Liberty to Use a Computer: A Review of the FreedomBox
initial problem with the FreedomBox for many in the assistive
technology field was trying to figure out exactly what it was.
Was it a browser, a screen-access tool, a computer in your pocket?
Was it a chat room, blog, or web page-building tool? Was it
an easy mechanism for using RSS-feed services, a source of information,
a way to connect with blind people around the world, or some
new approach in assistive technology altogether? By its fourth
birthday, in February 2006, the answer to the question could
easily be that FreedomBox is "all the above" and some other
things, too. In those four years, however, Serotek Corporation's
FreedomBox has encountered some serious growing pains and even
an identity crisis or two. What began as a network and a solution
for enabling a person who is blind or has low vision with no
computer training to access e-mail and the Internet has grown
into a collection of products. Although these products still
offer unprecedented simplicity and affordability for those who
only want to send e-mail and surf the web, for more sophisticated
computer users, they provide a virtual smorgasbord of news,
music, movies, chat rooms, blogs, e-mail, and research options
in tandem with an assortment of tools that enable them to gain
instant access to any computer.
original intent of Serotek Corporation and its CEO, Mike Calvo,
was to create an easy alternative to computing and surfing the
web for people who are blind or have low vision who simply do
not have the interest or inclination to tackle the myriad keystrokes
and structural complexities of popular screen readers. A self-professed
computer geek, Calvo, now 38, realized that his own perspective
on technology was representative of only a minority of visually
impaired people who are interested in using computers. The needs
of many people who are new to visual impairment, on the other
hand, particularly elderly people with age-related visual impairments,
were not being addressed. His target audience, then, was individuals,
often new to visual impairment, who wanted to sit down in front
of a machine and learn within a few minutes how to do e-mail,
shop online, surf the Web, or check the latest news headlines.
Members of that target audience have embraced the FreedomBox
spread of the project to more sophisticated users, however,
Calvo knew that the product needed to grow. Growth is occurring
at such a pace, in fact, that features will undoubtedly have
been added by the time that you read this article. While the
product is far from perfect, it has many unique nuances and
powerful features. When you consider that this tiny company
has only one full-time software developer (Matt Campbell), the
progress to date has been nothing short of remarkable. This
article provides an overview of FreedomBox to date, describes
what it does and does not do, and gives some news of where it
flagship product of FreedomBox is actually not a piece of hardware
at all, but the FreedomBox Network. With unprecedented simplicity,
users who log onto the network can immediately send and receive
e-mail messages; shop online; consult scores of news, music,
and entertainment links that are provided; listen to movies
with description; visit chat rooms; read or write blogs; and
enjoy a host of other web experiences--all gathered in one convenient
place and accessed with ease. For accessing the network, the
first FreedomBox unit, introduced in 2002, was a stand-alone
piece of equipment about the size of a PC keyboard that allowed
users to access, navigate, and manipulate material on the FreedomBox
next-generation FreedomBox was a stand-alone unit that, in addition
to providing access to the FreedomBox Network, was a 2.0-GHz
computer with a 40-GB hard drive. In 2004, the FreedomBox Passkey
and Key to Freedom were introduced, affording FreedomBox users
the ability to access their FreedomBox accounts from computers
anywhere. With this device, a user can instantly turn any computer--in
an office, library, or friend's family room--into a FreedomBox,
with the added advantage that no trace of the FreedomBox remains
when the Passkey or Key to Freedom is removed.
in December of 2005, the company introduced the FreedomBox System
Access feature--a tool that enables a FreedomBox user to access
such programs as Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook Express, PowerPoint,
and Internet Explorer without the addition of any other screen
the original product specifically targeted consumers who are
blind or have low vision who have simple computing needs and
interests, FreedomBox has evolved into a many-faceted product
with considerable appeal for more sophisticated users and incorporates
many features that are not found elsewhere in the assistive
technology arena. Still, it is a young product--and one that
has experienced astonishing growth and evolution in a short
time. In other words, it naturally has weaknesses sprinkled
among its many strengths and has more growing to do. To get
a clearer picture of the product, I begin by looking at the
individual components of the FreedomBox family.
can be installed and run on any PC with Windows 98 or higher.
(A Linux version is also available, but was not reviewed for
this article.) You can simply install FreedomBox on any computer
that you already have. You can buy the current stand-alone version,
which is an Internet-only product, running no other applications.
You can purchase just the Passkey, the Key to Freedom (a USB-drive
version), access to the FreedomBox Network only, System Access,
or any combination of these components.
bit of quirky charm in FreedomBox is its sound effects. When
FreedomBox is launched, you arrive with a bang
. The first stop is the FreedomBox desktop. Here, you have
a number of choices, the first of which is the FreedomBox Network.
Other choices from the desktop are to go directly to your e-mail,
instant messaging, bookmarks, your media library, notes (a convenient
feature for making a quick note that is on your FreedomBox when
you access it again), detailed Help, and a few other things.
Since January 2006, the digitized speech is presented with NeoSpeech,
which offers two extremely clear voices. On the desktop and
elsewhere, however, there is also a pleasant human voice, clear
and female, announcing all numbered links and headings.
Is the Network?
FreedomBox Network is a virtual smorgasbord of news, music,
movies, information, blogs, chat rooms, shopping, and a host
of other items--all conveniently gathered in one location. The
simplicity and logic of the many layers of options is such that
the novice user can immediately--with just the arrow keys, number
row, and Enter key--begin to explore and enjoy content that
may otherwise have taken a new computer user weeks, months,
or even years to track down. The collection of content is so
extensive, so eclectic, that even the most experienced user
of technology and Internet wanderer is certain to find plenty
the FreedomBox Network is selected (number 1 from the FreedomBox
desktop), you are greeted with another signature FreedomBox
sound and a female voice identifying herself as the Assistant
. From the Assistant, you have 19 choices.
and numbered choices are announced in either the Assistant's
clear female voice or in the NeoSpeech voice selected at installation.
Again, these voices are so clear that a novice will easily understand
them and an experienced user will welcome them.
in all lists are numbered. You can simply listen until a desired
choice is spoken and then press Enter; alternatively, you can
use the arrow keys to move freely up and down the list for review,
or if you know the desired number from a previous visit, simply
press that number immediately on the keyboard. All transitions
from one area of FreedomBox to another are signaled by the "tweedling"
sound, indicating progress until the new heading is spoken.
an extraordinary amount of material is gathered into the FreedomBox
Network that it would be impossible to provide a complete discussion--or,
indeed, even a complete list--of it in one article. Here are
just a few examples to give you some idea of the kinds of things
you may find.
launching the FreedomBox Network, you are presented with 19
choices. Number 8 is called the Information Center. Press Enter,
and you are offered another 31 choices. If you choose number
6, "Bookshelf," a list of about 2,000 books appears, at any
one of which you could press Enter and begin listening. Or you
could choose to hear Microwave Recipes; Town Hall Meetings (archived
online discussions among FreedomBox users with Mike Calvo);
or a link called the Holy Bible, where you'll find audio recording
of two translations of both the Old and New Testaments, either
of which can be searched by book and chapter. If you are a history
buff, you may like the link called "We Interrupt This Broadcast."
This link leads to a collection of audio summaries of significant
moments in history over the past five or six decades, including
snippets of broadcasts from the day the event occurred. Choices
include the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Neal Armstrong on the moon; the
resignation of President Richard M. Nixon; the bombing of Pearl
Harbor; the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, or President
Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and so on.
you are a news and information aficionado, your first choice
from the 19 options on the FreedomBox Network will be number
2, News. Here, you will find 29 links, which lead to news in
particular categories (including finance, fashion, computers,
racial issues, women, and employment); to particular news services
(such as PR Newswire and Reuters); or to a category, such as
"News Headlines Text" or "News Headlines Audio." Selecting the
latter will net yet another few dozen selections, all of which
lead to streaming audio of news updates from National Public
Radio, Voice of America, BBC World Service, and many others.
If your selection from the News menu of 29 choices was World
News (number 29), you will be presented with a list of 137 countries
from which to choose. Any one of these links will then lead
to dozens of news items from that country, with information
on the age of the story (such as 41 minutes ago or 1 hour and
3 minutes ago). Many of the links in this category lead to streaming
audio, at which point you are always politely informed, "Please
wait while I download the audio."
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3, Entertainment, is the favorite of many users. Two of its
links are particularly popular: Descriptive Video Service and
Radio. The Radio link leads to some 40 categories--rock, classical,
country, ham radio, radio information services, and so on--each
of which leads to an array of radio stations from which to choose,
all providing streaming audio. (Again, the Assistant pleasantly
alerts you that the download is in process, as in "Please wait
while I download the audio.") The Descriptive Video Service
link leads to an astounding number of programs with audio description,
including hundreds of movies, television programs, documentaries,
and more. (These programs, it should be noted, are audio only,
no video; each is introduced accordingly with the disclaimer
that it is audio only, provided as a public service, and directing
the user to purchase the actual movie for sharing with family
members or friends.) Movies range from last year's box office
hits to 1940s classics, including drama, comedy, action films,
and movies for children. You can mark your spot at any point
for returning later. When you invoke the mark command (Ctrl-m),
a bookmark is immediately sent to your FreedomBox e-mail account.
The e-mail message tells you that this is a link to your spot
in The Wizard of Oz, Chicago, Bridget Jones's Diary, or whatever
movie you left unfinished. Click on the link, and you will be
right where you left off in the movie with description.
all this content is simple. Arrow through a list of choices;
press Enter (or enter the number) of a desired link; make choices
in the next layer; and press Backspace or Alt-Left Arrow at
any time to return, layer by layer, to the previous point. The
bottom link on every page is "Return to the Assistant," followed
by a search field for searching the FreedomBox Network (or the
entire World Wide Web) for a given topic.
can create your own web page, RSS feed (called My Newspaper),
or blog from within the FreedomBox Network. You can build your
own web page within FreedomBox and are given fairly simple guidelines
if you are a novice to the effort. And if you want to share
any of the foregoing with other FreedomBox subscribers, it is
easy to do so as well. In fact, some users have reported that
their favorite spot on the FreedomBox Network is number 16,
"Member Bookmarks, Web Sites, and Blogs." Here, more than 100
members (and growing) have posted their favorite bookmarked
sites, leading others to share their interests in music, food,
news, shopping, technology, and other special interests. Many
add personal notes to various bookmarks, lending a strong sense
of community to the project. One learns, for example, that Brian
Hartgen is a huge fan of described movies; Jonathan Mosen is
a collector of all conceivable music, trivia, and mania connected
with the Beatles; and Matt Campbell (lead programmer of the
FreedomBox itself) is eager to share favorite programmers' spots.
There is no requirement, incidentally, to share one's bookmarks.
When you mark a site in the FreedomBox Network, you always have
the option to keep it "private" or to make it "public."
in mind that I have only scratched the surface when it comes
to FreedomBox content. Also available are television listings,
national weather reports, local news, and lots more things.
Unique FreedomBox Features
are several special features of FreedomBox that are appealing
and somewhat unusual in the assistive technology arena. Here
are descriptions of three of the most useful.
a FreedomBox account of any type comes a FreedomBox e-mail account.
E-mail can be accessed directly from the FreedomBox desktop
or as the first choice once the browser is launched. Using the
tab and arrow keys, you can move around folders, messages, and
options within the FreedomBox e-mail area, in much the same
way as you do with other e-mail programs. But perhaps you have
another e-mail account--for your job or a particular organization--that
you want to keep separate from your FreedomBox mail. The third-party
e-mail feature allows you to provide the information for other
accounts and not only to check for e-mail on these other accounts
while in FreedomBox, but to send replies that appear to have
come from these other accounts. Navigating FreedomBox e-mail
is mostly efficient, but there are some points when it will
seem a bit slow and cumbersome to experienced e-mail users.
of FreedomBox focuses on the concept of community. Bookmarks,
blogs, and individual users' web sites can all be shared. The
FreedomBox Forum and chat rooms give users more opportunity
to communicate with one another. CSAW (Community Supported Access
to the Web), is the most commendable effort in this category.
With CSAW, any user who encounters a web site with unlabeled
graphics that render the site difficult for users who are blind
or have low vision to navigate can label these graphics and
turn the site into a blind-friendly place on the web. Once CSAW
has been applied to a site by one person, that site appears
in its newly labeled, friendly form to anyone who visits the
site with FreedomBox. To indicate that a site has been "CSAW-ed,"
a distinct musical
sound is heard when the site is launched. I tested this
feature with a number of sites--visiting first with one of the
popular screen readers (JAWS or Window-Eyes) and then with FreedomBox--and
found the differences sometimes amazing. Attempting to sign
up for wireless Internet in a hotel, I found that my screen
reader was unable to read the necessary form for signing up.
When I attempted the same site with FreedomBox, I was delighted
to hear the familiar CSAW tones and more delighted that the
necessary form was completed in a few minutes.
of forms, there are no special commands (such as "forms mode"
or MSAA) required in FreedomBox to complete forms. You simply
tab through fields and type your entries when you hear the words
third FreedomBox feature that is worthy of note is the ability
to control your home server from any other computer. If, for
example, you are using a FreedomBox Key to Freedom or Passkey
at a friend's home or client's office and suddenly realize that
you need a file that is in your own computer, you can choose
to "remote control my home server" from within FreedomBox and
have access to your entire PC. In this mode, you can work within
any of your home computer's applications as if you were actually
sitting in front of that computer. You can retrieve files from
it or send files to it that you want to save from the current
Access: Not a Screen Reader
the beginning, FreedomBox provided access to e-mail, the World
Wide Web, and all the FreedomBox content. As more sophisticated
users discovered the product and reveled in what it offered,
Serotek heard more and more grumbling about what it did not
offer. Thus, in December 2005, the company introduced the aspect
of FreedomBox called System Access.
Access enables a user who is blind or has low vision to gain
immediate access through speech to most popular Microsoft Word
applications. Microsoft Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, and
Outlook Express are all accessible through System Access. The
text portions of PowerPoint can be read aloud through FreedomBox.
While this program is far from perfect, it holds definite promise
and is improved almost daily. Although much of this article
was written using System Access, the program did get hung up
from time to time, causing an entire reboot. I was able to navigate
in all the aforementioned applications, at times with more ease
and at other times with more clunkiness than with one of the
popular screen readers. Serotek does not call the product a
screen reader, but it is difficult to find another name for
a product that enables a user who is blind or has low vision
to navigate a computer screen and popular applications.
FreedomBox Passkey is a credit card-sized disc that runs in
a CD-ROM drive and can be used to access FreedomBox from anywhere.
The Key to Freedom is a USB thumb drive, to put in your pocket
or hang on a key chain, that can access any computer anywhere
and has storage space for downloading material from the Internet
or another computer source. With either of these devices, you
can instantly render any Windows-based PC an accessible computer,
ready with System Access and the FreedomBox Network. At a library,
a friend's house, or another office, a person who is blind or
has low vision can immediately begin work on any computer. And
when you launch FreedomBox from anywhere, you have instant access
to your own settings, notes, bookmarks, and the like that you
have placed on your personal FreedomBox. The Key to Freedom
(512MB or 1GB) has ample storage space for loading other materials
onto it. If you set up your home server for remote control,
you can send materials directly to it as well.
because Serotek is so small and so new, communication between
the company's staff and its customers is excellent. Many customers
tell stories of the CEO calling on a Sunday evening or Saturday
afternoon, just to make sure that a problem is solved. Similarly,
the staff are especially quick to respond to suggestions for
improvement. Jeff Dunn, who manages assistive technology at
Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York and is a FreedomBox customer,
mentioned to Mike Calvo that he wished there was a way to come
back to a particular spot in a movie if you did not have time
to finish it. Soon afterward, the feature was added. Mark your
spot in a movie, shut your computer down, and when you want
to resume, just click on the link provided to you in an e-mail
I mentioned in a conversation with Mike Calvo and Matt Campbell
that the Word Count feature in MS Word was not accessible in
System Access. No one had thought of that, they said. Three
days later, when I happened to try the feature again, it had
novice can launch the FreedomBox Network, send and receive e-mail
messages, and surf the Web with nothing more than a bit of intuition.
To go a bit further with the product, extensive Help files are
available from the Desktop, the Assistant, and elsewhere. These
files are mostly thorough, although some areas could use additional
detail. With System Access, nine audio tutorials are readily
available (from within the System Access menu as well as online).
These tutorials were recorded by Matt Campbell, who, as the
company's programming talent, also shows a flair for communication
and training. The tutorials are professional, clear, and friendly
but sometimes lack specific detail.
critical area that could use improvement is the technical support.
Calvo often provides it himself and is both charming and a good
communicator. The company's full-time tech support person, however,
frequently comes across as abrasive. Although he knows the product
completely, his attitude sometimes offends customers.
are quirks in System Access that are difficult to explain. If,
for example, the browser is shut down and then relaunched after
you have worked in Word for a while, the system locks. Some
links in the network lead to error messages, but then, just
as often, the same links may have been fixed a week later. Occasionally,
FreedomBox crashes, and the computer needs to be rebooted. Having
said that, the stability has been so dramatically improved in
four or five months' time that it is reasonable to expect it
to continue in the same direction.
does not currently offer braille support and is not available
in other languages, but there are plans to include a Spanish
version and limited braille support. Calvo says that the product
is going to work extremely well with Microsoft's Vista. If you
have complex computer tasks to accomplish--large and technical
documents to compile, spreadsheets to manipulate, or PowerPoint
presentations to create--FreedomBox probably cannot do everything
you need. If, on the other hand, you want to send and receive
e-mail messages; shop online; visit chat rooms and blog; create
your own RSS feeds; and have basic access to Word, Excel, Outlook
Express, Internet Explorer, Skype (Internet telephony) and some
other popular applications, it could well meet your needs. For
computer users anywhere on the knowledge spectrum, the ease
of navigating such a wealth of content, together with the many
unique and useful features in FreedomBox, make it an attractive
product. In fact, just the ability to access the thousands of
web sites made friendly by CSAW will be worth the price to many.
The company's motto is Accessibility Anywhere. It may just as
well be FreedomBox Is Fun!
Serotek, 1128 Harmon Place, Minneapolis, MN 55403;
612-341-3030 or 866-202-0520
web site: www.freedombox.info
Key to Freedom, $599; Passkey, $299; Network Access, $12.95
per month or $129 per year.
more information about Serotek Corporation or their products
and services, please contact:
Corporation is a leading technology company that develops software
and manufactures accessibility solutions under the brand name
FreedomBox. Originally launched in 2001, the FreedomBox family
of products and services make the worldwide Web and important
application software systems available to virtually anyone,
allowing command and control with the voice, keyboard, mouse,
touch screens and other access mechanisms. FreedomBox solutions
level the playing field providing people with disabilities powerful,
affordable solutions that require minimal training.