Friday, June 15, 2012

Steno Hero Alpha

I've got so many Plover updates to write, my head is spinning. I'll write all of them up in the next post. But this one deserves an announcement of its own:

Steno Hero Alpha Is Live!

You remember my original post on Hover Plover, outlining some possible ideas for arcade-style steno games, right? Well, at the PyGotham code sprint on Friday night, I mentioned to a couple of the guys there that I'd found a .lrc (timecoded lyrics) file for Jonathan Coulton's Still Alive, and I thought it might make for a start to the Steno Hero game I talked about way back when. Since it was just music, lyrics, and rhythm, it wouldn't need any fancy art, and I thought its scope was about the right size for a sprint. Well, they coded 'til midnight, then they went home and came back to PyGotham the next day, coded some more, and this is the result. I've managed to get through it with only two red bars, I think (different ones each time), but I'm going to keep practicing until I can get all green. Anyone want to try and beat me?

Anaximander, the guy who headed up the project, has continued to code on it, and he says he's just a few days away from a version that lets you upload your own .lrc and .mp3 files and then generates the game for you dynamically. I can't wait. I'd originally picked Still Alive (old meme classic that it is) because the .lrc file was readily downloadable, and I assumed that, like all Coulton songs, the audio was released under a Creative Commons license. According to Wikipedia, though, it turns out that the song is actually owned by Valve. Oops. Please don't sue us, Valve. But I've timecoded two other great Coulton songs using the LRC Generator, and as soon as the new version of Steno Hero is released, I'll upload 'em. Also seeking leads on other good Creative Commons-licensed/out-of-copyright music. Or hey, if you feel like writing an official Plover theme song, go for it!

So seriously, go give this thing a try. It's so cool. It doesn't keep score numerically yet, but if you can get all greens through the whole song, take a screencast of it and mail me the link; I'll post it here. If you think you can do it in qwerty, give it your best shot, though I'd be pretty surprised. (Maybe Sean Wrona can do it. Maybe.) It seems like quite a slow song when you listen to it, but there are some tricky quick bits in the middle. Many, many thanks to Anaximander and the other sprinters on Friday! We're still a ways off from getting the funding we need to get full-fledged 8-bit art and complex game dynamics, and logically Steno Hero should be the most advanced of all the minigames, since it requires pretty sophisticated steno skills to play, but all the same, I'm ridiculously excited by this. Hover Plover is on its way.

ETA: I should note that this game doesn't seem to work in Firefox. I'm not sure why. It works fine in Chrome. Haven't tried it in other browsers. Sorry, Firefox users!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Live from the Sprint

We're in the middle of the Plover sprint at PyGotham, and it's so much fun I might explode. At one point we had over a dozen people in here, eating free pizza and playing around on the dozen stenofied SideWinders I had scattered around the table. I made a one-page quickstart guide (which I'll post to the wiki sometime this weekend) and printed the newly redesigned steno alphabet chart (better quality one will be uploaded when I get the files from the designer), and four awesome diehard coders (plus the enduringly wonderful Hesky) are still here almost six hours later, chasing bugs and coding new features. It's amazing. I think I got at least one of them pretty hooked on steno (thanks in large part to tthurman's brilliant new browser-based steno word drill program). I don't know how many people are going to show up to the workshop tomorrow, but so far the amount of goodwill and enthusiasm for Plover has been staggering. I love captioning at tech conferences, and I love talking to tech people about steno. Plus PyGotham is on two boats (docked at a pier in lower Manhattan) this year, and the view is something else. I need to post a ton of links to cool stuff that Plover contributors have created over the past several weeks, but I'm going to wait 'til after the conference, so that I can include whatever comes out of this sprint. There is one new thing I want to link to tonight, though. This has been live for a couple days, but I've been so busy preparing for the weekend that I haven't had a chance to post about it. Check it out:

The Plover Store

The owner of In a Flash Laser set up a store for the acrylic steno keys! She graciously offered to drop ship key kits on demand, which is a big relief, since her shipping infrastructure is a lot better than mine. Because it's all done through her company, the key kits are currently the only item that we can sell, but at some point I might try to set up an alternate store for the new steno alphabet poster (though like I said, I'll be uploading a free jpg of it for people who want to print their own.) and maybe some wearable Plover swag of some sort. Each key kit order includes a $9 donation to the Hover Plover development fund. I'll try to post a high quality photo of key placement sometime early next, but it's honestly a pretty straightforward process, and it really makes the keyboard vastly more comfortable and accurate. I'm typing on a laser-keyed SideWinder right now, and it's smooth as yak butter cognac. The momentum is building. The technology is coalescing. The users are starting to appear from all directions. Plover is on the march.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Guest Post: Plover for Braille

Braille input using Plover – a new addition to Plover

About the author: Henry is a partially sighted journalist currently embarking into the world of stenography. Accessibility hobbyist and general word nerd!

Note: While the author is partially sighted, his primary medium of reading is a mix of large print and recorded audio, but he does know British Braille at grade two.

Braille – a system of raised dots to enable access to printed documents, diagrams and computers.

Personally, I liken Braille to stenography for a variety of reasons.

First of all, there are varieties of ways you can write it. For example, there are two levels, grade one and two. Grade one is limited to the alphabet, numbers and punctuation, compared to grade two, with shortforms, called contractions, that are similar to briefs in steno. There are contractions for word endings, like “–ing”, and for words such as “the”, “and”, and “with”. Braille is made up of six dots called a cell, and for example, ‘A’ would be the first top left dot.

Braille cell:

Secondly, Braille is expensive – there are very few learning materials and if you want to write in Braille, the cheapest option is to by a frame and stylus, which is punching dots into a sheet of paper, which is a slow and tedious process. If you need to write in Braille quicker, you could pay around £400 for a Brailler, which is identical to an old manual typewriter or even manual steno machine. If you wish to print Braille at high volume, you would need to fork out the enormous cost of around £4000.

After realising the potential for Plover being used for Braille input, I have decided that the way to do this is to create a dictionary for Plover that changes input from steno to Braille, so that Braille users, may that be a novice, experience user or someone using Braille, may experience the joys of Braille for fun without having to pay such high costs associated with it.

Another similarity between steno and Braille is that both are dying out. People are turning to computers with synthesised speech and using no Braille at all. While others do agree with “the technological revolution”, what would happen if a computer were to fail – what would the back up system be? Would there even be a back up system? After so much QWERTY input, Braille may need to be relied on, and if a user has been inputting in Braille, they are much more likely to remember it than if they have not used it for a long period of time.

As I am not versed in the many different Braille codes other than British English, I feel that other Braillists will certainly want to use musical, mathematical, scientific, chess, or foreign language notations, so if you can spare the time to help prepare dictionaries for Plover, I personally would be very thankful, and so would those who could save money and not use have to pay for expensive technology.

Plover could help keep another soon to be only a piece of history alive.

I would like to make it clear that I am not suggesting QWERTY and synthesised speech is worthless – it certainly is not, but I, like others, want Braille to be upgraded to the 21st century.

The rate of unemployment of blind and partially sighted people is much higher than those who are fully sighted, making it even harder to afford expensive technology – most people have access to a computer, so a simple download could help someone learn Braille, reinforce skills, try a new a hobby, or even help train the teachers of visually impaired students or Braille transcribers of tomorrow.

My next item on my list is to try to use the Braille dictionary and Plover with a dictionary together with a steno machine – steno machines have a very similar touch to Braillers such as the iconic Perkins Brailler, and according to Perkins, their Brailler is “the most widely-used Brailler in the world.” After that, I would like to create a guide to use Plover and Braille and Plover together to allow people who do not know Braille but wish to learn it the ability to do so.

The overall aim is not to get the text in tactile form -- it is to allow people to enter text into any application using either their preferred method of text entry, Braille, or to give people who are learning Braille, either people with a visual impairment or people learning to transcribe print to Braille, the ability to practice – even on Facebook or Twitter!

Plover for Braille will not result in an embossed Braille document, but it will allow anyone to access Braille without the expensive technology that is required. It is to allow you to access Braille -- it may be that it gives you, the user, experience in Braille in order to become Braille-literate, or to enable learning before or totally without the cost.

Thank you for reading this, and happy stenoing, and hopefully soon, we will be happily Brailling!