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The FreedomBox Story

A "Blind Visionary"

FreedomBox and the FreedomBox Network is the brainchild of Mike Calvo, consummate entrepreneur and chief executive officer of Serotek Corporation, the company behind FreedomBox. At age 18, he launched his first business, a recording studio. He became a computer expert in his early twenties and opened a consultancy dedicated to teaching employers and blind people how to expand occupational opportunities and career paths for the blind using computer technology. Calvo's next venture, InHouse Radio Networks, brought him into the world of Web-based audio entertainment. The enthusiastic response of the blind community for this service alerted him to the huge, pent-up demand among the disabled for tools that would give them access to the Web. He immediately began work on FreedomBox - an Internet-access device that allows users to operate computers and navigate the Web by voice command alone.

Years of helping people with disabilities through their first computer experience gave Calvo a clear perspective on the need for a simple, uncomplicated interface. Although Calvo is skilled in a wide range of sophisticated adaptive computer technologies, those with no technical background often find their first encounter with a computer frustrating and intimidating. He vowed to make FreedomBox so simple and intuitive that it would eliminate the fear of failure as an obstacle to accessing the Internet.

The Vision

Calvo likens his vision for FreedomBox and the accessibility it provides to "curb cuts"- the ramps that make it possible to move from roadway to sidewalk without stepping up. Curb cuts were forced on most municipalities through intensive lobbying by people with disabilities and aggressive use of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But the result is accessibility that works better for everyone, not just people in wheelchairs. Kids on bikes, parents pushing baby carriages, older people, virtually everyone uses and appreciates curb cuts. It underscores the fact that designing for accessibility has no losers, only winners.

Development in the Dark

For FreedomBox to be truly intuitive for someone who had never had sight, it had to work without graphic aids and without requiring any previous knowledge of how to operate a personal computer. In order to focus on the needs of the blind and disabled, Calvo banished the video monitor and the keyboard from early FreedomBox design evaluation.

Forced to evaluate without the benefit of sight, the FreedomBox development team created several breakthroughs in structuring the core technology, such as the Audio User Interface Platform™ (AUIP) and the Auditory Network Navigation Interface™ (ANNI). The team also benefited from rapid advances in voice recognition and text-to-speech software from Fonix Corporation and AT&T, as well as adaptive technology improvements in Microsoft's Windows XP operating system.

A Portal With A Promise

Calvo knew software and hardware alone would not be adequate to achieve his vision of easy Internet accessibility for the blind and disabled. The World Wide Web is a seemingly endless resource, but not particularly friendly to the disabled Web surfer. It is a primarily visual world and assumes that users can navigate via point-and-click technology. Many sites go to great lengths to deliver an exciting visual experience with no concern whether their site will be accessible by a person using a text-to-speech browser. There are moves afoot to add accessibility features to some Web pages, but like accessible buildings or architecture, add-on accessibility is never as friendly and natural as accessibility that is part of the original design. Driven by this notion, Calvo conceived the FreedomBox Network, an online community and service companion to FreedomBox with accessibility as its design foundation. FreedomBox Network is a complete Internet service provider and specially designed online community focused on the interests and needs of the disabled. FreedomBox Network promises to be the Internet "safe haven" where visitors are assured of content accessibility - an American Online®-like experience for the disabled Internet user.

A New Market for Internet Merchants

Calvo is a big believer in the power of the free market. As a Cuban-American, he has strong ties to the Cuban population in his native state of Florida. He witnessed first hand how they evolved from being an ignored minority to becoming a dominant force in Florida economics and politics by demonstrating that they represent a large, accessible market. Calvo sees the same potential for the disabled and believes FreedomBox Network will give them a voice and allow them to flex their market muscle.

"No doubt, the blind and disabled have been a hard-to-reach market," says Calvo. "There is no single place a company can go to show its product to people who are blind or have some other type of disability. They can't find us, so they ignore us. And when they ignore us, they ignore a market of more than 57 million people in the United States alone with $1 trillion in annual personal income."

FreedomBox Network will give its community economic clout. Companies with products and services that are of high interest to people with disabilities will be able to reach a huge piece of their market with a Web site in the FreedomBox Network. Just as AOL made the Web more accessible to the computer novice, so too will FreedomBox Network make the Internet a valuable and useful tool for the blind and disabled. FreedomBox Network will be a place where users can find most of what they are looking for without surfing the Web at all.

FreedomBox's Tomorrow

Today the FreedomBox is optimized for persons with vision and manual dexterity problems. Calvo's vision for the FreedomBox of tomorrow is based on a Flexible User Interface, or FUI. FUI will give the user the ability to blend an array of access technologies in the configuration that works best for the user. It could be voice command, keyboard, mouse, Braille display, touch screen or other accessibility mechanisms. The evolutionary path of FreedomBox will open this exciting world to people with learning disabilities, mental health issues, speech disorders and those with multiple disabilities such as the deaf/blind or the paralyzed.

Calvo also envisions a bigger broader tomorrow for FreedomBox technology. Serotek Corporation is working to bring its technology to applications such as information kiosks, automated teller machines, mobile phones, personal digital assistants, home appliances, television set-top boxes and more. FreedomBox technology has applications in practically every societal sector: schools, businesses, libraries, hotels, retail, automobiles, toys - there is no end. Ultimately, the goal of the FreedomBox is to leave no one behind.

America Online is registered trademark of America Online, Inc. FreedomBox is neither affiliated with nor endorsed by America Online.

 


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