISY user - every day in fact, and I'd like to see this little baby prosper and mature. Even though I have left TPB, my head is still full of ideas for new things and further improvements – in my view, DAISY is far from finished. For instance I can see new and better reading systems, as my primary DAISY interest lies in improvements in the user experience. I am still very interested in progressive development work – designing software and user interfaces for continued enhancements to DAISY reading. I would also be very interested in working with commercial developers to bring 'native' DAISY reading to commercial systems. The possibility of bringing the unsurpassed DAISY reading experience to everyone excites me, almost but not quite as much as the original concept of DAISY did 17 years ago.

Editor's Note: In 2003 Lars Sönnebo, Kjell Hansson, and Jan Lindholm were awarded the "Stiftelsen Märta och Nils Barthelssons samt deras föräldrars minne" memorial award for their pioneering work in the creation and development of DAISY. The award is given to individuals who have significantly improved or contributed to the improved quality of life for people who are blind or have a visual disability. Ingar Beckman Hirschfeldt, President of the DAISY Consortium at that time, stated: "Lars, was instrumental in inventing and developing the whole idea."

For more information about the history of DAISY and Lars' involvement, read the essay The Story of DAISY by Ingar Beckman Hirschfeldt & Beatrice Christensen Sköld which was delivered at a presentation given at TPB's 50th Talking Book anniversary in 2005. The essay is Ms. Beckman-Hirschfeldt's contribution to a book about the anniversary. Ingar Beckman-Hirschfeldt was the Chief Librarian of the Swedish Library of Talking Books and Braille, and the first President of the DAISY Consortium; she served two terms as President.