Volume VII Number 1, August 2000

DAISY Consortium: Information Technology For The World's Blind and Print-Disabled Population -- Past, Present, And Into The Future

George Kerscher
Research Fellow
Recording For the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D)
Project Manager to the DAISY Consortium


The DAISY Consortium created the first Digital Talking Book (DTB) and this is now known worldwide as the DAISY format. The DAISY DTB is the application of existing worldwide standards used to define the next generation of information technology for people who are blind and print disabled. The acronym DAISY, Digital Audio-based Information System, is both a name for a reading system and for the Consortium of libraries, non-profit organizations and for-profit Friends of the Consortium around the world that spearhead the development of the International standard. This article will briefly trace the history of DAISY's development and go on to explain the current activities and future plans for the single worldwide standard.


Libraries serving the blind have been around for many generations. Braille is the oldest format, but "talking Books" started to evolve 50 years ago. In the 1970's, the analog cassette began to dominate the talking book service industry, upsetting the older "Clark & Smith" six-track format, and the open reel tape format. Unfortunately, the analog cassette came to be offered in a variety of incompatible forms. The better sounding Commercial speed two-track stereo was used, but half speed monaural four-track systems were popular in North America. In other countries half speed stereo complicated matters even more. This variety meant incompatibility in books and playback systems throughout the world. It was the advancing Information Technology that sparked thinking about the application of the technology for Talking Books.

In 1994 the Scandinavian Associations for the blind lead by the Danish Association of the Blind published the report "The next generation of talking books." The report was adopted by the European Blind Union (EBU) and served to guide developments. 1995 saw leaders emerge from the existing libraries for the blind worldwide. Nine organizations launched the society-changing effort to develop the "next generation of information technology for persons who are blind and print disabled." Many individuals contributed to the birthing process, but Kjell Hansson and Lars Sönnebo, from TPB Sweden, stand out as the fathers of the new emerging technology. Kjell's infamous metaphor comparing scrolls of toilet paper containing print, to the analog cassette painted a vivid picture in people's minds. Many "reused" his irreverent comparison to encourage the transition to a technology-based age of information for persons with print disabilities.

The early efforts of developing a worldwide standard met with spurts and sputters, but Plextor, manufacturers of the famous CD-ROM drives, threw support behind the project. With the assistance of Labyrinten, a software development company in Sweden, the DAISY standard effort began to take shape. Three hundred CD-ROM playback systems were built by Plextor. These units, called "Plextalk" were shipped and tested throughout the world. Labyrinten recording software was used to master the first new versions of the technology in the disabled community. This time saw numerous changes in user interface design and implementation. It was a learning experience unlike anything else in the talking book industry.

At this same time, RFB&D initiated their own digital audio browser effort based on current web technology. HTML and Real audio were used in the prototype implementation. At CSUN 1997 the DAISY group and Labyrinten representatives met with RFB&D and developers from Productivity Works to collaborate on harmonization of the emerging technology. It was here that worldwide consensus started to snowball. In Sigtuna, Sweden the technical experts met to discuss the new designs and agree to a new direction. In July in Tokyo and finally at the end of the Summer in Copenhagen, the bonds between semantic structure and the acoustic structure formed.

The four meetings earmarked the transition within the fledgling DAISY Consortium. As a whole, the DAISY Consortium wisely chose to use the emerging multimedia standards from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and apply these existing standards to the application of talking books. RFB&D was now ready to join the DAISY Consortium. "Digital Talking Books" is the term that became popular and everybody in the Consortium set their sights on the second version of the DAISY DTB. Currently, ten Full Member organizations guide the Consortium with expertise (and money) and more than thirty Associate members and Friends make up the DAISY Consortium.


In June of 1998, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the standards setting body of the Internet, approved the Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL). The DAISY Consortium was well represented in the development of this standard by Markku Hakkinen from Productivity Works and by myself. It took the DAISY Consortium only three months to incorporate the SMIL specification into DTB and publish the first International standard based on existing W3C standards for DTB. It was September 1998 when the DAISY 2.0 specification was approved and published on the DAISY web site. The DAISY 2.0 standard is an application of both SMIL and HTML.

The DAISY 2.0 specification is designed to provide persons who are blind and print disabled with the ability to "navigate" a digital human recording by headings and page numbers. Headings placed in a strict hierarchy can be navigated quickly and easily. The hierarchy can be collapsed and the user can move chapter by chapter through the book. Incrementally Expand the navigation center and sections or sub-sections are exposed for navigation and reading. Alternatively, input a page number and users go directly to the top of the page. This functionality was a direct result of the extensive developments of user requirements and of the field-testing, conducted worldwide. The specification allows for distribution through the Internet by streaming or by download, but most current implementations are using CD-ROM for distribution. A CD-ROM using MPEG compression allows more than forty hours of high quality digital sound on a single CD. In addition to the Plextalk, VisuAide has produced a portable CD-ROM playback system called "Victor" named after the famous author Victor Hugo. DAISY DTB can also be played on a multimedia computer using LpPlayer by Labyrinten and Productivity Works.

One year later, September 1999, the DAISY specification was slightly enhanced. DAISY 2.01 gave the users the ability to turn on or off the automatic reading of footnotes and figure descriptions. In addition, the 2.01 specification added XML support for full text synchronization. Concurrently, the DAISY Consortium published the "Structure Guidelines" that explains how the text should be created with XML tagging. Application of the "Structure Guidelines" is an absolute necessity for consistent usage of the standard in each country and organization.


The first software used to produce DAISY 2.0 books was developed by Labyrinten under an agreement with the Japanese Society for the Rehabilitation of Persons with Disabilities (JSRPD). The "Sigtuna Recorder" (Sigtuna is the name of the town in Sweden where the agreement was crafted) was a modification of the original software developed for the first DAISY DTB. Hiroshi Kawamura, Director of JSRPD made available the Sigtuna software without cost by JSRPD to any DAISY Consortium member and to interested organizations in developing countries.

However, the DAISY Consortium envisioned many advancements in the DAISY standard and started the task of developing a professional production tool. The DAISY Consortium negotiated a pre-license agreement with the International Structured Audio Team (ISAT), a coalition between Plextor, Productivity Works, and Labyrinten, to develop the professional production environment. The Product was called LpStudio/Pro (L from Labyrinten and P from Productivity Works). The DAISY Consortium agreed to do the beta testing for the software development project. The extensive requirements the DAISY Consortium put forward meant a long product development cycle, but functionality that would ensure its use in the wide variety of production environments and provide the best product to the end-users.

After two years of development and extensive testing, the Software was launched on March 28, 2000. This was a milestone for the DAISY Consortium and the future of DTB worldwide. With this software and the development of the "Basic Training Course," the proliferation of DAISY DTB could begin.


The key to a successful implementation plan lies with building expertise throughout the DAISY Consortium. "Train the Trainers" courses, regional training centers, technical conferences, and an extensive technical helpdesk are the supporting facilities designed to develop experts within every organization in the DAISY Consortium. Please see the article "Worldwide Training and Technical Support for DAISY" for a detailed explanation of the plans for developing expertise in the DAISY Consortium.


Strategically, the DAISY Consortium decided to collaborate with all emerging systems to replace Talking Books that may compete with the DAISY standard. The thinking was that the Consortium should participate in any similar activity and bring our experiences with us to the discussions. Any good ideas would be incorporated into the DAISY system and we would assist the other groups avoid making mistakes. The DAISY Consortium wholeheartedly joined with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) to work through the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) to examine the future direction Talking Books should take.

The collaboration of the many members of the DAISY Consortium and NLS through the NISO framework has been a total success. All organizations are working together to make sure there is one worldwide standard. The current draft is becoming known as the DAISY / NISO 3.0 specification. These efforts are using W3C specifications, as does the current DAISY standard. For detailed information on these efforts, please see the article "Digital Talking Book Standards Developed by NLS and Partners under NISO Auspices."


As soon as it became clear that full text synchronized with the human narration was the ideal form of a DTB, it also became clear that excellent Braille could be produced from the full text. Unlike Braille production from scanning or re-keying, the full text in a DAISY / NISO DTB is marked up using XML notation. Having the text fully marked up eliminates the guesswork from Braille translation software. Extreme precision can be attained automatically. Joe Sullivan, President of Duxbury, has been a longtime advocate of using markup, but the problem has always been getting correctly, marked-up data. Now with the movement toward a worldwide standard, efforts are underway to use this technology to facilitate Braille production. NLS has contracted with Duxbury for the development of a DAISY / NISO Braille translation module that will be incorporated into the Duxbury system.

It is more difficult to create the full text and full audio instead of just the headings and page numbers along with the human recording, but the final product has much greater functionality. Likewise, it is popular to use the full text in conjunction with synthetic speech and not even use digitally recorded human speech. For these reasons, the DAISY Consortium has joined the "Open eBook Forum" (OEBF) as this emerging technology starts to produce eBooks. The OEBF activity has the potential to make mainstream books available as text. The text can be used in the production process for DAISY DTB, making it more cost effective to produce the full text and full audio. Again, the DAISY Consortium sees the strategic importance of collaborating with the OEBF to push for converging standards.


The organizations in the industrialized world are now making the plans to start the distribution of DAISY DTB in the next few years. DAISY distribution is in full swing in Japan, but other countries are a little further behind. Each organization sets their launch plans individually. Most of the libraries feel they need a sizeable collection of DAISY books before they can begin serving their consumers. Many organizations in developing countries see the importance of this technology as well.

Once the organizations are providing DTB to their clients, the possibility of sharing titles between organizations and countries will be explored. To do this copyright issues will need to be addressed on a global basis. The DAISY Consortium is exploring these issues as one of the major activities in the overall strategic plan.


Three categories of membership are available in the DAISY Consortium:

If your organization or company wants to join the DAISY Consortium, you should send email to: daisy-board@svb.nl. The Board will promptly reply and provide any additional information and an application form. Please visit the DAISY Consortium website for complete details!


Kerscher, G. (2000). DAISY Consortium: Information technology for the world's blind and print-disabled population - past, present, and into the future. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 7(1).