Reading for the blind and dyslexic

I’ve always been a strong believer in volunteer activities not only as important and necessary facets of American life but also as an incubator of the classic American inventive spirit.

Now here comes a versatile new gadget that threatens to turn me and some of my fellow volunteer readers into dodo birds.

I’ve always been a strong believer in volunteer activities not only as important and necessary facets of American life but also as an incubator of the classic American inventive spirit. For almost four decades I have paid regular weekly volunteer visits to sound studios in New York and Cambridge (Mass.) to record business books for the blind and visually impaired and for sighted people with learning disabilities. The audio versions of these books are distributed by Recording For the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D is headquartered in Princeton, NJ; see www.rfbd.org).

Over the years, I have seen the technology of audio recording and playback of these recorded books progress from clumsy reel-to-reel magnetic tape, to easier-to-handle audio cassettes and recently to the more versatile compact discs. Now here comes a versatile new gadget that threatens to turn me and some of my fellow volunteer readers into dodo birds. That’s progress, American style, I guess.

The new device is called the Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader, K‑NFB Reader for short. Developed at Kurzweil Technologies (Bedford, MA), the K-NFB Reader is a paperback-book-size portable gadget that can swiftly read documents and speak them out aloud via headphones or a small loudspeaker for blind and visually impaired people. This ability to “read” everyday documents from wills to cereal-boxes is really quite startling.

You’ve probably heard of Ray Kurzweil. He is an outstanding inventor who is best known for his market-leading music synthesizers. But Kurzweil and his fellow researchers have been active for many years in the fields of artificial intelligence and speech recognition. An impressive list of Kurzweil’s publications and commentaries by him and about him can be found at www.kurzweilai.net.

As you might expect, the Reader has its own Web site at www.knfbreader.com(for K-NFB Reading Technology). The site is informative and worth a visit. Much of the Web site has pages in PDF format that can be printed and read by a K-NFB Reader.

Kurzweil is also very skilled at generating extensive publicity for his ideas and products. In the case of the Reader, Kurzweil or one of his publicists even put a K-NFB Reader in the hands of Walter Mossberg, the highly respected technology editor of The Wall Street Journal. Although, as Mossberg readily admitted, he and his associate could not presume to speak for blind or visually impaired persons, they could and did review the Reader for the readers of the newspaper (The Wall Street Journal, July 26, 2006, p. D10).

In fact, the review was largely favorable and, in my view, quite evenhanded. The rarely generous reviewers and writers said that the device “might offer a huge lifestyle change (for someone who can’t see).” I agree. But, there’s still a big, big problem, guys-price.

As of press-time, the K-NFB Reader costs a hefty $3,495 (list price). I have yet to handle one of these readers but the device appears to me to consist largely of a conventional auto-focus digital camera that is connected to a PDA-like handheld computer. I’d guess that the OEM price for the two is well under $500. Even though the device is being sold in the U.S. via distributors, I’d have to guess that there’s about $1,000 profit in every reader sold at list. Let’s hope discounts will be readily available.

According to the developers, the significant value-add is in the software. I don’t know whether I believe the developers in this claim. I do know that the Kurzweil software is very unlikely to be open-sourced (maybe it should be open to all?). I can also understand the complexity of integrating a handheld device with powerful OCR and speech technology software. There are some major investments here for Kurzweil and his financial backers. But three and a half grand? I don’t think so.

Nonetheless, I welcome any reliable device that can help blind and visually impaired people lead more productive and fulfilling lives. I have no doubt that the early adopters of the K-NFB Reader will have many suggestions for improvements and even new versions. If only such a device could “read” photos or graphs as I do when recording textbooks for RFB&D. Then I would quietly become a dodo, I guess!

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