Corrections or additions?
This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July
22, 1998. All rights reserved.
Net Future: Audio Access
Companies located in Princeton often discover that
a rival firm lives — not in another country or another state —
but right next door. R&D companies are here working side by side on
some of the same tasks. And it’s not just the big companies that are
rivals. Small start-ups can nimbly negotiate today’s fast-moving
markets to challenge their mega competitors. They succeed when they
grab early recognition and carve out a niche that they can hold onto.
So although Siemens Corporate Research promises to develop a
web browser by next year (U.S. 1, July 15), a seven-person
firm has one right now. "We have always seen applicability for
what we are calling the non-visual browser," says Ray Ingram,
co-founder of Productivity Works (http://www.prodworks.com).
"Our approach was to come into a market niche and generate enough
income to survive and expand from there."
His firm’s first thrust was Internet access for the visually impaired,
and it has profitable contracts with more than 20 associations for
the blind around the world. Now Ingram aims to apply the firm’s
experience in non-visual browsers to products for the sighted,
with telephone-based browsers. "Our idea was always to provide
general access to the widest possible audience," says Ingram,
"and the lowest common denominator has always been the telephone.
Our idea is to create one format to be delivered in many ways."
Ingram and co-founder Mark Hakkinen work very differently from their
counterparts at Siemens (http://www.scr.siemens.com), and a
quick look at the two websites confirms this. The smaller firm refers
to the World Wide Web as "an elitist and separatist model."
It decries how the Web is turning into a toll road that restricts
traffic to luxury vehicles. "What that model does not recognize
is that 90 percent of the world’s population will never meet the entry
requirements for this road."
Then Hakkinen and Ingram quote Institute for Advanced Study physicist
Freeman Dyson’s book "Imagined Worlds" on how the free market
is unlikely to provide technology to poor people. "Only a
positively guided by ethics can do it. The power of ethics must be
exerted by concerned scientists, educators, and entrepreneurs working
Visits to each office confirm other obvious contrasts. At Siemens
Corporate Research, each researcher works on a part of the overall
product, and the positioning of the product and most other business
angles — marketing, distribution, and licensing — are taken
care of by somebody else. For the Siemens web browser, people in
Germany, and Santa Clara, California, handle those aspects. And
has one of the more gorgeous sites on College Road, a sleek
building with some 150 workers.
But when you go to the Productivity Works office, a home in the
Park section of Trenton, you are greeted by two friendly dogs and
are escorted up two flights of stairs to an attic office, attractively
outfitted with subtle lighting, unusual art objects, and five
PCs. Mark Hakkinen — who usually works at his own site — is
here today, deep in consultation with Linda Dorrian on a product
Jeanne Hart-Convery and Susan Jennings are occupied by product support
and marketing tasks.
Ingram and Hakkinen make their own business-side
Ingram, a pony-tailed barrel-chested fellow with a British accent,
explains his marketing position: "We are too small a company to
create a market. We want to build a number of products around
new technology and keep new products coming out."
The market ranges from libraries for the blind to ISPs to telephone
companies. "If you look at who benefits from an extended phone
call you come back very quickly to the communications company. Every
one of the major telephone companies around the world are working
to some degree on this, as are every one of the major cell phone
His patent position: Ingram disdains applying for patents for his
algorithms because he says that in the Internet environment, nearly
everything is in the public domain. "As a small company it is
just not worth the effort." What if his competitors are getting
patents right and left? "If they have a little algorithm, good
for them," says Ingram. "The only rule is that everything
we know has no validity at all three or six months from now."
Ingram says he took an early dislike to elitism, the elitism of big
companies and of the computer industry in general. An only child,
he grew up north of London, where his father was an engineer and
the town grammar school. He majored in computer science at Hatfield
Polytechnic, Class of 1972, and simultaneously did a work study
for Rolls Royce. After working at the United Kingdom branch of Readers
Digest, Ingram joined Mathematica in 1974. He moved to the United
States in 1978 and left Mathematica in 1986. He and his wife, Kelly
Ingram, a professional decorative painter, live in the Cadwalader
section of Trenton.
Hakkinen, 42, was born and raised in Los Angeles, the son of a
engineer and a public health nurse who had immigrated from Finland.
He went to the University of Colorado and Washington University and
did work-study as a research programmer for the Central Institute
for the Deaf. He did graduate work in human factors engineering at
Virginia Tech, where he met his wife, Helen Sullivan. She has a
design firm, Ariadne Design, and they have three school-age children.
He moved to Princeton in 1983 to work for an office systems subsidiary
of Exxon in Princeton, joined Mathematica in 1985, where he met
and the two of them worked for a software firm, Multi Soft, for the
next 11 years.
"When Mark and I were putting the company together, we both had
a lot of experience in opening up the Internet to computer-illiterate
people," says Ingram. "We saw the web as something that was
going to go bananas, but a conversation with John DeWitt, a
consultant who is blind, helped us out a lot. We asked him how he
browsed the web. He said, `With difficulty.’ That was the proverbial
line in the sand. We started looking at the problem, and meanwhile
we did some consulting to fund ourselves."
The company had revenue of $177,000 its first full-time year, last
year, and projects revenue of $1.4 million for year two. The products:
years ago; it costs $150 and has 20,000 users, but Ingram predicts
it will have 250,000 users by the end of this year. Copies for
use by the disabled are offered at a nominal fee. It browses the World
Wide Web with such user-friendly options as speeding up or slowing
down the synthesized voice, jumping from headings to links to text,
and even spelling out an individual word. It comes packaged with a
speech synthesizer and E-mail reader.
Because it can "read" any publication online, it can help
the Web be a major source of information for those who have lost,
or mostly lost, their sight later in life. The product can also help
to teach reading skills to slower learners.
"The new release of pwWebspeak does a lot of neat new stuff,"
says Ingram. "It has an improved menu, it increases the size of
web pages that can be opened up, and it has improvements in textual
announcements, navigation, remappable keyboards, and audio style sheet
product costs $550 and uses voice synthesis to read back web pages
and E-mail but also allows you to access real-time audio streaming.
Installed on a PC or an ISP’s server, it turns an ordinary telephone
into an Internet browser or a device to listen to radio reading
reference a book from an online library, or find out hospital or
services. One copy of pwTelephone serves one incoming telephone line.
Ingram demonstrates how, on a speaker phone, he can pick up the
broadcasts archived on a newspaper’s website in North Carolina.
and visual (Internet Explorer, Netscape, etc.) browsers, sells for
$175 with voice messaging and $125 without.
<B>Recording software. Another of the firm’s thrusts
is to use its technology to support teachers and help students who
have difficulty in reading by producing a new generation of textbooks.
Productivity Works has contracts with the Digital Audio Information
System (DAISY) Consortium (http://www.daisy.org), with
20 member groups worldwide, including Recording for the Blind and
Dyslexic. Along with a Swedish firm it is developing audio production
software which allows synchronized text, multimedia, images, video,
in the creation of books.
LP Studio uses industry standard protocols so the results may be
locally, from CD, over an intranet or over the Web itself. Recordings
are made using teleprompting technique, making the recording and
processes extremely simple. LP Studio costs $125 per copy.
LP Studio Pro will go into beta test in September. It allows you to
record in synchronized text and multimedia in geographically separate
locations and has enhanced editing capabilities.
These digital publishers using synthesized speech can make frequent
but inexpensive changes to update a book’s text. "Some
would allow you to update part of a paragraph without rerecording
the book," says Ingram, who invokes the specter of Microsoft to
emphasize how important digital publishing should be. "Nobody
thought of Microsoft as a publisher," he warns, but now
is available on CD and Encyclopedia Britannica is having a very hard
initial project for this software was a next-generation text and
CD-ROM audio biology text, jointly produced with Recording for the
Blind and Dyslexic and Prentice Hall. For the sighted, the part you
hear is timed to the part you see. Those who are blind can hear the
text and the very articulate descriptions of the pictures, written
by the experienced readers from the Recording for the Blind &
"At the top, a single octopus stares at the camera," reads
the voice, "and three tentacles are draped over a rock. The animal
is mainly a dark brown."
"We have had a test version of this in school districts since
last year," says Ingram.
Those who are learning disabled or unfamiliar with English can benefit
from reading along while they hear it. Productivity Works has produced
just one of these books, but a library in Sweden, says Ingram, has
about 100 books in this format and a Japanese nonprofit has funded
"a bunch more."
speech into their applications or Web pages written in such languages
as Visual Basic or Visual C++, or Java scripts or applets. It is a
Windows 95, 98 and NT product that requires the developer to have
a speech synthesizer that supports Microsoft Speech API (SAPI) and
costs $1,250 per development copy.
Though Productivity Works has a "no applications for patents"
policy, it still tries to stake out a position of authority in the
intellectual marketplace. Hakkinen is helping to set the standards
for synchronized multimedia integration language (SMIL), which will
synchronize various media streams: text, audio and video, so they
can be recorded independently, and so that the user can control the
speed at which he listens or reads. He is also active in committees
that set accessibility standards for different types of users of
access voice browsers — telephone access, wire access, and web
A side benefit to working on worldwide committees is that Hakkinen
gets to participate in making early prototypes. "We persuaded
the audio book libraries to use the W3C standards when they came out,
and we got some quite large contracts out of that," says Ingram.
Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic on Roszel Road was one of the first
major clients. RFB&D will use the technology to convert a million
hours of audio onto digital audio. "Until now, synthetic speech
has been relatively unknown to people outside who are not blind. For
this niche population, synthetic speech has been the bridge of access
to the typed word," says John Churchill, senior vice president
of operations at Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic
RFB&D started producing electronic books in 1990 but even though
books take much less staff time, the proportion of electronic to
voice" books is small. This year it produced 106 electronic books,
versus more than 3,700 audio books. Reference materials are the most
often chosen types to do electronically.
"But many materials in print — when they are supplied in an
electronic form and used in conjunction with synthetic speech —
can be much more accessible than on a cassette tape. The user can
use the powers of the computer to do searches, store materials in
a more efficient way. It is powerful tool," says Churchill.
"One of our primary reasons is to distribute those books in other
ways — on the Internet, CDs, DVDs in the future," says
"This will offer a wider array of access to our computers than
audiotape. It will still be the natural spoken word. Productivity
Works does the actual manufacture of these books that combine text
with audio and perhaps even graphics."
"This technology is an open technology," says Ingram, "and
that’s what we have been fighting for." It’s all for
"We open up the large store of knowledge from the digital
and make them available to anyone anytime. Our challenge is to design
the interface so that access is intuitive and easy," says
"Bill Gates may talk about `his road ahead’ but in that road ahead
you have ox carts and people on foot," says Hakkinen. "We
hope to have an impact on people in developing countries who will
never be able to afford PCs. They need an economical access solution,
and we say voice is the way to do it."
— Barbara Fox
Trenton 08618. 609-984-8044; fax 609-984-8048. URL:
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