The BEAM XVI Products History

Introduction

The history of the BEAM XVI product range goes back to 1993. At that time we were supplying a parallel processing Unix workstation to Tony Dusoir in North Ireland. In the course of discussions and in support conversations Tony asked if he could have a larger monitor as he was visually impaired. We duly supplied this, but also got into thinking of how we could aid him. Computer systems did not have many tools for the visually impaired and on the Unix X-Window system the only tool available was a simple mag utility. We looked into it and thought we could produce a simple tool based upon the standard magnification glass tool. We managed to get a little finance from the Department of Employment to design a simple application for Tony and duly designed, produced and supplied this.

Following this we realised that one of our other products, a Unix X-Windows computer terminal, could be adapted for use by visually impaired people with a better screen magnification application. We had a huge amount of experience with Unix systems and the internals of the X-Windows system. At this time we were having conversations with the RNIB about screen magnification with Unix. They said that there were a number of people looking for such a system. We decided to design and produce such a system and shortly had a proto type working. The choice of a complete X-Windows network computer terminal was good for many reasons. First of all it would work with all Unix systems with no requirement for any software loading or change on the Unix servers. This allowed us to produce one system for all Unix systems. The systems administrators were happy, as no changes were required on their systems. It was also fast and responsive as all of the screen magnification tools run on the local terminal.

At this time Barclays Bank got in touch with us via the RNIB. They were looking for an X-Terminal with magnification abilities for the visually impaired work force. We duly demonstrated the system and got into talks about their requirements. This gave the product the break it needed and we started producing production systems for Barclays and other customers. The first BEAM XVI terminal was shipped in May 1995 and has been continually improved and updated since then. Around 72 XVI systems have been shipped to date.

In April 1996 we got into further talks with the RNIB and Barclays Bank. Barclays Bank needed a system to support a large number of blind people with a system using a speech and/or braille display. We did some research into this looking at suitable speech and braille displays and the inner workings of the Unix X-Window system and proposed a solution. Barclays financed half of the costs of development, while we funded the rest internally. The RNIB assisted us with a list of screen reader requirements. Alva assisted us with a loan Alva Delphi Speach/braille display and special firmware that allowed both speech and braille to be driven from a single serial port. In November 1997 the first XVI-SB terminal was produced. This went into testing with Mike Newman, a Barclays Bank employee, who tested the system in anger on Barclays systems and fed back a huge amount of useful improvements. The system started shipping the Barclays bank in May 1998 and to date 100 systems have been shipped.

The XVI-SB screen reader software is at the first release level. A large number of improved features have been identified. We intend to develop the product further to include these new features.

Future Work

The XVI-SB system was designed for general Unix systems usage but targeted primarily for use with Barclays Banks systems. It is now intended to develop the system further to support a larger range of general Unix systems and applications. It is also intended to produce a software release of the system for Unix systems such as Linux.


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