Future Reflections  Summer 2006

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The Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader
The Revolution is Here!

by James Gashel

Editor’s Note: Jim Gashel is the executive director for strategic initiatives for the National Federation of the Blind. He has been deeply involved in the planning and development of the Kurzweil–National Federation of the Blind Reader. Now that the beta testing period is drawing to a close, it seemed appropriate to ask him to make the announcement of the extraordinary results of the collaboration between technological genius and the knowledge and expertise of blind people. This is what he says:

1977: Entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil and Dr. Kenneth Jernigan test out the original Kurzweil Reading Machine in 1977.In 1975 Ray Kurzweil invented the first multi-font optical character recognition (OCR) technology capable of converting printed characters into full-word synthetic speech. This system, which was about the size of a small dishwasher, was called the Kurzweil Reading Machine. Joining with Ray Kurzweil to test and launch this product, the NFB secured financial support to purchase six preproduction units at a cost of $50,000 each. This technology was unique and revolutionary in its time.

Personal computers were not widely available and were not a mass-consumer product in the 1970’s, so the original Kurzweil Reading Machine was a stand-alone, dedicated reading system with its own internal computer and built-in scanner. Today the more modern version of the same technology--the Kurzweil 1000--is computer software running on a standard desktop PC connected to a scanner.
Although a certain amount of competition has developed over the last thirty years, the Kurzweil Reading Machine and its offspring have been widely regarded as the gold standard in text-to-speech conversion technology. However, having this technology in a completely portable form has been an unrealized dream. That was true until March 2006, when blind people throughout the United States started to learn about and use the world’s first handheld, text-to-speech electronic reading system for the blind. This is called the Kurzweil–National Federation of the Blind Reader.

The name says it all. Unlike the Kurzweil Reading Machine, named for Ray Kurzweil as its inventor, the portable Reader has been designed by Ray Kurzweil and the National Federation of the Blind. Therefore this device bears both names. This name also symbolizes the fact that the blind themselves have played a leading role in making the world’s first completely portable reader a reality.
The Reader combines the latest state-of-the-art digital camera technology with a powerful personal data assistant (PDA). These components are housed in a custom-designed vinyl case that also contains internal circuitry to connect the camera and PDA to operate as a single system. Aside from this hardware, the software is completely new in blindness technology, with several features especially designed for this unique device.

Here are some of the vital statistics: the Reader is 6 inches long, 3 inches wide, 2-1/2 inches thick, and weighs 15 ounces. Although the Reader is about a thousand times smaller than the original Kurzweil Reading Machine, the PDA in the portable Reader is two thousand times faster. In fact, the portable Reader can execute about 500 million instructions per second as compared to 250,000 instructions per second for the Kurzweil Reading Machine. It also has a thousand times more memory (64 megabytes as compared to 64 kilobytes).
But the real difference is to have the power of reading in the palm of your hand. Here are a few reactions from early users known as “Reader Ambassadors” and “Reader Pioneers”:

Dwight Sayer: I have a neat story. Last week my BrailleNote rep came over to bring my GPS unit and some software. She had gotten the disks mixed up, and no one sighted was around. She couldn’t tell which one was mine. I said, “Wait a second….” I picked up a disk and shot a picture just pointing the Reader straight at it…. In a few seconds the Reader just rattled off the text on the CD, and I found I had my software right in my hands. The rep, who was drooling by that time, spent the next hour or so testing the Reader on everything from her checkbook to a receipt she had in her purse. By the way the ATM receipts that pop out of our great ATM machine at the National Center were read with ease as I was wondering what my balance was…. This little machine is a keeper!

Ron Gardner: The first thing I did with the Reader was go around my home snapping photos of the wall hangings. My grandchildren have given us some very precious quotes which are contained in framed hanging art. The quotes are covered with glass, and I wondered if the glass would reflect too much light. I am happy to report that the Reader worked with or without the flash, and the glass did not prevent a great job. It was terrific to be able to read these things from my grandchildren!

2006: The new Kurzweil–National Federation of the Blind Reader is the hand-held modern advancement of Kurzweil’s ’77 vision.Ramona Walhof: I demonstrated the Reader at my Lions Club this morning. I started with the Idaho Potato Cookbook, which it does very well. It also read the restaurant menu quite well, although it was green print on white inside plastic. The Lions were more than astonished by its performance.

Amber Chesser: After over a month of anticipation and after a week of reading about everyone’s experiences, I finally began using my Reader on Friday afternoon. What a wonderful beginning it was, and what a wonderful weekend of reading I have had! The Reader exceeded my expectations from the moment I took it out of the box. It looked completely different from anything I had imagined. . . . The unit is not bulky or too large; I definitely plan to carry it to all of my university classes as well as to concerts, meetings, and anywhere else I go every day. I was also quite surprised at the accuracy with which I took the pictures from the start. . . . I could write a lengthy post brimming with enthusiastic descriptions of everything that I read over the weekend. . . . I recognize that there are definitely developments to be made, but at this time the marvelous designers and developers have hit the nail on the head. Thanks, National Federation of the Blind, for the honor of being a tester and for such an exciting creation!

Karl Smith: I just had to write one more time about my experiences at CSUN with the Reader. This morning I attended a session discussing the future of accessibility for portable computer platforms. This was more or less a discussion session with not a whole lot of substance. During the presentation the presenter mentioned that the NFB was about to announce the new Reader. Being much like a proud grandpa with new pictures of his grandkids, I pulled my machine out and waved it over my head. The presenter acknowledged that someone in the room actually had one. The fun started after the end of the presentation. I was suddenly surrounded by a large group of people wanting to see the Reader and know how it worked. Someone gave me a legal-sized piece of print to read. . . . A short time later my trusty Reader began reading information on augmentative communication. Everyone listened very quietly because of the low volume of the PDA speakers, while the reading kept going and going with pretty much flawless results. It was then that the man who gave me the paper admitted that he had purposely given me what he considered to be a particularly awful piece of material to scan. It was a printout of a half dozen or so PowerPoint slides from another presentation. For me it was another one of those dream demos. It went perfectly, and everyone was very excited. . . . Several of the people said that this was the best part of the session. Folks, this thing is . . . the beginning of a revolution. Rarely does a piece of technology by itself really represent the beginning of an entirely new era for the blind. This one does just that . . . Man, this thing is fun.

Vickie Saucier: I have now had my Reader for three days, and I agree with Gary. You’re not getting it back except for repairs, if needed. I’ve experienced all the problems and limitations that everyone else has mentioned. When Jim first demonstrated it, I was in tears, and I still feel that way. At the first brief demonstration by my representative, I was terrified and thought that I’d never be able to use it. Changing that battery seemed difficult: remembering the commands, focusing, flash cards, etc. really caused me some alarm, since I am not a tecky like some of you. However, I mastered all those things except for the flash card (I just have to read the instruction manual and I’ll know how to do that too). I even demonstrated how to do all those things to another Pioneer who didn’t attend the demonstration. I am looking forward to all the future improvements, but for now I’m happy reading those Jell-O boxes and cleaning a bookshelf in my office without sighted assistance. It goes everywhere with me, and next week it’s going to see Mickey with me and my grandson at one of my favorite places on the planet, Disney World.

Juliett Cody: Yes, the Reader is good on bulletin boards. I did it on campus today, and I was pleased. I was looking for scholarship applications, so the postings were as large as a regular page. I must admit it was wonderful to walk into the scholarship office and not have to wait until someone could help me. I love the Reader, and, like I said before, I am not returning it.

Ron Brown: On April 22 the Indiana State Library held a technology fair. The NFB of Indiana was invited to show off NEWSLINE, so I decided to take the Reader to the technology fair without any forewarning to the host. I charged up my Reader, got together some prearranged documents to read, and went to the fair. When I got to our booth, I set up shop and waited for the participants to come by. It took only a few minutes for word to spread that the Reader was there.

Needless to say, the Reader was a big hit. Ours became the most popular booth at the fair. Not only did the participants stop by, so did the other presenters. The Reader and I worked from 10:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. nonstop. It worked this long without my having to charge the battery. I had to change the camera battery only once. Some of the people that gathered around started handing me other documents to read. I took those documents and shot pictures of them, and the Reader performed like a champ. I started grabbing Kernel books off the table and any other document in sight to read. Yes, I threw caution to the wind and went for it. When I opened a Kernel Book and held it away from me up in the air; one guy from the crowd stated, “He’s holding the book upside down,” and I shot the picture anyway. The Reader read the page about Mount Everest being the tallest mountain in the world. I guess the Kernel Book story I grabbed was “The Summit.” The crowd went wild. I was told three people asked how they could join the NFB.
All in all it was a beautiful day, and the Reader was a big hit. I have the sore feet and the loss of my voice from talking so much to prove it.

These comments indicate an overall positive response among early users of the Kurzweil–National Federation of the Blind Reader, and we are only at the dawn of this exciting new technology. Imagine what the future has in store for us with this technology we have created to meet our needs. Now that the Reader we have dreamed about is real, we have the opportunity and the ability to build upon this new beginning and make our Reader an even more powerful tool in the months and years ahead.

Even with its present capacity, however, the Kurzweil–National Federation of the Blind Reader reads most printed documents, from letters and memos to pages in a book; reads address labels and instructions; reads an entire page or just a few lines of text for identification; and provides easy access to restaurant menus. The Reader even reads play or concert programs, instructions for appliances, and numbers on lottery tickets--the possibilities are endless.

There are hundreds of uses for the Reader every day. No other device in the history of technology for the blind has provided quicker access to more printed information than the Kurzweil–National Federation of the Blind Reader. The world of the printed word is about to be opened to the blind in a way it has never been before. Get ready; the revolution begins today!

For more information contact the National Federation of the Blind Reader information and sales line at (877) 708-1724. A limited number of Readers are available at a special inaugural discount of $200 below the expected retail price of $3,495.

NOTE: The National Organization of Parents of Blind Children has helped place the machine with several families of blind children; the youngest of whom is four-years-old. Be on the lookout for further reports and testimonies from these children and their parents. We hope that a survey of their experiences will provide parents and teachers with some guidance about how the Reader can best interface with Braille instruction and other technology used by blind children and youth.

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