Saturday, April 22

New Portable Reading Machine Coming Soon

Greetings. Here's an article that has made it rounds of the email lists in recent days, and I thought I'd post it here. It talks about the upcoming Kurzweil NFB Reader, a portable reading machine you can carry in your pocket. The NFB plans to debut it this summer in Dallas at their annual convention, and hopefully, they'll have a few for people to buy. I've seen a demonstration of this device and it looks very promising and very cool. Enjoy, and as always, please excuse any formatting errors.

Kurzweil-NFB Reader: Device provides words to live by
By Frank D. Roylance
Baltimore Sun, April 14, 2006

Hand-held reader that can convert text into synthesized speech may increase
independence for the visually impaired

Not long ago, James Gashel was on Capitol Hill, waiting for a meeting to
start, when he realized that he needed some numbers from a chart he was
That was a problem. Gashel is blind, and so was his companion. And the chart
was not in Braille. Gashel was reaching for his cell phone to call someone
at his office to retrieve the numbers, when his colleague stopped him. "Why
don't you try the reader?" he asked.
Of course.
Gashel, an executive at the National Federation for the Blind in Baltimore,
was carrying the world's first hand-held reading machine for the blind -
just developed by NFB in collaboration with Kurzweil Technologies Inc. of
Wellesley, Mass.
Combining a 5-megapixel digital camera with a personal digital assistant, or
PDA, the 13-ounce Kurzweil-NFB Reader converts digital images of text into
synthesized speech.
Gashel pulled out his reader, snapped a picture of the chart, "and within a
minute I had the numbers I wanted," he said. And he didn't have to bother
anyone else to get them.
Now in final field tests before its release for sale by Kurzweil this
summer, the device was officially unveiled last week at ceremonies at NFB
headquarters in South Baltimore. Thanks to the new reader, Gashel and 75
other blind product testers across the country are sorting through their own
mail, reading restaurant menus, identifying packages in the freezer by the
labels and discovering many other tasks they can now do without assistance.
It's liberating, Gashel said. "You start to think about your capabilities
In addition to many of the nation's 1.3 million blind people, he also
predicts a demand from older people with failing eyesight, and young people
with dyslexia or learning disabilities.
The NFB's collaboration with Kurzweil began more than 30 years ago, when
founder Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer of character recognition and text-to-speech
devices, came to the federation's offices, then in Washington.
He had developed the first Kurzweil Reading Machine. The size of an office
copier, it could scan a document and read it in a synthetic human voice.
"That was very revolutionary," Gashel said. Until then, blind people were
pretty much limited to live readers, or the limited number of publications
available on tape or records, or transcribed into Braille.
The Kurzweil reader was big and expensive - $50,000 each, Gashel said. It
couldn't read photocopied matter and it had problems with pages crowded with
pictures. But it was clearly a breakthrough. So the NFB bought six, and
began working with Kurzweil to improve them. "This was the first time an
inventor of a product had ever come directly to us," seeking input from the
blind in the development of an "access" machine, Gashel said.
Eventually, Kurzweil began to sell improved versions to schools, libraries
and rehabilitation agencies. But even though prices fell over the years, the
reader remained too costly for individuals.
Just as importantly, "There was always a need for something portable,"
Gashel said. By the mid-1990s, the advent of desktop computers and scanners
enabled Kurzweil to develop a PC-based reader - the Kurzweil 1000.
Character-recognition software was improving, too. And laptops made the
hardware required smaller. But one problem remained: "You would have to have
a scanner - it would be quite a bit of paraphernalia to carry about," Gashel
Digital photography provided the needed breakthrough; that, and the
miniaturization of computer power in the PDA - the hand-held computer that
millions use to organize their lives. The Kurzweil-NFB Reader, which is
expected to cost less than $3,000, marries a small, 5-megapixel Canon camera
to an ASUS A730 PDA. They are wired together and held by a vinyl case about
6 inches by 3 inches by 2 1/2 inches. It's all operated with just nine
buttons, with voice prompts from a small speaker or through earphones.
Holding the device about 16 inches above a sheet of paper lying on a table,
Gashel lines up the shot. He is guided by a sort of audio viewfinder:
"Right, bottom edges are visible ... two degrees counterclockwise relative
to page."
The camera speaks in an oddly Eastern European male voice, but it's one
that's familiar and comfortable for people who use electronic readers.
Gashel pushes a button and the shutter clicks. A few seconds later, the
device is reading the release aloud, flawlessly.
Tests on a business card and an ATM receipt are rougher. The device misses
some lines of type, and mistakes some characters for others. But it does
better on a second try, "learning" as it goes along.
Had it been his own ATM slip, Gashel said, "I would have known what I
withdrew, and I'd know most of the information, even if it didn't hit it
Many times, he said, "you're not going for perfect; you're going for 'What
is this?'"
Jim McCarthy, 39, director of governmental affairs at the federation, has
also been testing one of the readers. A new office arrangement has left him
without a nearby assistant, so something as simple as sorting through papers
on his desk becomes an issue.
"I'm probably 25 feet from the closest person," he said. It's not a big deal
to walk around the corner and ask someone to identify a piece of paper, "but
it seems like a waste of time."
The reader "allows people to sort pertinent documents in a way a lot of us
aren't accustomed to. That is pretty liberating," he said.
Lou Ann Blake, 46, a visually impaired research specialist at the
federation, has also been a test-driver. "I read the cooking directions on a
bag of pasta," she said. "It was plastic and I kinda had to flatten it out.
But it did quite well."
Videotape labels, bills, letters, 401(k) statements - it read them all.
"Some of the pronunciations it doesn't get quite right - legal terms, Latin
terms," she said. But "it's amazingly easy to use. I have a harder time
using the copy machine here sometimes."
But the key advance is the new device's portability, said John Pare, 47,
director of sponsored technical programs at the NFB, who started to lose his
sight at 35. "No matter where you are, you're constantly being handed
printed material," he said. "It's the way the world works. In restaurants,
the airport, hotels, at a conference."
The Kurzweil reader enables the blind to grab an image quickly, anywhere -
even in the dark - and "read" it themselves instead of relying on friends or
strangers to read the documents aloud.
"It's been very gratifying," Kurzweil said. "When we started this project
about four years ago, we weren't ... entirely sure to what extent we could
compensate for distortion in the images that would occur using a hand-held
Where a scanner provides a flat, uniform image and perfect lighting, the
hand-held digital camera would tilt and rotate relative to the page - then
the user would move and the lighting would be uneven. Worse, the pages of an
open book are curved, with portions at different distances from the camera.
"So we developed image enhancing software that takes this image and modifies
it to get rid of all those distortions," Kurzweil said. "And we had to fit
all this software [along with the character recognition program] into this
little computer."
But it worked. "We have 75 in the field, and hundreds very soon," he said.
"And the feedback from blind users is that it's having tremendous success."
If it does well, the federation could eventually profit. Gashel said the NFB
owns 40 percent of the rights to the technology. In the meantime, the
software will continue to be improved so that the device can read more
varied and complex material.
Kurzweil also predicts a time when a blind person will be able to enter a
room, snap a picture, and have the reader identify the types and locations
of lamps, tables, people and other items in the room.
Also, devices "will continue to get smaller over time," he said. Gashel
expects the gadget will be crammed into a cell phone some day. But Kurzweil
is thinking even smaller. "In five to seven years, the camera will pin on
your lapel and take pictures as you walk around," describing the scene as
you go, he said.
NFB chef and teacher Marie A. Cobb, 59, of Catonsville, who is visually
impaired, has been using the reader since January. She has her own hopes.
"What I'm looking for is the day when I can take it into a mall and have it
tell me the name of the stores, and the locations on those big directories.
I would love that," she said.


  1. Anonymous7:02 AM

    I just saw your reading machine on tv....They posted a phone number but it was verbal and to fast to get it to buy one.. This was on CNN July 8th 2006... Can you please post the phone number on your site here Thank u

  2. Anonymous7:51 PM

    We had a desktop kurzweil reader for the blind used by our son ((dyslexic). Need replacement. He's making great progress. Needs small portable machine. Info please.