Braille Monitor                                                    June 2009

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Join the Club: The knfbReader Mobile--A Product of Teamwork

by Michael Hingson

From the Associate Editor: The National Federation of the Blind is the only national distributor of the knfbReader Mobile, the latest breakthrough in accessibility for print-disabled readers. Knfb Reading Technology, Inc., a partnership between the NFB and other pioneers in access technology, has developed software that places the power of a reading machine in a multifunction cell phone.

Longtime Federationist and international motivational speaker Michael Hingson is the NFB director of national sales for the knfbReader Mobile. He has been interested in and familiar with reading machine technology since its earliest days. Emphasizing the importance of teamwork, he tells the story like this:

It is not surprising that people ask me to speak about teamwork because I have been talking about it in one way or another since I received my first guide dog when I was fourteen. It was most dramatically demonstrated when my fifth guide dog, Roselle, and I worked together to escape the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. This story will forever more be a part of my life, and I enjoy talking about it.

But I have another story of teamwork to share with you. This is one most people don't know about, but it has changed the lives of blind people around the world. It has been thirty-five years in the making, and it will go on for years to come.

In 1974 a young inventor named Raymond Kurzweil developed a process that allowed a camera to take a picture of a printed page and convert the information into either spoken words or recognizable print text that could be displayed on a computer screen or stored in a computer file. The thing that made this invention unique was that not only was this device able to scan typed material, but for the first time optical character recognition techniques could be used to scan printed material like magazines and books. Ray was interested in helping blind people read, so he contacted the National Federation of the Blind to present his idea for a functional reading machine for the blind. Teaming with blind people to achieve this goal made sense to Ray.

I officially joined the project in 1976 when I was hired to work for James Gashel, then NFB director of governmental affairs, to coordinate the day-to-day efforts of the NFB side of the project. My job was to place the five machines the NFB had bought around the country where blind people would have access to them. I trained users in each location, ensured that the machines operated correctly, collected user data, and fed information back to Ray Kurzweil and the NFB leadership. For eighteen months I traveled the country, visiting the sites where the machines had been placed.

At that time the Kurzweil machine weighed several hundred pounds and consisted of a heavy scanner and an even heavier computer processor, each housed in a cabinet. To provide a bit of portability, the machines were moved on a heavy-duty rolling cart.

Teamwork was required all around. Not often does an inventor allow prototypes of his project to leave the laboratory, out of his control. Nevertheless, this is what happened with the reading machine. A team of blind people ran the NFB project, maintained the machines, wrote training curricula, trained other blind people to use the machine, and systematically collected scientific data, which led in 1979 to the first commercially available Kurzweil reading machine.

Over the years Ray maintained his relationship with the NFB. By 2001 he was acknowledged as one of the world's foremost futurists, inventors, and forward-looking thinkers. In 2001, Federation leaders approached Ray Kurzweil with the idea of making a truly portable reading machine. Together they decided to produce a  portable reading machine by 2006. In 2005 prototypes of the new knfbReader were put into the hands of blind people for testing. Consistent with Ray's timeline, the knfbReader went on sale in July 2006, but Ray and the team were not yet finished.

By the beginning of 2008, knfb Reading Technology, Inc., had been formed. The company's first task was to develop a second generation of the reader, called the knfbReader Mobile. This time the hardware platform was to be a high-end cell phone, so the reader could truly be pocket-sized.

Nothing demonstrates the value of a piece of technology more effectively than comments from a satisfied user. A blind executive recently sent an email affirming the value of the knfbReader Mobile in his personal and professional life. His testimonial illustrates the flexibility and independence the knfbReader Mobile gives thousands of blind people throughout the world. Here is what he said:

The knfbReader Mobile, demonstrated at the Cane Event, which was recently provided to me as part of my accessibility toolkit for my new job, is top on my list for capturing images ranging from business cards to showing anyone anywhere how technology can help us remain independent. We've come a long way from using disability rooms in libraries to scanning civil procedure texts independently. In one day I used my knfbReader Mobile to check my boarding gate on a trip from Dallas to Washington, D.C., email a document I had captured during a business meeting to a colleague back in the office, text message a newly appointed government official, capture a restaurant menu at my hotel, and read and send home an audio file of my voice reading Clifford the Big Red Dog to my kids. It's truly amazing.

The supported cell phone models for the knfbReader Mobile are the Nokia N82 and the Nokia 6220 Classic. The knfbReader Mobile can be activated and ready to use with the touch of a single button on the phone. The user takes a photograph of the print to be read. The character recognition software will read aloud the contents of the document in high-quality text-to-speech. The knfbReader Mobile can simultaneously display the print on the phone’s built-in screen in large print if needed, highlighting each word as it is spoken. Following is a common list of tasks that blind people can do independently using the knfbReader Mobile:

In addition the user can independently access other functions of the cell phone, including making and receiving calls and accessing contacts and calendar data. When fully equipped, the phone can run global positioning system programs, access Adobe PDF files, and operate a voice recorder and music player. Accessible documentation for the knfbReader Mobile provides additional explanations of all of the features of this powerful technology.

The reader, available from the National Federation of the Blind, includes the knfbReader software, the Nokia 6220 Classic mobile phone, and a cell phone screen reader--either Talks or MobileSpeak. The knfbReader Mobile software and phone cost $1,370. Either telephone screen reader costs $295. The entire package, including the screen reader, costs $1,665 plus shipping. To help with financing, the NFB operates a 3 percent low-interest technology loan program. Inquiries about the technology loan program should be directed to Curtis Chong at (515) 277-1288; <>. We also accept Visa or MasterCard.

For further information, to purchase the knfbReader Mobile, or to ask about opportunities to help promote and sell this product, contact Michael Hingson at (888) 965-9191 or (415) 827-4084; <>.

Ray Kurzweil has a vision for the future of the knfbReader Mobile that calls for it to do even more than read print. A great future lies ahead, but we will have to wait for the technology to catch up to Ray's ideas. Although Ray had the dream, the idea, and the expertise to create a machine that allows blind people to read printed material, the technology would not be where it is today if it had not been for the team created by Ray and the National Federation of the Blind. It took the leadership of Ray Kurzweil and Kenneth Jernigan to get the idea off the ground and the continued commitment of Ray Kurzweil and Marc Maurer to keep it going. Those of us involved in this experiment are committed to keeping the team alive and the progress coming. Join the club. Be a part of our team. Go totally globally mobile.

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