Reading Matter

In Plain Sight

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

The Invention Technology that lets the blind read without having to run their fingers over raised dots may sound like a page out of the future, but a new device does just that. The K-NFB Reader, developed by Bedford, Mass., inventor Ray Kurzweil and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), combines a digital camera with character-recognition software and text-to-speech conversion technology in a hand-held device about the size of a PDA. Users snap a shot of a bill, a menu or the page of a book, and in about 15 seconds they hear the contents played back in synthetic speech. The Reader can recognize most forms of printed material -- with the exception of currency and ornate lettering -- and features a "field-of-view report" that tells the user where to aim the camera. While it is not meant to replace Braille, the Reader offers potential access to a wider range of printed matter than Braille does.

The Response A trial version of the Reader earned "overwhelmingly positive" feedback from 500 blind testers, said John Paré, director of public relations for the NFB. They particularly liked the device's portability and simplicity, compared with older technologies using large scanners tied to desktop computers, he said.

Patrick Leahy, a District resident who tested the product and plans to buy one, said he no longer had to ask people to read him text. "There was nothing better than saying, 'It's okay, I got it,' " he said. Leahy credited the Reader with helping him quickly sift through printed material both at home and on the job as a special assistant to the secretary of commerce.

Find I t At . . . At $3,495, a K-NFB Reader isn't cheap, but Leahy called the price worth paying for the freedom to read and access any printed material. The price also includes lifetime support services and a year's software updates. Readers are available through Kurzweil Educational Systems, Inc., and its national distribution channel of resellers. Find a local dealer at http://www.knfbreader.com/sales.html .

-- Jeffrey G. Ghassemi


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