Braille Monitor                                                    May 2008

(back) (contents) (next)

 

The KnfbReader Mobile:
An Individual Perspective


by Michael D. Barber

From the Editor: Michael Barber is president of the NFB of Iowa. He is also a technology specialist who works at the Iowa Department for the Blind. He has been using the new knfbReader Mobile. Here is his report:

Michael BarberIt is late Thursday evening, and I have just checked into my motel room in a small Iowa town. After I get my computer set up (always a high priority), I start looking around for printed material I know exists in this room. For instance, I want to know what TV channels are available. I search to the left of the TV, and there it is--a letter-sized sheet of paper.

From my pocket I take my Nokia N82 cell phone and turn it on by pressing a button on the top of the phone. Soon I hear the familiar Nokia music sounds letting me know the phone is active. Then I press a button just to the left and a bit above the five-way scroll box on the phone. I hear a message that says, "Hello. I am the knfbReader Mobile."

Yes, that's right, reading software is now available in a small cell phone. Ray Kurzweil, the world-acclaimed inventor, promised us six years ago that by 2008 we would enjoy reading portability we could put in our shirt pockets, and now it's here. It's the knfbReader Mobile, and it does fit in my shirt pocket.

This is amazing to me considering where all this began. You see, I remember the very first reading machine back in 1976. That machine took up two tables and cost about $50,000. It was Ray Kurzweil who invented that machine as a result of a conversation he had on an airplane with a blind person who told him that, although he could accomplish many tasks independently, it would be nice if he could read printed material on his own. Back in those days we were impressed with a machine that could scan and read back to us a letter, a memo, or even a book. Even then Mr. Kurzweil was promising reading portability within the next twenty-five years.

Years went by, and many of us will remember the Arkenstone and Arkenclone machines, the VERA, and other systems that helped us to read the printed page. But none of these was portable. We first saw portability as a reality in 2005 with the advent of the Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader. This was comprised of a standard PDA with a digital camera attached to it. With this device we could read our mail, office memos, printed receipts, and later U.S. currency. Portable as this was, it was still too bulky to put into a pocket comfortably.

But now we have a truly portable reading device combined with a cell phone. With the addition of screen-reading software such as Mobile Speaks or Talks, it is now possible to access the other functions of the phone, including making and receiving phone calls and managing personal information such as names and phone numbers of contacts and appointments in the calendar. The phone also offers an accessible GPS program, an Adobe PDF reading program, a voice recorder, a music player, and much more. Wonderful as it is, this particular phone, the Nokia N82, offers access to AT&T or T-Mobile only. It will not work with Verizon, Sprint, U.S. Cellular, or other non-GSM networks.

The Nokia N82 is about the size of a Milky Way candy bar, and unlike too many other cell phones, its keypad is very easy to feel. The buttons have just the right amount of space between them and are raised enough so that they can be located easily by touch. And the phone has two gigabytes of memory. (For those of you who may not be techno geeks like me, that's a whale of a lot of memory.) Above the keypad is a square box, which is called the five-way scroll box. This box contains up, down, left, right, and enter buttons. To the left of the box is a button that activates different functions, depending on what area of the button you press. Pressing the top of this square button will activate the knfbReader Mobile. Pressing the very small button on the extreme left edge of the phone will activate the phone's Send feature. Pressing the bottom edge of the button will bring up the phone's main menu. To the right of the five-way scroll box is the End Call button, the top edge of which can be pressed to exit the knfbReader Mobile. If you turn the phone around so that the back of it is facing you, you'll find a slide switch that moves from left to right. When this switch is moved to the left, the camera lens is closed; when it's moved to the right, the lens is open, and you can take a picture.

Back in my motel room I position the cell phone over the page and about a foot above it. My finger moves to the bottom edge of the five-way scroll box, and I gently press it. knfbReader Mobile announces, "Taking picture," followed by the sound of a camera snapping a picture. This is followed by some fifteen seconds in which I hear periodic beeps while the image is being processed. Then I hear the various channels available to me. My curiosity leads me to other printed material in the room, and I learn that, if I had forgotten my toothpaste, toothbrush, or shaving cream, all I would have to do is to call the front desk to get help. Most important, though, I can tell which package of coffee is not decaffeinated. Additionally, I am able to use the reader to read the dialing instructions on the room phone just above its keypad.

But that's not all this device is capable of. I recently visited an ATM machine and withdrew $50. I had three bills. I knew that one was a ten-dollar bill, but which one? All I had to do was to position the reader above the bill and press the zero key on the keypad. A picture was taken, and the bill was recognized as the ten I was looking for. And, by pressing the pound key followed by the zero, I could tell whether I was looking at the back or front of the bill and which direction it was facing.

You can customize the reader by changing the many user settings available to you. For example, by pressing the number 7 key on the keypad, you can enter the audio settings and change the rate, pitch, and volume of the speech as well as changing to any installed voice. If you have some vision, you can adjust the size of the print on the screen by pressing the number 9 key and choosing between small, medium, and large. There is also a setting here for turning the display off.

Thus far I've been able to read my personal mail (including bills, junk mail, etc.), some catalogs, pages in a phone book, memos, receipts, and business cards. As noted earlier, I've also been able to scan and recognize various denominations of bills. Additionally, I was visiting a financial institution very recently where I was waiting for my wife to fill out a document. In front of me on the counter was a stack of printed material. I almost forgot and asked my wife what they were, but then I remembered I had my knfbReader Mobile with me and found that it was a personal survey a person could take to see if he or she was ready for retirement.

I have been impressed with the clarity of speech from this little device as well as the accuracy of the optical character recognition. As with any scanning and reading software, you do not always get 100 percent accuracy, but in many instances it's very close. Reading catalogs or magazines with a lot of colored text can sometimes be a challenge and may slow down the recognition process.

So how does this device compare with Kurzweil 1000 and OpenBook, the two desktop solutions that are in wide use today? The most obvious comparison is that you can scan and read documents with all three systems. You can also scan and recognize currency with all three systems. All three systems will let you save your scanned document, but both OpenBook and Kurzweil 1000 allow you to save your document in many different file formats. The huge difference is portability. With both Kurzweil and OpenBook, you must have both a computer and scanner, and neither of these is truly portable. With the knfbReader Mobile, you have a system that truly can be carried in a pocket.

As I think about the future of this device, I would like to see the following:

A few more available file formats for saving documents; right now there is only one.
The ability to send a file to yourself or someone else by email.
The ability to use a Braille display so those who are deaf-blind can enjoy reading portability.

All in all, this is an excellent piece of technology and will prove to be very useful to me both at home and at work. It will be very useful for the person attending conferences or seminars where there may be handouts. It would also be useful for the college student who goes to a class where the instructor distributes handouts that must be read immediately. I do not recommend using the knfbReader Mobile to recognize money handed back to you while you're at the head of a long checkout line at a department store or supermarket; the task of scanning each bill is still time consuming.

Finally, I found that the excellent audio tutorial, narrated by James Gashel, was very easy to follow and had me up and running in no time at all. Everything you need to know about the reader to get you started scanning documents or recognizing currency is delivered in very clear terms.

You can obtain more information about the knfbReader Mobile, including where to buy, directly from knfbReader Technologies. The Web address is <http://www.knfbreader.com/products-mobile.php>. The phone number to call is (877) 547-1500. The knfbReader Mobile sells for $2,195. This price includes the reading software and the Nokia N82 phone but not a calling plan or the Talks or Mobile Speak software.

(back) (contents) (next)