Medical Device Daily

John Paré – who says, “I'm a blind guy myself” – has recently found new enjoyment in a whole bunch of small things, such as being able to “read” the in-flight magazine when he flies to a conference, or, without help, taking a long “look” at all the offerings on a restaurant menu.

He says that what otherwise might be considered, to you and me, rather small and insignificant accomplishments, will be carried out millions of times each day with a new device, the Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader.

The reader is a newly developed technology for enabling the blind to scan and read – by listening – to a wide range of documents, in whole new settings, Paré told Medical Device Daily.

The latter feature, its portability, is the strikingly new feature of the device.

Paré, director of communications for the National Federation for the Blind (NFB; Baltimore), notes that the scanning and transition into Braille or synthetic speech can be done with bulky scanners and computers at home or in the office, but that they aren't exactly capable of being taken on the road. The new reader changes all that.

Looking like a slightly enlarged personal data assistant (PDA), the Kurzweil-NFB reader is a hand-held system. Placing it over a document for scanning, and then simply pushing a button, enables a blind or poorly sighted person to hear, via synthetic speech, the documents' contents, ranging from a standard page of print to a business card, or even smaller.

The reader combines a digital camera, speech recognition software, text-to-speech conversion and a speaker system, all combined into PDA format that is being bannered by the NFB as revolutionary in its ability to provide quick access to more information in more places for the blind than ever before possible.

The reader can be used with headphones so as not to disturb others, or with small speakers on a desk. Other features include the ability to transfer files to a desktop and laptop computers or to Braille notetakers.

Paré notes that the device can aid those with the entire range of sight difficulties, not only the blind, but those with great difficulty in seeing and the elderly who may otherwise avoid reading such things as the small print of pharmaceutical labeling.

Developed by serial device entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, with what Paré describes as “significant” financial support from NFB, the reader will be officially unveiled at the NFB's annual convention July 4-7 in Dallas and go on sale then.

Cost of the reader is put at about $3,495, which the NFB compares to the price of a flat-screen TV.

Paré says that the device will receive ready reimbursement, either partially or often fully, through vocational programs supporting blind workers and students and that a variety of state agencies are likely to support purchase options.

Sales will be handled by Kurzweil Educational Sys-tems (Bedford, Massachusetts) and its national distribution channel of dealers, with portions of the profits going to NFB.

Paré says that development of the reader was launched about two years ago, with the devices beta-tested over the last several weeks by up to 500 users – by NFB “pioneers” around the country who used the device and provided feedback for fine-tuning.

Key to the development was the work of Kurzweil, CEO of K-NFB Reading Technology, the joint venture created to develop and promote the device.

Kurzweil – who has been dubbed the “Thomas Edison of the 21st century” – was the primary developer of the first omni-font optical character-recognition technology, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer and related technologies.

Paré says that future development of the reader will be largely determined by the continuing improvements of its key components. As PDAs and digital cameras systems become “smaller and more powerful, we'll incorporate those capabilities,” he said, thereby advancing the system's ability to read print, say, against complex color backgrounds and different varieties of type, perhaps even hand-written notes.

“Some day, I envision that there will be enough processing capability and sufficient resolution on a digital camera to run [the reader] on a cell phone,” Paré told MDD.

Marc Maurer, president of the NFB, said: “The world of the printed word is about to be opened to the blind in a way it has never been before. No other device in the history of technology for the blind and visually impaired has provided quicker access to more information.”

He noted also that the device is consistent with the NFB's promotion of “a positive attitude towards blindness – this reader will make blind and visually impaired people dramatically more independent. The result will be better performance at work, at school, at home and everywhere else we go.”

James Gashel, NFB's executive director for strategic initiatives, said: “Every year 75,000 more people will become blind or visually impaired in this country. As America's aging population soars over the next few decades, so too will the incidence of visual impairment and blindness.”

With more than 50,000 members, the National Federation of the Blind is the largest membership organization of blind people in the U.S. In January 2004 the organization opened the National Federation of the BlindJernigan Institute (Baltimore), billed by the NFB as “the first research and training center in the U.S. for the blind led by the blind.”

No Comments