Read about the accessible features Vinux offers and the aims of the project!
The Accessibility Software:
Vinux is a remastered version of the popular Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx distribution optimised for the needs of blind and partially sighted users. By default it provides three screen-readers, two full-screen magnifiers, global font-size and colour changing facilities as well as support for USB Braille displays. When you boot the live CD you will be greeted by the Orca screen-reader/magnifier which enables you to navigate the graphical Gnome desktop using keybindings, as well as providing full screen-magnification if required. For those who prefer to work in a simple text based console there is the Speakup screen-reader and as an emergency backup we have installed YASR, a hybrid screen-reader which can be run in either console mode or in a virtual terminal on the Gnome desktop. A second full-screen magnifier is provided by the Compiz Window Manager, which uses 3D technology to allow you to magnify and navigate the whole screen using the mouse, or move a resizable virtual magnifying glass around the screen. The Gnome Desktop Manager itself provides you with global keybindings to change the font size and/or the colour scheme on the fly. Finally, Brltty provides Grade 1/2 Braille output via the Orca screen-reader. By default all of the screen-readers use the same Espeak Speech Synthesizer via Speech-Dispatcher which provides a seamless experience for the user when switching from one screen-reader to another!
The Default Package Selection and Layout:
If you have used Ubuntu before, the first thing you will notice about Vinux is that layout of the desktop and the selection of packages provided by default is very different to its parent distribution. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, in order to fit all of the accessibility software on the live CD we have had to remove some applications. Most of software we removed was inaccessible anyway, but we also had to remove Open Office and Evolution as they are just too big to fit on the CD once we have remastered it. However, these can easily be re-installed once you have installed Vinux to your hard drive using our new EasyInstall scripts. These enable you to install whole suites of applications by simply clicking on a desktop icon or launching them from the System Tools menu. Please note that some of these applications suites are only accessible using magnification and those therefore only appear in the System Tools menu, not on the desktop. Secondly, we have replaced some of the default Ubuntu packages with more accessible counterparts e.g. we have replaced Ubuntu Software Centre with the Gnome Application Installer. We have also added many other useful accessible tools which are not included in Ubuntu by default including: BareFTP (FTP Client), Bluefish (HTML Editor), Ceni (Network Manager) File Backup Manager, Gespeaker (Text To Wav), Gparted (Partition Editor), Gwget (Download Manager), PCManFM (Fast File Manager), Remastersys (Create Live CD), Root File Browser, Smuxi (IRC Client), Sound Converter and Thunderbird (E-Mail Client). We have also provided a small selection of useful text-based tools including: Alpine (E-Mail Client), Irssi (IRC Client), Lynx (Web Browser), MC (File Manager), Partimage (Copy & Restore Partitions), Pdmenu (Package Menu) and Testdisk (File Recovery Tool). Finally, we changed the layout of the Gnome Desktop in order to make it more accessible and easier to use. We removed the top panel, made the bottom panel bigger and replaced the default Ubuntu menus with a single Gnome Main Menu. We then replaced the default background with a much darker one and increased the default font size to 12 Bold.
The Evolution And History:
Vinux was initially born out of a frustration with the default accessibility support provided by mainstream Linux distributions such as Ubuntu, Fedora and OpenSuse. Although all three of these distributions did provide the Orca Screen-Reader/Magnifier, it was not configured to start automatically, its performance was poor and many vital applications were still inaccessible. This meant that a visually impaired user could only really use these distributions if they knew how to start and/or configure Orca already, even if they got it working it was very unresponsive and unstable, and they had to be comfortable using the terminal to get most administrative tasks done. This effectively meant that these distributions were all but inaccessible to any visually impaired user who was new to Linux, and even if they got it working the performance was so poor that they would undoubtedly run scuttling back to Windows with their tails between their legs. So I decided that the only rational response to this was to create a customised version of a Linux distribution that provided pre-configured accessibility packages by default, thus making it as simple as possible for visually impaired users to try Linux for themselves. I decided to build the first version of Vinux based on Ubuntu 8.10 Intrepid Ibex. This was the obvious choice as it had very good hardware support, a wide range of accessibility packages in its repositories, and it could easily be remastered using the Remastersys Backup tool. Although it was very simple to pre-configure the accessibility software and get the administrative applications working with Orca, it was impossible to get the speech responsive or stable enough using Speech-Dispatcher with PulseAudio. In reality Orca responded very slowly and often crashed for no apparant reason. So for this reason the second version of Vinux was based on Debian Lenny 5.0 which used Alsa sound rather then PulseAudio. This allowed us get very responsive and stable speech support, as well as introducing Speakup and CLI versions of Vinux. However, in order to gain the improvements in accessibility we had to sacrifice the superior hardware compatibility provided by Ubuntu. Inevitably this caused problems for many users, so it seemed we had to reluctantly choose between accessibility or hardware compatibility…
The Future Of The Project:
Fortunately, it turns out that we did not have to make the difficult decision between accessibility, printing and hardware compatibility. This is largely thanks to Bill Cox who managed to solve the PulseAudio and Speech-Dispatcher related latency/stability problems in Ubuntu. So the third generation of Vinux is based on Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx which will provide responsive, stable speech and excellent hardware compatibility. Bill has also written a set of scripts to automate the process of building Vinux from an Ubuntu installation and created an apt-get repository for our own customised Vinux packages. In the light of this I have asked Bill to take over the roll of Lead Technical Developer for Vinux, I will of course remain the Project Manager and continue to help and support Bill in whatever way I can. We are both hoping that this version of Vinux will be tried out and/or adopted by a much wider range of users, as well as attracting more experienced developers who can combine their efforts into making Vinux a distribution at the cutting edge of open-source accessibility. We are also planning to develop closer, more formal ties with the Ubuntu Accessibility Team, the GNU Project and the Open Invention Network, which we feel will significantly improve the awareness and status of the Vinux project in the ‘eyes’ of both the visually impaired and the wider open-source community!