Rocky Mountain News, Colorado USA.
Tuesday, September 05, 2006.
Marc Mulcahy was 9 when he realized how technology could revolutionize his life.
Blind since birth, Mulcahy's first computer liberated him from writing in Braille and waiting days for his teacher to transcribe his work.
Now he hopes to create the same kind of breakthrough for other visually impaired people through LevelStar, a Louisville-based company he founded two years ago with his brother, Matt. LevelStar's first product, a wireless pocket-sized personal digital assistant that's also a book reader and note taker, goes on sale this month.
"There's a need for some new blood in the industry and products that understand how we really use the Internet," Mulcahy said.
Mulcahy, who graduated from Fort Lewis College in Durango with a degree in computer science and business administration, co-founded LevelStar after working at Sun Microsystems for nearly four years on a desktop for Linux computers. Mulcahy is LevelStar's chief product engineer, and Matt is in charge of product marketing and operations. They have one other employee but expect to expand as their product hits the market.
LevelStar's personal digital assistant, called the Icon mobile manager plus Docking Station, isn't the first PDA designed for visually impaired users.
Companies like Florida-based Freedom Scientific have worldwide distribution and long track records offering PDAs and other products designed to help people with limited sight.
Mainstream PDAs also can be adapted for visually impaired users.
Mulcahy says LevelStar's Icon is different because it comes with a detachable Braille or regular full-size keyboard, which is easier to use for taking extensive notes and was designed "with the Internet at its core."
For example, Icon offers a function called "news stand" that lets users subscribe to online newspapers every day, rather than go through the process of entering passwords and linking to Web sites as required by most book-reading technology, Mulcahy said.
The Icon's Linux operating system gives users flexibility to add functions that aren't on most Microsoft Windows-based PDAs, said Steven Booth, an access technology specialist with the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore.
The 50,000-member nonprofit consumer group, which buys and evaluates every kind of technology intended for the visually impaired, has seen a preliminary version of LevelStar's Icon but waits until a product hits the market before reviewing it, Booth said.
The government buys a majority of the technology either for its employees or through special funds to help the visually impaired, Booth said.
Mulcahy hopes LevelStar's products, which will be sold through its Web site, will find a niche as affordable devices targeted at individual buyers. The Icon Mobile Manager sells for $1,395, and the keyboard docking station for $395.
Booth said Mulcahy's strategy is promising, but he cautions that selling technology for the visually impaired is a difficult business.
"Most of these companies don't make a lot of money because it's a very limited market," he said. "But I hope they're successful because we need more competition."
LevelStar at a glance
Product: The Icon Mobile Manager, a wireless, pocket-sized personal digital assistant that is also a book reader and note taker. It comes with a detachable Braille or regular full-sized keyboard.
Cost: $1,395; the keyboard docking station costs $395.
davisj@RockyMountainNews or 303-954-2514
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