Volume I Number 3, July 1994

What's Next In Adaptive Technology: Magnum - A Digital Recording Personal Assistant

Dick Banks
University of Wisconsin, Stout


The MagNum, a device which utilizes digitized recording technology, takes the technology of the recorder one step further by providing the user with an efficient means of accessing notes, books, and other recorded information. This article describes MagNum, a digital recording device which offers many valuable features to the user of recording technology. The present state and future possibilities of digital recording technology are described. While the author is very impressed with the MagNum, this is not a scientific review of this product, and this article should not be taken in and of itself as an endorsement of this or any other product.


For many years, tape recorders have been used by blind and visually impaired users for a variety of tasks including note- taking, reading, and keeping track of appointments and phone numbers. As useful and convenient as this technology is, audio tape technology has some drawbacks. One of tape's major problems is its inability to organize information in an easily retrievable format. For example, looking for a particular chapter in a recorded book can be difficult. Tones are usually recorded at the beginning of each chapter, and the reader fastforwards, listening for the beep which announces each chapter. This can be time-consuming and very annoying.

A tape recorder that could give direct access to recorded information by date, time or subject would be of tremendous value. In order to do this, speech must be recorded, and then translated into a compressed digital format and stored in conventional memory much like computer random access memory (RAM). In digital form, high quality recorded sound would thus be accessible in much the same way that textual information now is.

The development of this new digital technology has been inhibited by the amount of memory required to store even a few seconds of speech of reasonable quality. The MagNum, developed by the Visualaide company, is able to record and store 45 minutes of extremely fine quality speech on a 1.44 MB floppy disk.

The technology required to store speech in an organized manner is very similar to that used by the designers of the Personal Digital Assistant, which stores hand-written information. The ability to store vocalized material in digital form represents a significant innovation for individuals with visual or certain mobility impairments. Plans are in the works for the introduction of a MagNum model which will feature voice recognition input, further extending the potential audience for this new technology.

Functional Description

Recording notes with MagNum is very much like using a tape recorder. In addition, MagNum offers advanced information management functions which allow the user to organize these notes. These information management functions can contribute greatly to the user's efficiency in performing day-to-day tasks. For example, it is possible to keep a "things to do" list in order of priority, manage an agenda, search efficiently in an address book for the telephone number of a colleague, read a book indexed by page number, etc.

MagNum can record as much as 45 minutes of speech on a 3 1/2' disk with a quality comparable to the digitized speech employed by telephone inquiry systems. It is possible to retrieve notes at a rate of 1 to 4 times the original rate without significant distortion and up to 8 times with acceptable distortion.

Because the speech is digitized and indexed, a world of possibilities opens up to the user. In addition to organizing the information as described above, the user can insert new speech without erasing anything, erase speech without losing any space, cut and paste speech blocks, etc.

Magnum's developers have given a great deal of attention to the system's ease of use. The new user will be able to use basic functions of MagNum just by knowing how to use a tape recorder. Power users will like the advanced functions and the shortcuts which enhance efficiency.

Tape Recorder Functions

The user is greeted with a welcome message at the beginning of each MagNum session. With a disk in MagNum's drive, the user has access to all of the system's functions. That is, she or he can listen to previously recorded notes, record new notes, or insert new information within previously recorded text. When notes are recorded, they are digitized and organized according to Alpha ID, Vocal ID, and Vocal Segment. The Alphanumeric Identifier is composed of up to 8 characters (which can include letters a to z and numbers 0 to 9). It can contain the page number of a book, the date of a meeting, the initials of a friend, etc. The Alpha ID is the element used for indexing the vocal segments and for searching for a specific entry (note, time, etc.).

The Vocal Identifier is the passage of speech recorded by the user for future identification of the vocal segment that follows. It might contain the title of a chapter in a book, the subject of a note, the name of a friend, etc. The length of that message is limited only by the amount of available disk space.

The Vocal Segment comprises the note's content. The user can record notes on a subject, the description of an entry in an agenda, the address and phone number of a friend, etc. Like the identifier, The length of the Vocal Segment is limited only by the amount of disk space available.

These elements (Alpha ID + Vocal ID + Vocal Segment) can be grouped in classes. For example, in the agenda, a day is a class and the hours are elements of this class. This makes the data structure very flexible for all kind of applications.

The Interface

The user interface is controlled through the telephone keypad. There are three functional levels: the application level, the utilities level and the configuration level. The application level includes the note-taking, agenda or address book applications. The utilities level includes the calculator, clock as well as a disk formatting utility. The configuration level allows the user to control the speech rate, volume, tone, and other aspects of the recorded speech.

Note-Taking Application

MagNum's default application is the note-taking function; that is, as soon as the system is turned on, the user can begin the note-taking process. With the note-taking application, it is possible to use MagNum as a standard recorder simply by pressing the record key and speaking into the recorder. The user can navigate around these notes using the fast forward and review keys or simply listen by hitting the "play" key. However, limiting use of MagNum to standard tape-recorder functions does not exploit the potential of this new technology, but is rather a little like using a computer as a typewriter.

The process involved in the creation of a note demonstrates MagNum's capabilities. First, the user hits the note key on the keypad, identifies the new note (by entering the Alphanumeric ID and recording the Vocal ID). These IDs will be used for creating a table of contents so that when a note is retrieved, the table of contents will be heard, followed by the vocal ID (the title or subject of the note) and, finally, the Alpha ID. Pressing the "go to" key takes the users directly to the desired note.

In addition to simply recording notes, MagNum's advanced features include navigating the table of contents from entry to entry or from note to note; a "go to" function which moves directly to a desired note or passage; the ability to place markers within a note; and, finally, the ability to block and then cut, paste and move speech segments.

Book Reading Functions

Reading a recorded book is another function of the note- taking applications. Because MagNum aims at offering all functions of the tape recorder and more, special attention has been given to the book reading functions. First, let's say that reading a novel with MagNum does not increase efficiency since one normally reads a novel from page one onward, without needing direct access. But then again, having the possibility to increase the speech rate up to four times the normal rate without degradation is certainly helpful. Those who need to prepare a summary of a novel will appreciate the block functions.

On the other hand, reading a reference book with MagNum is certainly very efficient. Every page of a book can be indexed using the marker function of MagNum. The beginning of a chapter or a section can also be indexed. This allows the user to listen to the table of contents or find a subject of interest in the index of the book and directly access the desired section.

The Future of Personal Digitized Recording Technology

The future seems to be bright for this type of recording capability. Voice recognition as an input potential promises to extend the usefulness of this product to the physically disabled population. Voice recognition input will permit all commands and functions to be given vocally, a real boon for those with orthopedic disabilities which limit their ability to use the standard keyboard.

There is also an achievable goal for such a product. It is possible to dictate to this recorder and have that recorded message transferred to machine readable text. This would act very much like the voice recognition programs such as Dragon Dictate and IBM VoiceType. Users will be able to dictate text to the tape recorder, and then transfer this digitized speech to machine readable word processing files on a personal computer. The ability to transfer speech from the recorder to the PC, and vice-versa, opens a whole world of possibilities for this emerging adaptive technology.

For further information on MagNum, readers can contact:

Visuaide 2000 Inc.
FAX 514-463-0120
Banks, D. (1994). What's next in adaptive technology: Magnum - a digital recording personal assistant. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 1(3).