BOB GARFIELD: Technological innovation can make life more interesting for everybody, but the computer is not the be all and end all for the estimated one million Americans who are totally blind. For them, access to computers is mostly about the basics -- word processing - e-mail -- the killer applications that Curtis Chong, technology director for the National Federation of the Blind calls "survival tools." Meanwhile all the major players in the multi-billion dollar video and computer game industry like Play Station 2, Game Cube and X Box are moving their games on line. But all this new technology is likely to leave the blind stranded yet again -- cut off from the burgeoning community of on line gamers. Susan Kaplan reports on one possible solution.
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SUSAN KAPLAN: When Paul Silva, a student at the University of Massachusetts wanted to play video and computer games with one of his closest friends, he couldn't! Blind since birth, Tim Keenan [sp?] could never join Silva. So Silva, Keenan and fellow student Jeremy Spitzer hatched an idea to create a software company to make games Keenan could play.
PAUL SILVA: We were sitting in our dorm room one day and said you know what - we didn't want to necessarily spend the rest of our lives doing physics, and we had a passion to create a business that was going to make some kind of a difference, and we wanted it to make games, cause we loved making games. The running joke was that I was a physicist and Jeremy was a landscape architect and we decided to make video games for the blind. it made many family members scratch their heads.
SUSAN KAPLAN: Silva says despite the odds, he began to craft a business plan beginning with research to find out if there even was a market for computer games for the blind and sighted to play together. Curtis Chong of the National Federation of the Blind says there is a market because the current crop of games for the blind are audio only and not very interesting for anybody.
CURTIS CHONG: They do not foster interactivity between the blind and the sighted. One of the tenets of the National Federation of the Blind is integration and on a basis of equality between the blind and the sighted. So if you look at the state of the art in terms of games, first of all - commercial games - we simply disregard them. Why? Because the odds are incredibly high that they will be not accessible and unusable by somebody who is blind. You know it's kind of like the Outer Limits --we will control the transmission. We will determine when the speech happens. The blind person does not have to learn how to run their screen reader because we, Zform, will talk and-- make the create speak. So a model for how to make stuff accessible is there.
SUSAN KAPLAN: Chong says one well-designed aspect of the game is that players can choose to have their cards called. This may be confusing to a sighted person, but Chong says the blind can take in audio information at a much faster speed than people who can see.
CURTIS CHONG: You play against other people who are sitting at this virtual poker table on the internet, and the software does not care - the players do not care - who is blind and who is sighted.
SUSAN KAPLAN: Zform's Paul Silva says once he figured out there was a market for more accessible games the next step was to get help.
PAUL SILVA: We're young. We've got energy. We've got passion. We lack experience. Let's try and rectify that. And so we started building a board of advisors and have continued to build it since then.
SUSAN KAPLAN: Since then the game has garnered lots of good press, but despite the media attention, Silva acknowledges the market is a small one. And Jennifer Olson, the editor of Game Developer Magazine finds it hard to imagine the big game manufacturers will put much into making their products more accessible to the blind.
JENNIFER OLSON: They don't believe this market is worth serving, or if they haven't identified it as large enough, then I'm not sure it would just magically behoove them to address it.
SUSAN KAPLAN: Still Zform's Paul Silva says many companies like Microsoft and AOL are making efforts to address the needs of the blind, but like Chong, he says the bulk of their attention is on the basic like word processing -- not games. Silva says he gets e-mail every day from people from the blind community who are grateful to have a seat at the table in the virtual community of on line gaming.
PAUL SILVA: I got one a few weeks ago from a father who said thank you -- for the first time I have a game I can play with my two sighted daughters. I just wish they weren't so good at poker.
SUSAN KAPLAN: Zform hopes to have a new accessible game published in about a year. To play poker, go to Zform.com where you can sign up for a free 15 day trial period. As to the question why poker and concerns that it could promote gambling, the gamemakers say poker is a universally-known, simple to play game and the money used is phony - not real - so they felt it wouldn't pose much of a threat. Curtis Chong from the National Federation of the Blind echoes these thoughts. He says Zform on line poker with its virtual chips is as benign as playing checkers or chess. For On the Media, I'm Susan Kaplan.