Latest Cellphone Feature: Reading Aloud

Chris Danielsen of the National Federation of the Blind demonstrates a cellphone software that can convert printed text and images into speech.
Chris Danielsen of the National Federation of the Blind demonstrates a cellphone software that can convert printed text and images into speech. (By Rob Carr -- Associated Press)
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Monday, February 4, 2008

Without help, Marc Maurer, who is blind, cannot distinguish between bottles of Tylenol and Vitamin C or tell if he's handing a cashier a $20 bill or $1 bill. Four years ago, he signed for what he thought was a $44 hotel room bill that was charged to his credit card for $44,000.

So when inventor Ray Kurzweil approached the National Federation of the Blind two years ago to create a cellphone that reads print, Maurer, a Maryland lawyer and the organization's president, jumped at the technology.

Last week, K-NFB Reading Technology -- a joint venture between the Baltimore federation and Kurzweil's research and development firm -- unveiled its cellphone reader at the Holiday Inn Capital in the District.

"People are panting after this product," said Maurer, who consulted Kurzweil's developers on the most important applications needed by the blind. "It's a form of vision you can hold in your hands."

During the presentation, Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, held a cellphone that contained the reading software over a $20 bill and snapped a picture.

In a robotic monotone voice, the reader said, "Detecting orientation, processing U.S. currency image." After a few seconds, the voice said: "20 dollars," prompting cheers from the audience.

The reader software will be sold for $1,595, starting Feb. 15, Maurer said. The market for the technology is 1.3 million blind consumers and 10 million people with impaired vision in the United States, according to the federation.

For now, the reader technology can only be used for dark printed letters and numbers on lighter backgrounds. The federation and Kurzweil hope to broaden its use to include other images, such as animals and human faces.

Maurer is happy to be able to do things that he could never do before without help.

"I can read a menu. I can tell the difference between shampoo and mouthwash," he said. "May not sound like a big deal, but it makes a big difference to do these things."

-- Cecilia Kang


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