[blindkid] FW: boston globe article

Leslie Ligon atfirstsight at ligondesign.com
Mon Apr 27 13:47:11 UTC 2009

>Hi, all. Ethan's braille teacher sent me this interesting article 
>from the Boston Globe last week:
>The Portable EYE:
>When Peter Alan Smith pulls out his phone in a crowded Back Bay 
>restaurant, there's no
>clue that his Nokia is by far the most expensive mobile phone in the 
>entire place. He has
>about $2,400 in software loaded onto the $600 device.
>But then it becomes apparent what's unique about Smith's phone: A 
>flash goes off when
>he snaps a picture of the menu, and a few seconds later, his phone 
>has translated the
>page of text into speech, and started reciting the options through 
>his earpiece at a rapid
>Smith developed a degenerative eye disease when he was 18, and he is 
>now legally
>blind. It has been about two decades since he could read a restaurant menu
>independently. He first heard about the phone on a podcast series 
>called "Blind Cool
>Tech" and took out a low-interest loan to buy it.
>"At work, I can take a picture of two different documents to figure 
>out which is which,"
>says Smith, who works for John Hancock. "At home, if I'm making 
>chili, I can take a
>picture of a can to make sure it's the kidney beans before I open it."
>The software that translates the text in high-resolution digital 
>photos into speech is made
>by KNFB Reading Technologies Inc. in Wellesley Hills. It was 
>developed by Ray Kurzweil,
>the local inventor who has been coming up with technological 
>breakthroughs for the blind
>since the mid-1970s. But as with many of his innovations, Kurzweil 
>plans for the software
>to be useful - perhaps incredibly useful - to sighted users in a few 
>years from now.
>Kurzweil released his first reading machine, developed in 
>partnership with the National
>Federation for the Blind, in 1976; on the day it was unveiled, TV 
>anchor Walter Cronkite
>used its speech synthesizer as he signed off the air. The device 
>could scan printed pages,
>decipher the letters, and speak the words aloud. It was about the 
>size of a washing
>machine and cost $50,000. Stevie Wonder bought the first production 
>model, Kurzweil
>In the decades that followed, much of the scanning and speech 
>technology Kurzweil
>developed evolved into the scanners and scanning software now built 
>into many printers
>and PCs. Burlington-based Nuance Communications Inc. sells several 
>software products
>originally created by Kurzweil to convert printed documents into text.
>In 2002, the president of the National Federation of the Blind asked 
>Kurzweil about
>portable reading technology; though his reading machine had gotten 
>smaller, it still
>resided on a desktop. "There's a lot of printed material that you 
>don't want to bring back
>to your desk - or you can't - like a sign on a wall or a bank ATM 
>display," Kurzweil says.
>Kurzweil predicted a pocket-size reading machine was only about six 
>years away.
>Kurzweil and the federation began collaborating to develop the 
>necessary software. It
>had to be smart enough to interpret a photo taken at any angle, in 
>any sort of lighting,
>with random images sometimes in the background.
>An interim device, released in 2006, married a Canon digital camera 
>with a personal
>digital assistant; it sold for $3,500. The cellphone version debuted 
>earlier this year. It
>works only on a Nokia N82 phone, which features a built-in 
>5-megapixel camera, with
>flash. The camera offers spoken feedback to the user as to whether 
>it has captured the
>entire page. After about 20 or 30 seconds of processing the image 
>and turning it into
>text, it starts speaking. The standard phone with software sells for 
>$2,145, but also
>includes a talking GPS system, and the ability to read any Web page 
>to its user, among
>other features. (It's also good at identifying the denominations on 
>printed money.)
>James Gashel, vice president of business development for KNFB 
>Reading Technologies, is
>also a user of the device. "I don't use it to read books," he says, 
>"but I use it for the
>daily mail, business cards, and brochures. I was at a Catholic men's 
>retreat over the
>weekend, and I used it to read the schedule."
>Gashel says there are about 1.3 million blind people in the United 
>States; since February,
>the company has sold "thousands" of the readers, he says. But the 
>population of
>dyslexics is about three times larger. A new version of the mobile 
>phone reader will soon
>be available that is targeted to them. "These are people who can see 
>print, but have
>difficulty tracking from word to word," Gashel says. "So this new 
>version of the software
>helps people whose problem is that they get lost in a series of 
>words on a page."
>Still more intriguing is how the phone might assist other users. A 
>prototype in Kurzweil's
>lab is able to photograph a document in any of seven different 
>languages and translate it
>into English, Kurzweil says he has demonstrated it in public 
>appearances, taking a photo
>of text in French and having the phone read it in English. It sounds 
>a bit like Douglas
>Adams's fictional Babel fish - a universal translator.
>"We call it 'snap and translate,' " he says. How soon will it be 
>available? "Two or three
>years," says Kurzweil, adding that he is talking to cellphone 
>manufacturers. "We also
>have a prototype of speech to speech translation, where you can 
>speak in one language
>and have it come out in another," he says. "Right now, that requires 
>a bit more
>computation than a cellphone can support," though he notes that 
>phones are getting
>more powerful each year.
>As it turned out, Smith didn't really need to have his phone read 
>the menu to him last
>month at the Parish Cafe. He had been to the restaurant several years ago and
>remembered eating a tasty steak sandwich. So that's what he ordered, 
>and we spent the
>meal talking about his experiences running the Boston Marathon and 
>his tandem cycling
>hobby. He says he uses the reader several times a day, about equally 
>at home and at
>work. He told me he's amazed by what the KNBF software can do - 
>"it's a portable eye,
>essentially" - but that he's hoping the cost will come down, so more 
>blind and visually
>impaired people can afford it. "The cost is prohibitive," he says.
>Gashel says, "I think the cost of the phone will come down as the 
>product expands in
>terms of who it can reach. The bigger the customer base, the more we 
>can bring the
>price down." Still, he says, $2,100 isn't that expensive when it 
>comes to technology for
>the blind. He says he recently purchased a personal digital 
>assistant that can render
>phone numbers and appointments in Braille, for $4,500, and also paid 
>$5,500 for a flat-
>screen TV. "And I can't even see it," he quips. "But the people who 
>come to my house
>seem to like it."
>Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner at pobox.com.

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