by Michael Hingson
From the Editor: It is amazing to me how quickly the newness wears off of the new and how quickly the bar is raised for something to be called truly amazing. I cannot look at a reading machine without marveling at how it does its magic. After many years feeling page after page of undifferentiated smooth sheets and wishing I could determine what they said without waiting for a reader or a family member with enough time to assist me, I can’t help reacting with excitement when talking about the marvelous combination of machine and instructions that together can look at a page, convert its ink shapes into letters, figure out how to pronounce the words made from them, and to do so with speed and accuracy.
The first book I ever read with a reading machine was H. R. Haldeman’s book The Ends of Power, which was written during the Watergate era when the country was in crisis because of a war we couldn’t win and a president driven from office by his own excesses. Going to the library, getting the book, and reading it while it was still being actively discussed at the Student Union building was exhilarating. The problem was that this fantastic machine wasn’t in my home, and, truth be told, for all it did in letting me read that first book, there were many layouts and fonts it couldn’t read.
I moved to another city to finish my degree, and the print was once again invisible without a human reader. When, if ever, would the cost of a machine be within my reach? Given my budget, the answer was two decades, and then came the purchase of a computer, a scanner, and some software that let me back into the public library. I have been a heavy reader of print since then and have scanned nearly a hundred books, some of which appear on Bookshare for any other blind person to read. The freedom to read print was mine when I was at home, but, if I went to a play or concert and they gave me a program, it was still just slick paper with secrets it would not reveal until after the show. Then came the knfbReader, a device costing less than the computer, software, and scanner I had first used, and fitting in my shirt pocket. Suddenly I could read the quickly generated memo that had been prepared for a work meeting but not early enough to send it to me ahead of time. I could go to the shared printer and take away documents, knowing they belonged to me. I could go to a restaurant and read the menu without feeling pressured to make a quick decision so the waitress could go about serving other customers.
The magical and affordable little device that now lets me read anywhere is the knfbReader. Here is what Michael Hingson has to say about how you too can have one in your pocket:
It has been three-and-a-half years since the long-awaited announcement that the world's first totally portable reading machine for the blind, the knfbReader Mobile, was available for purchase. What an exciting time! Not only could blind people take a small device out of their pockets or purses and read virtually any printed material, but they could also use it as a cell phone with some of the leading mobile phone carriers in the United States.
In December 2008 the National Federation of the Blind took a hand in selling this wonderful product. President Maurer asked me to coordinate the sales efforts, and eventually we brought United States sales into my company, the Michael Hingson Group, Inc. Since the inception of our sales efforts on behalf of the NFB, we have sold nearly 500 knfbReader Mobile systems and have become the master distributor for the product in the United States for K-NFB Reading Technologies.
During the past two-and-a-half years I have been and continue to be asked a number of questions which lead me to believe that people still have basic misconceptions about what the knfbReader Mobile is and is not. I thought it was time to set the record straight and to help people understand why I think they should take advantage of purchasing this device. Below are some of the questions and answers I think will help all of us better appreciate why the knfbReader Mobile can be an invaluable tool for us.
1. What is the knfbReader Mobile, and what does it do?
The knfbReader Mobile is an integrated system usually consisting of one of several cell phones, Mobile Reader software, and screen-reading software for use with the cell phone’s other functions. The Mobile Reader software is an OCR (optical character recognition) TTS (text-to-speech) Symbian application that enables the camera to take pictures of printed material, convert those images into text files, and then read them aloud. The software gives the user full control over what is read and how it will be read, including reading word by word, sentence by sentence, and even character by character.
2. Since the knfbReader Mobile software runs on a cell phone, do I need cellular service in order to use the Reader?
Absolutely not. When the Reader software was being written, Ray Kurzweil and his team determined that it would be possible to write the software to operate on some brands of cell phones, thereby eliminating the need to create special hardware. There seems to be, however, a lot of confusion about the fact that you do not need to use the cell phone as a cell phone in order to read. The fact is that the knfbReader Mobile software uses the cell phone’s computer, camera, and speaker, but not its telephone capabilities. Since the cell phones used by the knfbReader Mobile software are not supported on all cellular networks, some people will not have the luxury of taking advantage of the cell phone capabilities of the hardware supported by the Reader while others will be able to use the system as both a reading device and a cell phone.
3. Are there ever updates to the Reader software?
Yes. From time to time K-NFB Reading Technologies releases new software with updates to the Reader. For example, in the middle of last year new software was released that added a "tilt" feature to the knfbReader Mobile. By using this new feature, users can ensure that the phone camera looks straight down at the page during the image capture or picture-taking process. The result is a page that can be better read and understood. From time to time new software is released that has support for new phones that are found to work with the knfbReader Mobile.
4. When will the knfbReader Mobile work with the iPhone?
Given the popularity of the iPhone, we are frequently asked this question. All we can say is that it will happen, but we do not know exactly when. Many other software packages have been released for the iPhone which purport to be able to perform accurate optical character recognition and whose developers say that their products will work for blind people. The fact is that none of these products work well on the iPhone. Some people have purchased and are using these apps on their iPhones, albeit with a great deal of difficulty or with limitations compared to what can be accomplished with the knfbReader Mobile today. Some of the iPhone apps available are extremely cheap, but you get what you pay for. The knfbReader Mobile will be released as an iPhone app only when the product can offer the same level of independent reading enjoyed today by knfbReader Mobile users with supported phones. The knfbReader Mobile is still the only truly portable reading device that provides full independent-reading capabilities for all blind people.
5. Is financing available to purchase the knfbReader Mobile?
The National Federation of the Blind has a technology loan fund that can be used by blind people to fund the purchase of the knfbReader Mobile and, for that matter, other assistive technology they may wish to purchase. The interest rate offered by the NFB Technology Loan Fund is 3 percent. This is vastly better than the interest rate offered by most credit cards. If anyone is interested in exploring the Loan Fund as a way to purchase the Reader, please visit <http://knfbreader.michaelhingson.com>. On the front page of this Website is a link entitled "New Online Loan Application." Simply complete the application form, including answering the security question at the bottom, and then submit it. You will be contacted by a member of the loan committee.
Again this year we will be demonstrating and selling the knfbReader Mobile at the NFB national convention in Orlando. If you would like to purchase the knfbReader Mobile at the convention but can do so only by using the NFB Loan Fund, I urge you to submit an application now and indicate on it that you would like to pick up your Reader at the convention. The loan committee will do all it can to process applications received from people wishing to acquire their Readers in Orlando.
In addition to the loan application, the Website mentioned above contains a number of recordings of conference calls with hints and tips about how to use the knfbReader Mobile. The tutorial and other documentation provided with the Reader can also be found on the Website. Finally, a list of phones and some pricing can be found there.
Speaking of pricing, the cost of the product does change from time to time as we secure new phone pricing. The best way to find out the most current price is to call me or one of the other dealers who are part of the Michael Hingson Group, Inc. I can be reached at (415) 827-4084, or emailing me at <info@MichaelHingson.com>. A list of our current dealers is located on our Website.Earlier this year the Blind Driver Challenge showed us a new road toward independent driving by blind people. As exciting and trailblazing as this new technology is, we still have quite a way to go before the average blind person can drive a car down the street. Today, however, any of us can take our knfbReader Mobiles into a restaurant, a library, a doctor's office, or anywhere else and read virtually anything that is handed to us. This is as good as it gets. We, the blind of the United States, were an integral part of the development and introduction of the knfbReader Mobile. If you have not yet purchased your Reader, I urge you to join the technology revolution and go totally globally mobile by calling us and getting your own knfbReader Mobile.