by James Gashel
From the Editor: James Gashel needs little introduction to our readers. He is the secretary of the National Federation of the Blind, has been involved with the project to bring reading technology to blind people since 1975, and, when that technology could fit into a pocket, Jim urged us all to go totally mobile. Here is an article about the latest release of the KNFB Reader, a truly innovative and useful piece of software that once again allows for on-the-go reading.
"If you have an iPhone you can have a reader too." This is what I said on Sunday, July 6, 2014, as I addressed attendees at our seventy-fourth annual convention and announced that the KNFB mobile reading technology would soon be coming to the iPhone. The wait for this to happen was about over.
The chain of events leading to this announcement extends back almost four decades. It is said that history informs the present and nowhere is that more true than in the history of reading for the blind using text recognition and synthesized speech technology. Providing the iPhone with a high-quality text-reading app did not occur in a vacuum, and it could not have occurred at all without a whole series of events building on one another.
For me it all started in March or April of 1975. I can't remember the exact day when Ray Kurzweil entered the Washington office of the National Federation of the Blind and sat across the desk from me. I had taken the position as chief of the Washington office in January 1974, so when I first met Ray, I was just a few months into my second year in that position.
Ray was and still is just a year or so younger than me, although both of us are forty years older than when we first met on that spring day in 1975. He said he was a graduate of MIT, and he had started a small company called Kurzweil Computer Products. Then what he said next was nothing less than astonishing to me. He said he had invented a machine that could read printed text to blind people, and he speculated that this would have great promise for changing the way blind people would get information in the future. More than what he said, what struck me was the matter of fact way in which he said it—almost like creating this life-changing technology was something he did on a Sunday afternoon with not much else going on that particular day.
For my part I wanted to believe the story he was telling me, but I still approached the prospect of an actual reading machine with a healthy dose of skepticism. This was the mid-1970s, and much of the technology that had been invented for the blind was not too advanced. There were cassette tape players and talking book machines, and there was even a device called the Optacon, which used a small camera and activated vibrating pins to form the shape of the printed letters as seen by the camera. Some people really liked it, but it fell far short of being an actual reading machine.
The machine he described used a computer, which I knew to be something that only large institutions had. Ordinary people did not have computers, so how could ordinary blind people have a reading machine? Besides, I wondered how well it would really work.
As Ray and I talked, I thought of several other technologies for the blind that were said to have great potential and then failed to live up to their promise. Would this reading machine turn out to be something like that?
Ray said his machine was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, so two weeks later I went for a visit. I knew I didn't know anything about computers, but I did know Alan Schlank, and I knew he programmed computers for the Pentagon; so I took Alan with me to see what we could learn about this machine. What we observed that day held true to the promise—the machine did recognize print and speak the words—but it was certainly not ready for prime time either. There were lots of wires and gismos connected together, but everything was spread out on tables and racks in a small room, and nothing was in a case. This was technology in its most basic development stage, but it did do what Ray said it could, and there was nothing else like it anywhere in the world.
I think it was about two months later that I first introduced Ray Kurzweil to Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, then president of the National Federation of the Blind. It was our 1975 convention, held at the Palmer House hotel in Chicago, and it was Ray's first NFB convention. Ray said he had been looking for money to bring the reading machine from the laboratory to the market, but everybody he talked to just wished him well and sent him on his way. The question was, would the NFB help to make the dream of a reading machine come true, and the answer was an unequivocal yes: we would and we did.
As our effort to raise funds went forward in the fall of 1975, word of the machine that could read to the blind began to circulate, building interest and enthusiastic support for the project. Ray likes to tell the story of how Walter Cronkite, the legendary anchorman of the CBS Evening News, learned about the reader and allowed it to read and speak the words of his signature sign-off for the program: "That's the way it was, January 13, 1976." Speaking these words to conclude his nightly broadcast to America was a personal privilege that Walter Cronkite reserved for himself, and, as he later recalled, he had not allowed neither man nor machine to take his place with the single exception of that night in January. Although I was at the controls to make the reader speak, it was the reading machine and not James Gashel that spoke the final words to conclude the broadcast.
First introduced to the market in 1978, the Kurzweil Reading Machine continued to attract much interest, albeit with a $30,000 price tag. Buying one was beyond the reach of most blind people, but it was possible for blind people around the country to encourage its purchase by libraries and agencies for the blind so that we could begin to take advantage of the access it provided to the printed word. Still, the product was popular. Even today I hear from blind people who had their first experience with the Kurzweil Reading Machine at a local library, school, or rehabilitation agency.
During the 1980s and through the 1990s, the reader (using different product names) got smaller in size and less expensive to buy, just as Ray had originally predicted. Then, as personal computers gained in popularity in the 1990s, with scanners available as well, what we knew in the 1970s as the standalone Kurzweil Reading Machine became computer software and sold for $1,000—far more affordable than the $30,000 machine twenty years before.
But the evolution of mobile reading for the blind was yet to come. In October of 2001, as we were breaking ground for the Jernigan Institute and planning its ground-breaking projects, Ray Kurzweil declared that the time was drawing near when the scan-and-read technologies of the last thirty years could be converted to run on mobile devices and used for reading on the go. We asked when this could happen, and Ray responded in his unassuming low-key way that his current models suggested the technology could be available in about four and a half years give or take six months. Trusting Ray and this prediction, the NFB and Kurzweil Technologies started development of a handheld carry-around reader in 2002, not knowing what hardware would eventually be available to power it.
In July, 2005, we had a handheld reader we could demonstrate. I told Ray that the test would be if either Marc Maurer or I could get the reader to recognize and speak text in front of our national convention. I explained that the audience would not believe that the technology was real if Ray or one of his engineers aimed the camera and took the pictures; it was necessary that a blind person do the demonstration. So, with my heart in my throat, I stood before the convention, holding the reader with print on the table below, hoping to hear it read text. This was the first time in history that a blind person would be standing up in a public setting, aiming a camera at a printed document, and then letting the audience listen to the result. Just imagine my feeling of absolute pride and joy when the reader started to speak the text of the afternoon agenda, and the audience erupted with one of the loudest convention cheers on record.
Obtaining reasonably accurate text-to-speech results when using a computer and scanner was certainly a challenge not to be sneezed at in 1975, but designing the technology so blind people could take pictures and still get highly accurate reading results was a challenge of a much higher magnitude. When using a scanner, the page can easily be lined up with or without sight, and the document is always well lit to provide a uniform and high-quality image for text recognition. Not so, however, when a camera rather than a scanner is used to capture an image of a page with text, and especially not so when the person aiming the camera at the text can't see to focus it. This is something Ray pointed out at our first meeting to discuss the details of the mobile reader project. During that meeting and since, he emphasized the importance of creating high-quality pictures of text using image preprocessing technology as being absolutely essential to improve text recognition accuracy.
The first mobile reader developed through the Kurzweil NFB collaboration was software running on a personal data assistant connected to a digital camera. The combination of these components sold for $3,495 beginning in July, 2006. We were right on schedule with Ray's October 2001 prediction. Then, eighteen months later, Nokia released the N82 cell phone, complete with a five megapixel camera with a very bright xenon flash, making this an ideal single unit platform for the smallest and least expensive mobile reader ever. Within a year of its release this reader, running on the Nokia N82 cell phone, was speaking in eighteen different languages and even translating from one language to another. With the image preprocessing technology working under the hood, the reader, called the KNFB Reader Mobile, attracted worldwide attention and praise for its ease of use and accuracy. Still, at a price of around $1,700, which included the phone, the KNFB reading software, and screen-reading software, the cost presented an economic barrier for many who wanted and needed a high-quality reading device.
In June of 2009 Apple made history by adding screen-reading software called VoiceOver to the operating system used to power its iPhone 3 GS. For the blind this meant that a fully-accessible smartphone could be obtained for around $200 as compared to buying any of several other available smartphones for twice as much or more after adding in the additional cost of screen-reading software. Besides, word spread that VoiceOver actually worked very well to make the flat screen iPhone a thoroughly usable device right out of the box. No wonder blind people were joining the lines of enthusiastic buyers which form outside Apple stores worldwide every time a new version of the iPhone is released. But for those who wanted a smartphone with the ability to take pictures and read text on the go, the advent of the fully accessible out of the box iPhone turned out to be a mixed blessing, since Apple's choice of camera technology was far behind the excellent cameras used in the more expensive and less accessible Nokia phones. Running the reader software on the iPhone was not a problem, but the iPhone's camera just would not produce an image of sufficient clarity for accurate text recognition, resulting in the truth contained in the well-known adage pertaining to computers: garbage in, garbage out.
In June 2010 there were widespread rumors that a better camera would be available in the iPhone 4, scheduled for release later in the month. So, camping chair in hand, I took up my position immediately outside the front door of the AT&T store in my neighborhood when the store closed at 9:30 at night. I wanted to be and was first in line to get my hands on one of these new phones, which we were hoping could also be used as a reader. When the store opened at 7:00 AM the next morning, I got my iPhone 4 and immediately turned it over for review, hoping that a reader would result. It did not. Although the camera hardware in the iPhone 4 was improved as compared to its predecessors, it was still not possible to sharpen the image of text by adjusting settings in the camera software, so the garbage in garbage out problem continued.
These were dark days indeed for those of us who wanted the ability to take pictures and read text with our iPhones, finding instead that, in order to have a suitable device for reading on the go, we had to continue carrying one phone for a reader and another for all other capabilities of a smartphone—far from an optimal solution. Still the good old KNFB Reader Mobile running on a Nokia N82 cell phone remained the gold standard in mobile reading technology, never mind that Nokia stopped making the N82 mid-way through 2009. Lacking a suitable platform, the reader, once popular in the golden age of the Nokia phone way back in 2008, had become virtually obsolete except among those of us who had the good fortune to obtain it before the iPhone became accessible and captured the market.
The break which led almost immediately to the KNFB Reader iOS app came in September 2013 when Apple announced its coming release of iPhones with better cameras, faster computer processors, and greater control over certain camera settings made possible in the newest version of its mobile device operating system called iOS 7. The specifications looked very promising, but I remembered my high hopes for having a reader on the iPhone 4. A small company in Belgium called Sensotec had been wanting to produce a reader for the iPhone, so plans were made to do so if good text recognition results could be obtained from the new iPhone 5 S running iOS 7.
I remember taking the first pictures with a prototype version of our text reading app in late November 2013 and realizing at that time that the iPhone could be a reader too. My thought was that, for blind people to accept it, we needed a reader that would meet or exceed the standard set by the KNFB Reader Mobile running on the Nokia N82. Anything less would disappoint potential users and might not be worth the effort. Several text reading apps had become available for the iPhone, but most had failed or nearly failed due to poor performance and lack of interest. The problem (if you can call it a problem) was that the standard for high-quality reading on the go had been set when Kurzweil Technologies and the NFB joined forces to create the KNFB Reader Mobile reading technology. To gain widespread acceptance, performance of the app on the iPhone would have to meet the KNFB Reader standard or exceed it.
Has that goal been achieved? Let the users speak for themselves. What follows are unsolicited comments compiled by the Apple App Store and on the KNFB Reader Users list.
Wow. This single app is a life changer for blind people. It recognizes text extremely accurately and quickly. It's far faster than using my flatbed scanner with Kurzweil and is as fast or faster than OpenBook with the Pearl document camera. I have taken twenty or so pictures since downloading, even of my computer screen, and have been continuously amazed with the results. If you are debating getting it, don't. It's the real thing. It’s what we have been waiting for! NFB and good old Ray have done it again.
I have used several OCR applications on different platforms. Some of them worked well, but, on iOS, I have generally had very poor results with them until KNFB Reader came along. I stuck a regular office memo under the phone and gave this app a try, and it read the memo almost perfectly on my first attempt. My camera technique isn't all that good either. So I must say that these guys hit one out of the park with this one.
I bought it, used it, and love it. Talk about a product that is simply amazing: it's everything it was promised to be.
This is the app I have been waiting for for the past five years—and it has not disappointed. I have used the previous KNFB Reader mobile device, and this app for iPhone is much easier to use. It is intuitive. It takes pictures and reads the print from round spice bottles, small round medicine files, on the back of plastic pouches, in glass picture frames, and off of my laptop computer screen. [While the reader does have the ability to capture some text from round bottles, sometimes several shots are required to determine their contents, and the Reader should not be regarded as a substitute for other devices that read prescriptions or bar codes.] I have many scanner apps on my iPhone, and none of them are accurate. But this one is accurate at least 98% of the time. Love it, love it, love it.
These comments represent the overwhelming sentiments of those who have purchased the KNFB Reader. In mid-October the app was upgraded for use on Apple's iPhone 6 and 6 plus, as well as being supported for use with the iPhone 4 S and the 5th generation iPod Touch. Plans are in the works to release a version designed for use on newer models of the iPad with better cameras, as well as on Android phones and tablet devices.
More information about how the KNFB Reader works is available by visiting the KNFB Reader website at <www.knfbreader.com>, where you can also find video and audio demonstrations. A thorough and well-crafted review of the product also appeared in the November issue of Access World with the title “KNFB Reader for iOS: Does This App Live up to All the Hype?,” written by Bill Holton. It can be found at <http://www.afb.org/afbpress/pub.asp?DocID=aw151104#content>.
Speaking in English and eleven other languages on the day it was launched, the KNFB Reader will soon be able to be used with dozens of other languages, including Japanese, Russian, and Chinese, with translation from one language to another.
Maintained by KNFB Reading Technology and Sensotec with the support of the National Federation of the Blind, the KNFB Reader for iOS can be purchased and downloaded from Apple's worldwide App Store distribution system. At a price of $99.99 it is an understatement to say that, with added capabilities yet to come, the KNFB Reader for iOS has already opened a new era in read-on-the-go technology for people who are blind by raising the bar for high-quality performance and by lowering the price of the technology that makes it possible.