Marketplace Tech®

with Ben Johnson

About the Program

Hosted by Ben Johnson, this daily "journal of the Digital Age" airs during broadcasts of Minnesota Public Radio's Morning Edition.

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Silicon Tally: The one where you watch all of Friends

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by David Albert, co-founder of Hacker School, a retreat for computer programmers in New York City.

(10/17/2014)

The value of voicemail

Text messages, e-mails, missed phone calls, "Yo's  it's easier than ever to let someone know you want to get a hold of them. In many ways, the voicemail is a relic in the eyes of millennials and those younger, but a staple of etiquette for Gen X'ers and older.

This was the precise problem that Leslie Horn ran into with her mother. She just wouldn't stop leaving voicemails.

But then something happened that made her change the way she viewed the end of unanswered phone calls forever: her father passed away.

Upon the passing of her father, Horn's phone rang for months. Many of them ended at the machine.

It was here that she realized a few things about these messages. People often ended up saying more than they do in an actual conversation (in an endearing way), it's nice to hear a voice other than your own sometimes, and that there was a special place reserved for all the messages people left her throughout the years waiting in storage.

Old friends with stories, the occasional ramblings of a drunk dial, and one very special message for her birthday last year: A voicemail from her dad.

(10/16/2014)

A new financial innovation in the housing market

Financial innovation in the housing market is back.

The last year saw the creation of something called "REO-to-rental securities" or "rental-backed securities." It's enough to give you subprime crisis flashbacks. But in fact, it's a very different species of financial instrument. 

It does start with a house, much like that of Jess Joslin. "It's a two-story brick house with a two garage," she says. 

Joslin rents from American Homes 4 Rent, one of the largest players in the emerging market of single family rentals owned by big investors. "From what I understand, almost all their houses look like this," Joslin says. "They’re really nice."

The largest investors have purchased nearly 200,000 houses in the last several years. The purchasing peaked in 2012, and has focused on places where the subprime mortgage crisis hit hardest. 

"You’re seeing it in Phoenix, in Las Vegas, in Atlanta," says Laurie Goodman, director of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute. 

In many of these markets, housing prices fell by more than a third, and the plan was to buy low with cash from investors, and then reap the profits from high rents. But in many of these markets, housing prices have appreciated, while rents have remained more stagnant. "Rents haven't gone up all that much," says Goodman. "And they haven't gone up nearly as much as home prices."

This change has meant that the buy-to-rent strategy generates less return for every dollar. To make up for it, in the last year, these investors have looked for ways to put other people's dollars to work. 

Enter securitization. 

Do we call them rental-backed securities? 

"They're viewed as a hybrid," says Doug Bendt, director of research for mortgage-backed securities at Deutsche Bank. 

His bank pioneered this new financial instrument as a way of giving investors more leverage. "'Necessity is the mother of invention,' as the saying goes," he says.

Think of it as a really big loan to a really big landlord, chopped into little pieces and sold to bondholders. The landlordlike American Homes 4 Rentgets some cash for the rising home prices, and lower borrowing costs going forward. "Just kinda like a homeowner refinancing," says Bendt. 

The bondholders get a check every month, thanks to thousands of rental payments from people like Jess Joslin.

And if some of the thousands of Joslins stop paying their rent? The landlord can kick them out of their homes and find new tenants, or sell the whole house. That, and a much smaller scale and more conservative approach, are why analysts like Goodman and Bendt see the rental-backed security as far more benign than the infamous toxic assets that led to the last housing crisis. 

"I think people think, ‘Oh this is a repeat of the excesses of the past!’ But in reality, it’s very, very different than the past," says Goodman. "It’s sort of a begin to creep back to normalcy."

A normalcy where more people are renting, and more of their landlords are multi-billion-dollar companies.

(10/13/2014)

An argument for a federal robotics commission

Private companies, academic institutions, and governments are dabbling more and more with the idea that our future will be full of robots capable of completing all sorts of tasks. But does it necessarily mean that we need a Federal Robotics Commission?

Ryan Calo, Assistant Law Professor at the University of Washington and an affiliate scholar at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, joined us to talk about his vision for a commission compromised of technologists, engineers, and scientists:

“I don’t know that we need a Federal Robotics Commission exactly as I’ve described it, but what we do need is to start thinking more systematically about robotics law and policy.”

Professor Calo brought up one example: The Department of Transportation was recently asked by Congress to investigate whether the sudden acceleration problem in Toyota vehicles was a software glitch. The DOT didn’t have the experts needed in-house to figure out the problem, so they hired people at NASA to look into it.

Ultimately, this is the argument for having a Federal Robotics CommissionTo have a group of experts who understand the issues technology can bring about and properly advise different agencies and states about how to proceed with different policies.

For more information, check out "The Case for a Federal Robotics Commission" by Ryan Calo.

(10/13/2014)

Silicon Tally: Death, Sext, and Digital Money

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Anna Sale, host of WNYC's "Death, Sex & Money," a podcast about the big questions and hard choices that are often left out of polite conversation.

(10/10/2014)

AT&T pays a price for cramming

Two major federal government agencies and the country's state attorneys general have settled a case with AT&T in which the wireless carrier will pay $105 million dollars for cramming.

If you don't know what cramming is, you're not alone, and that's part of the problem. In this casethe biggest in history according to the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commissionit's about AT&T allowing third party companies to hit its customers with fraudulent charges.

Click the media player above to hear FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

$80 million of the settlement will go through a program the FTC has set up to reimburse customers who suffered the charges.

(10/09/2014)

A farmers market at your front door

Rob Spiro is the co-founder of Good Eggs, a Brooklyn startup that brings the local farmers market to your front door.

In order to deal with the demands of an inherently unpredictable food environment, the company is putting together a software engineering team that not only builds a website where you can shop for food, but sophisticated logistic systems throughout its locations.

Good Eggs is currently providing services to Los Angeles, Brooklyn, New Orleans, and the San Francisco Bay Area. And as Spiro points out, "If you look at the market in any given city, the inventory is 100% different." Which is why the company has designed small "Foodhubs," each one with their own unique supply chain.

Being able to centralize activity will help local farmers compete with industry giants. Spiro says the ultimate goal is to have 1,000 Foodhub's located around the world, serving 10,000 food producers, and millions of customers.

Click the media player above to hear Rob Spiro in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

(10/08/2014)

Being human in the age of automation

In Nicholas Carr’s new book, "The Glass Cage – Automation and Us," he describes an academic study in which researchers discover a key difference between how we feel at work versus at home. At work, people can’t wait to clock out, whereas at home, they dread returning to work.

But surprisingly, the study also found that by many metrics, people are actually happier on the job. And in a world where the main goal of technology seems to be to reduce the work we do, Carr thinks maybe we should take a different tack:

“I think most of us, if we really thought about it, know that it’s really when we’re being challenged and when we’re really immersed in a task or a job…that’s when we feel like we are experiencing life in some better, more fulfilling way.”

In the book, Carr offers one example of how the video game, Red Dead Redemption, helped him realize that games can be a good model for software designed to engage and challenge us in an activity. Carr argues that if we are simply more mindful of how technology influences our experience of life, we can make better decisions about the things we buy, even if it’s as small as a video game.

Click the media player above to hear Nicholas Carr in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

(10/07/2014)

Five ways a web series can make money

The web series "Frankenstein, MD" recasts Mary Shelley's titular doctor as "Vicky," fresh out of med school and vlogging with her assistant "Iggy," who only moans "yes, master" sarcastically. The show is born out of a partnership between PBS Digital Studios and Pemberley Digital, which made a name for itself with similar adaptations of Jane Austen novels.

Bernie Su developed "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" and "Emma Approved" — webcam updates on "Pride and Prejudice" and "Emma" respectively — and now "Frankenstein, MD." He says telling stories in four-to-five-minute increments "speaks to our modern culture."

“People want to just get in and get out, get in and get out,” says Su. “What’s challenging for that format for us is when you’re talking about a long story, like a grand narrative.”

But Pemberley Digital’s challenge is even bigger than that. The studio doesn't only update classic literature broken up into YouTube-able chunks, it creates shows with an eye toward building franchises and making real money, which isn't something all web-series creators can say.

Here are five ways Pemberley has turned its web series into a business, starting with "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries."

YouTube Ads

YouTube's partnership program allows Pemberley and other users to get a cut from ads shown before their videos.

Merchandise

The world of Lizzie Bennet and William Darcy has not only expanded to spinoff videos, but pins, a mug, posters and more.

Affiliate marketing

Similar to the YouTube ad program, if Su's company links to another website and that site makes a sale, Pemberley gets a piece.

DVDs

You can still stream "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries," but Pemberly has also put the series out on home video.

"We’ve sold, I believe now, 7,000 units," Su says. "Again, for a show that is available for free online, which is amazing.”

Book deal

Simon & Schuster published a novelization called "The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet," which retells the series as journal entries. For those keeping score at home, Su says, "Lizzie Bennet is now "a book based on the web series, which is based on a book.”  

(10/06/2014)

Silicon Tally: Cafe au...underwear?

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, host Ben Johnson takes on Marketplace reporter Tracey Samuelson.

(10/03/2014)

Discovering hidden languages in centuries-old writing

If you were around during the '80s, you probably remember the Indiana Jones movies—the swashbuckling archaeologist traveled the world digging up ancient treasures.

If you were to go looking for a real-life, present-day Indiana Jones, you might get someone like Michael Toth. He travels with his teams around the world using modern technologylasers, high-tech camerasto unearth treasure. It's centuries-old writing that appears in very faint form on manuscripts called palimpsests. Along the way, they've discovered everything from lost languages to some very mysterious fingerprints. 

You’re not discovering ancient manuscripts; you’re working to read what’s buried in them. Tell me a little about the work you do.

We work on a range of manuscriptsthe earliest copy of Archimedes work, David Livingston’s diaries—and we use spectral imaging to reveal that text which is not seen by the naked eye.

Why isn’t that text visible? We’re talking about two different layers of writing here, right?

That is correct. It’s usually on parchment. And they’re written initially with an ink made out of the galls of oak trees, and that’s been scraped off and overwritten. And in doing so, it’s preserved that text underneath it.

And the process you use is something called spectral imaging. Tell me about that and what kind of technology is involved in that.

So we shine lights on the object to bring out that ink which responds best to, say, the ultraviolet in the case of iron gall, or a modern carbon black ink in the infrared.

You and I met in the Sinai Desert, when you were working at Saint Catherine’s Monastery to look at some of the ancient manuscripts that have been held in the library there for over 1,000 years. Tell me a little about the work you’ve done at Saint Catherine’s and some of the things you found.

Some are historical texts. Some are medical or mathematical texts. We’re still assessing what is underneath this rich trove and, ultimately, are going to make this available to the world.

Do you have a favorite moment of discovery?

Oh, yes. The work on Abraham Lincoln’s draft of the Gettysburg Address. And as we were imaging it, at the bottom, on a blank part of the paper, the ultraviolet light came on and there’s gemlike glow at the bottom. And we said, “Hey, we’ve gotta look at this,” and we saw a thumbprint. And then on the back three fingerprints. As if someone was holding that paper, which is folded in thirds, as if it’s in a coat pocket, had held it up to read.

And is it Abraham Lincoln’s fingerprints?

We don’t know. We know there’s enough of the whorls and loops to be able to assess the fingerprint. But of course there was no FBI fingerprint lab, much less West Virginia back then. So they are working with various forensics experts to try to assess that compared to other documents.

(10/01/2014)

When you die, who gets your digital assets?

John Ajemian was riding his bike on a perfect sunny day in the Boston suburbs in 2006 when he was struck and killed by a car. He was 43.

“After his death, we wanted to plan a memorial service,” says Marianne Ajemian, John’s sister and one of the executors of his estate. “And he kept all his correspondence and records on his email account.”

In addition to his contacts, Marianne wanted the financial records and correspondence it might hold. But the provider refused to give the family access to the account, so she’s suing them. The case is ongoing.

“If you have a diary, if you have letters, your personal representatives are entitled to see that,” she argues.

As people store increasing amounts of information online in email, social media and cloud storage accounts, what happens to those digital accounts has become a more pressing issue. A recent study by MacAfee found that the average person has $35,000 in digital assets stored online or on their devices. 

This summer, the Uniform Law Commission, a group that writes laws for states, drafted legislation that would give executors or other personal representatives access to digital accounts when someone dies. Delaware became the first state to pass a version of it last month, joining only a handful of states that already have more limited laws.

“Essentially, what we’re trying to do is allow the fiduciary to have access, unless the account holder didn’t want a fiduciary to have access,” says Suzanne Walsh, an estate lawyer who helped draft the ULC’s proposed legislation.

“In the old days when I began practicing law, we worked with file cabinets and paper documents,” she explains. “Yesterday’s filing cabinet is now a laptop or a computer or even a phone. Because of that, the nature of our work has changed when we’re administering an estate or assisting an incapable person.”

Balancing access and privacy can be complicated, though.

“There are sometimes third parties who have communicated with the deceased person who expect those communications to remain private,” says Jim Halpert, the general counsel of the State Privacy and Security Coalition, which represents Facebook, Google, Yahoo and others on issues like this. “[They] don’t expect somebody that they don’t know, and in some cases a person the deceased didn’t even know, to be going through the communications.”

People may not want their family reading their emails, he says, though the law commission’s version provides the option to opt out of access.

Moreover, many service providers worry that state laws granting access are in conflict with existing federal laws.

Currently, companies have varying policies about what happens when an account holder dies. For example, Yahoo says in its terms of service that accounts can’t transfer after death, but a spokesperson says the company will give access if the deceased lays out their explicit permissions in their will. Google lets people chose whether their info should be shared or deleted if they die. Facebook gives family members the option to close the account or "memorialize" it, which preserves the photos and posts already visible on the account, but doesn't give access to private messages. 

Halpert says another solution would be to give access to logs that list senders and receivers, but not the contents of emails.

For Marianne Ajemian, that’s not enough.

“John was a writer,” she says. “And so whatever was in that email account could have been very important to us.”

Until she gets into the account, she says she doesn’t know what she might be missing — and how much sentimental or financial value it could hold.

(09/30/2014)

Silicon Tally: India is anti-‘Gravity’

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Joe Hanson, a science writer and host of the PBS digital series "It’s Okay to be Smart."

(09/26/2014)

#Scandal heads to #Twitter

Even if you don't watch the wildly popular television drama Scandal, you'd probably know of its popularity if you spent some time poking around Twitter. Aside from a huge television audience, the show is a favorite of the blue bird. With the season premiere coming Thursday of this week, we talked with Darby Stanchfield, better known as Abby Whelan on Scandal. And for the record, she has her very own hashtag: #SassyAbby.

Tell me about the community of Scandal fans on Twitter.

They’ve named themselves Gladiators. They’re super passionate. They’re smart. They’re funny. There’s not a thing that doesn’t get by them.

What’s an example of something that fans have caught that surprised you?

I used to have this signature coffee mug that I would use in my scenes, and one time I grabbed one of the company mugs that was in the kitchen area, and I think someone was like, “Wait a minute, where’s Abby’s mug that matches her hair?” Granted, every single series regular, and usually the creator, we’re all live-tweeting, whether we’re on set or we’re not working or at home.

Part of the contract.

You know it’s not, actually. We’re not paid to do it. Actually, Kerry Washington–it was her idea–and she talked to [series creator Shonda Rhimes] about it, and Shonda sent out this email that said we all needed to sign up on Twitter. We all did it, because our boss was asking us to, but it ended up being the most effective, grass-roots way to help the audience discover this crazy political drama called Scandal.

You have your own hashtag, #SASSYABBY.

One of the ways that I differentiate myself from the other cast-mates is I basically go into character during the live tweeting. And the way you know is I put my caps lock on and I just make snarky comments from Abby’s point of view.

How has the way that you think about being an actor changed because of Twitter? And how is your understanding of your own character shaped by the technology around you, even when you’re not on the set?

Twitter almost has the effect of a live theater event. You have an immediate interaction with the audience. You know when something lands and when it’s funny. When I’m on Twitter, there’s a visceral reaction immediately with the flood of tweets that come in about any given moment in my performance. And it’s as close as you can get to live theater with a television show. But in terms of my creative process or how I think about my character, I would say that’s still very traditional. I have my point of view, and I always find a way to love my character and tell that story.

(09/24/2014)

Silicon Tally - Mo Money, Mo Facebook

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Jennifer Pahlka, founder and executive director of Code For America. Pahlka also recently served as the Deputy Chief Technology Officer for the United States Government.

(09/19/2014)

HBO 'seriously considering' selling online access

UPDATE: HBO has announced it will begin selling online subscription services sometime in the next year. CEO Richard Plepler says streaming "is a large and growing opportunity that should no longer be left untapped. It is time to remove all barriers to those who want HBO."


HBO, with its hit shows like "True Detective" and "Game of Thrones," made $1.8 billion in operating profits in 2013. But it made that money from cable subscribers — not Internet viewers.

There is no stand-alone Internet subscription to watch new episodes of HBO's shows. CEO Jeff Bewkes of Time Warner, which owns HBO, recently said directly selling online streaming access, and competing more directly with Netflix and Amazon, was "becoming more viable, more interesting."

HBO might seem to have a lot of negotiating clout in this battle, because its content is very desirable and, as the cliché goes on the Internet, content is king.

"That's the gambit, right," says Dan Porter, head of digital at William Morris Endeavor. "The gambit is that content is king and while you might alienate the cable people you have the leverage. You could certainly say that that is true for professional sports."

Porter believes the NFL can afford to sell access to its games online, because the cable industry can't survive without it.

"I don't know if HBO is there," he says. HBO also isn't an independent company. "It's part of Time Warner," says IDC analyst Greg Ireland. "Time Warner has other pay TV channel properties."

Those channels may be harder to sell when they don't come with an exclusive pass to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

Some numbers behind HBO:

6.8 million

Average number of same-night viewers of Game of Thrones' last season.

13

Consecutive years in which HBO has won more primetime Emmys than any other network.

1.8 billion

Operating profits for HBO in 2013.

4%

HBO revenue growth in 2013.

21%

Netflix revenue growth in 2013.

15%

HBO subscriber growth over the last year.

16%

Netflix subscriber growth over the last year.

(09/15/2014)

Silicon Tally: Get on the Google bus

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Marketplace reporter Queena Kim in the heart of Silicon Valley.

(09/12/2014)

Questions raised over bullying in the gaming community

There's a fight underway that's tearing apart the community of people who play, write about, enthuse and obsess over video games. Earlier this month, the ex-boyfriend of game designer Zoe Quinn took to the Internet to publicly accuse her of infidelity. He said she'd cheated on him with a gaming journalist. Some gamers seized on the allegation and said a reporter and a gamer, whose work he might review, shouldn't have a relationship.

It seemed like an allegation of journalistic misconduct, but what followed was a flood of threats aimed at Zoe Quinn online.

To help us understand what led to all this, we reached out to Jennifer Hale. She's a member of the gaming community, an actress who does voice-over work for many video games.

There seems to be, in this response, some real misogyny — possibly even dangerous misogyny — in this community of people who play and write about video games. What have you experienced?

I had several friends advise me against even coming in here and doing this interview, because there's a segment of the game community — it's small, but it's vicious — that is bullying. It's giving the gaming community a bad name.

Some of the threats that were made against Zoe Quinn: People threatened to kneecap her, people threatened to give her brain damage if they could find her in person. Does the gaming community deserve to have a bad name?

The community does not. These people within the community do. We need to police ourselves. I don't know how to do that, because the members of our community that have called out to these people to stop doing what they're doing are being then themselves threatened.

At the same time that Zoe Quinn is facing this torrent of abuse, a feminist media critic named Anita Sarkeesian releases a video criticizing the way that women are treated or portrayed in video games. She calls them background decoration, victims, prostitutes, then she gets pilloried for what she said. You've worked in the video game industry. You've done the voices for some popular characters. Does Anita Sarkeesian have a point? 

I myself would love to see more equal representation of women in games, more empowered roles. Let's remove gender from casting everywhere we can and play around with it. Let's do the same with race. Let's go on and create the next level. We can't do that right now. I'm nervous about what this piece of the community is going to do to me for speaking up about anything, and that's not OK. We can't do anything until we deal with that.

Given the attention this back-and-forth has received, do you think we've reached a kind of tipping point moment where this conversation is bound to happen?

I hope so, because games are an incredible art form. I've used a couple of games to learn another language or recover from breaking my foot, things that would have stymied me. I think it is time for this part of the industry to fully step into [the idea that] we're not fringe anymore. We can, without losing the awesome, kid parts of ourselves, grow up and become leaders in a really cool way. And this is hopefully creating a crisis that will help us do that.

(09/10/2014)

Salsa helps drive Latin music higher

The Latin Grammys are coming: Nominations will be out September 24, and the 15th annual broadcast will be held in Las Vegas on November 20.

The popularity of the show is a sign that the Latin music market is strong, and getting stronger. One category within Latin music — salsa, or “tropical” as it is designated in the awards — is gaining more fans among non-Latinos in the U.S., and abroad as well.

All one has to do is to Google the phrase "I want to go salsa dancing tonight" in any major American city, and multiple venues for social dancing will pop up. They often feature live, multipiece bands, and are packed several nights per week with dancers spinning, dipping and flipping their partners across the floor.

Learning to do this flashy, athletic and intimate dance form takes time and money.

Sarah Riddle owns The Viscount studio in Portland, Oregon. She’s done good business teaching salsa to Latinos and others — even through the recession. “People are struggling and they want to spend money on things that feel good,” says Riddle, “and so there’s an increase in that market.”

Here's Sarah Riddle demonstrating various styles of salsa. In order: ballroom, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and L..A. styles. (Video cred: Mitchell Hartman)

The Latin market — not just salsa from the Caribbean (which also includes salsa variants bachata, timba and kizomba), but also Mexican regional and pop music — is one of the bright spots for the industry. Latin digital-music sales were up twice as much as the rest of the music market last year (14 percent vs. 7.6 percent), according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Music marketing consultant Peggy Dold of Navigation Partners has penned the “Latin Corner” blog for the Association of Independent Music Producers. She points out that this a promising market for a struggling music industry. The U.S. Latino population skews young; Hispanics listen to radio, use online streaming services such as Pandora and watch music and dance videos, more than other demographic groups.

Salsa is now expanding across the U.S. and overseas, with flashy competitions hosted in several hundred cities now. According to Albert Torres, a Los Angeles–based salsa promoter, interest and participation is growing, from North America and South America to Europe, Asia and North Africa. He regularly travels to Japan, Germany, Morocco, Turkey and other countries to host Salsa Congresses.

“I don’t care why people walk in the door — whether it’s to watch, to dance or to perform in a show themselves, it just gets into your core,” says Torres. “All these African beats that came over from 1533 until now — sooner or later you have to put your seat belt on because you’re hooked.”

At the annual Salsa & Bachata Congress in Portland, Oregon, in June, partner teams from as far away as Idaho and British Columbia spent hundreds of dollars each on travel and sequined costumes to compete. Latinos and non-Latinos were represented among the top competitors. The winners — including Erika Lachen Meier and Malik Delgado — will go on to compete at Torres’s World Latin Dance Cup in Miami in December.

“I go out there onstage, and when I come back and remember nothing, that’s when I know it went well,” said Lachen Meier after the competition. Delgado added: “It’s great just to feel the energy, and next thing I know her foot’s up in the air and she’s in a dip and I’m asking, ‘Are we done?’”

Latin rap artist Carsello was in town from New York, showcasing his "urban salsa" — a crossover genre — at the Portland event. “Now we’re taking salsa to a pop-culture level, by English-rapping, but with traditional salsa music,” he said. “Salsa is here to stay, and it’s just going to get bigger.”

Click the video player at the top of the article to see Sarah Riddle giving reporter Mitchell Hartman a dance lesson at The Viscount studio in Portland, Oregon. (Video cred: Cliff Rees)

(09/08/2014)

Beyond magnifying glasses: High-tech options for the vision-impaired

This week, Marketplace Tech has been talking technology and reading. We've heard about how new gadgets are changing reading in school and how they're changing reading education at home. We've talked about the impact of e-readers on the brain

But what happens if your vision makes it tough to read at all?

Today, we profiled Spotlight Text, one digital option for people with vision loss. However, there are many more tools for low-vision readers out there:

There’s an e-reader app for that.

Some e-reader apps are made specifically for those with reduced vision. Apps like Spotlight Text and Read2Go allow readers to increase or decrease font size as much as they need to.

E-readers like the Kindle or iPad already allow low-vision readers to adjust font sizes and contrast settings on the device. Many also have text-to-speech functionality.

The BARD Mobile app from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped offers readers almost 50,000 Braille and talking books. And it’s free.

Phone it in.

There are countless magnification apps that use a smartphone’s camera and flashlight to enlarge and illuminate text. Some are free, like iRead or Magnificent, while VisionAssist is $5.99 and EyeSight is $29.99.

EyeNote is a free app that identifies the denominations of U.S. paper currency for those with low vision.

The iPhone — and other smartphones — remains a powerful tool for low-vision readers. As Paul Otterness, who suffers from glaucoma, wrote on the Glaucoma Research Foundation's blog: “The big news for people with low vision is that high tech, big print, voice control and screen reading are brought together in a single handheld device: the Apple iPhone — a fully functioning computer with high-resolution screen and multiple magnification capabilities, small enough to carry in my pocket.”

Spoken words.

Text-to-speech apps like Speak it!, $1.99, and Voice Dream Reader, $4.99, allow low-vision readers to listen to texts read aloud.

Not out of sight.

Different high-tech glasses are being made to help those with low vision read more easily. These glasses from Low Vision Readers are equipped with LED lights and rechargeable batteries.

Some companies have also been trying to make Google Glass accessible for the deaf. They are working on live subtitle technology.

These high-tech devices can be expensive and insurance companies don’t always cover the costs. So support groups have been cropping up around the country to loan out devices or provide them for free to people with low vision.

If you have low vision, we want to know: Which technologies or devices have been helpful to you? Let us know in the comments below!

(09/05/2014)

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