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On the pulse

By Chris Hutching

Friday 4th July 2003

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One of the breakthroughs in Pulse Data's success in developing and marketing products for blind and visually impaired people was to incorporate a Microsoft operating system in its BrailleNote family of products, allowing users to communicate with the global email network.

The product set Pulse Data apart from what other rivals were doing with proprietorial systems.

A simplified keyboard also includes a touch display using popup pins that form Braille letters, and users can read downloaded emails and send them. They can also receive messages using the voice synthesiser in the machines.

For many blind and visually impaired people the BrailleNote has given them another window on the world.

Recently, blind US entertainer José Feliciano visited Pulse Data in Christchurch where he tried out the company's products and was particularly interested in BrailleNote's ability to download and store MP3 music files.

One of the blind children who uses Pulse Data products has had great fun coming to grips with the voice synthesiser and testing its range of vocabulary.

Marketing manager Greg Thompson said Pulse Data's aim was to develop normal tools and make them available to blind people so the whole way of interfacing and interacting with a sighted user became simpler and more standard.

The BrailleNote now accounts for about half the company's business, with the balance made up of the SmartView range of video magnifiers targeted at people who are visually impaired because of age or disease-related conditions, enabling them to view enlarged text, images and objects on a display screen. This market is the biggest market and will provide future growth opportunities.

More than 95% of the company's products are sold overseas. With 65% market share for Braille note takers in English-speaking countries, Pulse Data is aiming to emulate that performance in Germany and France.

"Providing BrailleNote in other languages is more difficult because of support issues, so until now we've focused on English speaking countries," Mr Thompson said.

The company expects sales this year of about $50 million and has signaled its intention to move toward a Stock Exchange listing, probably in the first quarter of 2004.

Mr Thompson said that while in Auckland during the investment regatta associated with the America's Cup he and other Pulse Data executives were advised to hold off listing until the investment climate on world bourses improved.

Meanwhile, Pulse Data continues to refine its products and more are likely to be introduced in the market over the next year or two, particularly as listing time approaches.

Another related product is BrailleNote GPS, which allows blind people to find out where they are by using a GPS receiver and software developed by Pulse Data. The system gives them information about the location of shops, bus stops, restaurants or other places they may want to visit.

The computer tells them either by synthesised speech or through the Braille display how to negotiate a route to their destination or when they are approaching the correct bus stop to get off. A blind person could also direct a taxi driver where to take them.

Pulse Data demonstrated the second-stage GPS software at a conference in Los Angeles a few weeks ago.

Chief executive officer Russell Smith, one of the founding engineers at Pulse Data, was honoured recently with an engineering fellowship from the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (Ipenz), joining other technology notables such as Sir Angus Tait of Tait Electronics, and motorbike designer John Britten. Dr Smith received the award as recognition of his leadership at Pulse Data.

When he was a PhD student at Canterbury University one of his lecturers introduced the idea of sonar spectacles for blind people. The company was formed when several engineers bought into Wormald Sensory Aids in 1988 and renamed it Pulse Data International. They still own more than half the company while lines company Orion has 14%.

During the 1990s the company was partially owned by an investment fund but the relationship proved difficult and the other shareholders bought it out.

About 130 people work for the company, with half of them in Christchurch involved in design, testing and quality control. Some assembly work is contracted out.

Accolades continue to pile up for Pulse Data. Earlier this month ago the company received the information, communications and technology prize at the 2003 Trade New Zealand export awards. It was one of three Christchurch firms that won awards, along with CWF Hamilton and Allied Telesyn.

Christchurch remains a fertile ground for technology companies. Many technology industry participants in Christchurch have worked for each other and maintain regular social and business contacts in various formal and informal forums.

Pulse Data is part of a group of six technology companies that have set up the Canterbury Electronics Group and employ a full time co-ordinator, with the help of a $50,000 grant from Industry New Zealand, to develop and promote the region's industry, skills and infrastructure.

The CEG ­ made up of Allied Telesyn, Dynamic Controls, Tait Electronics, Invensys Energy Systems, Pulse Data and Trimble Navigation ­ is working with government and education providers to raise the profile of the local electronics sector, foster the growth of the industry, encourage new companies to establish bases in Christchurch and develop the local skills base to meet the industry's career opportunities.

Its programme of initiatives, run in conjunction with local government, secondary schools and the Canterbury Tertiary Alliance, includes fourth form visits to CEG companies, a seventh form electronics college, a mobile teaching programme for schools and an adjustment of degree syllabus to align more closely with workplace opportunities.

CEG chairman Hugh Martyn said group companies contributed a combined $1 billion to the New Zealand economy and collectively generated more than $450 million in sales every year ­ a combined export value of nearly twice the New Zealand wine industry.

BrailleNote GPS tells blind people either by synthesised speech or through the Braille display how to negotiate a route to their destination and when they are approaching the correct bus stop to get off, even allowing them to direct a taxi driver where to take them

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