Braille Monitor                                             June 2015

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The KNFB Reader Becomes the Property of the Nation’s Blind

by Marc Maurer

Marc Maurer uses the KNFB Reader with his iPhone.From the Editor: Since the election of President Riccobono, Immediate Past President Maurer has been working on a number of projects, one of the most important being to secure our right to continue to develop the KNFB Reader invented by Ray Kurzweil and the National Federation of the Blind. The legal skills of our former president have served us well, and, with this legal hurdle behind us, so too will his creativity and ability to make what we dream fit into software we carry in our pocket. Here is what Former President Maurer has to say about the reader we developed and will continue to support and enhance:

On April 22, 2015, all of the papers became complete to transfer the KNFB Reader from its former owner to the KNFB Reader LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Federation of the Blind. In 2002, shortly after the groundbreaking for the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, the National Federation of the Blind entered into an agreement with Ray Kurzweil and his colleagues to create a handheld reading device—a reading machine that could be carried in a pocket. The first of these commercially available reading systems came onto the market in 2006, released at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind. The reading system consisted of a personal data assistant attached to a digital camera through a case that incorporated electronics. A personal data assistant is a small computer-based device that has in it an electronic calendar, a calculator, and a number of other electronics. This combination could read print aloud with software developed by the K-NFB Reading Technology Company. The cost for the reader at its release was $3,495. The reader would fit in your pocket, but it had to be quite a large pocket.

As cellphones continued to get smaller and more powerful, and, as they began to incorporate high quality cameras, the K-NFB Reading Technology Company contemplated modifying the K-NFB Reader Mobile to become an application that would run on a cellphone. The application was optimized for the Nokia N82, which incorporated a central processor powerful enough to run it and a digital camera with sufficient capacity to provide the proper image. The K-NFB Reader operating on the N82 became available in the winter of 2008.

The problem with the reader on the phone is that cellphones last only for a few months. The devices themselves could continue to operate for an extended period, but the new phones are released by the manufacturers every fifteen to eighteen months. Thus the older systems are no longer supported within a few years, and the software to run on them must be modified continually to be compatible with newly devised operating systems and hardware. The K-NFB Reader for the N82 outlasted the hardware for which it was designed.

When the Apple company adopted a policy to provide accessibility for disabled people within its products, the iPhone incorporated characteristics making applications on the device usable by the blind. Many users of the K-NFB Reader wondered why the application could not be operated on the iPhone, but its camera could not be modified to capture a proper image. By the end of the summer of 2014, the obstacles presented by the iPhone camera had been overcome, and the KNFB Reader was released on the iPhone in September. The price at release was $99.99—about thirty-five times less expensive than it had been eight years earlier.

Between the first release of the K-NFB Reader in 2006 and the KNFB Reader for the iPhone in 2014, the K-NFB Reading Technology Company developed accessible reading software for digital books known as the Blio. This accessible book reader has been built into software used by libraries to distribute digital versions of books to patrons, and those books are accessible not only to sighted patrons but also to the blind. At one time or another during the development of Blio, this accessible digital reading system has made millions of books available to blind readers. Furthermore, the Blio and other products developed by K-NFB Reading Technology demonstrate that accessibility for the blind can readily be built into software products designed for distribution of digital materials. The accessibility to the blind of Blio and other iPhone book applications have created accessibility to the blind as a demonstrable and readily achievable goal for software developers. That these products exist has helped to move the industry much closer to accessibility for the blind, and it has stimulated development of accessibility to individuals with other disabilities as well.

Although the KNFB Reader works beautifully on the iPhone, the K-NFB Reading Technology Company was not generating sufficient revenue to continue in business. In the fall of 2014, very shortly after the release of the KNFB Reader for the iPhone, the National Federation of the Blind indicated that it wished to become the owner of the KNFB Reader. Although the National Federation of the Blind had invested in the K-NFB Reading Technology Company, other investors had also put funding into the company. The National Federation of the Blind owned only a portion of K-NFB Reading.

Negotiations for the KNFB Reader began in October 2014 and continued until April of 2015. In a complex agreement a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Federation of the Blind acquired full rights to the KNFB Reader. This wholly owned subsidiary is named KNFB Reader LLC.

The company that built the Reader, the K-NFB Reading Technology Company, made an agreement with Sensotec NV, a Belgian company, to create the user interface for the iPhone version of the Reader. The transfer of this Reader to KNFB Reader LLC is subject to the agreement with Sensotec. Therefore, the Reader that can be found in the Apple App Store is a product jointly owned by KNFB Reader LLC and Sensotec NV. It still sells for $99.99, and it fits in a much smaller pocket.

Having this phase of the operation complete is noteworthy, but more developments are in the future. We will make the technology work on other platforms. The KNFB Reader can read inaccessible PDFs. This is a demonstration that we can surmount some of the barriers of present-day technology. We are planning to build into our Reader a function that will permit it to better-interpret flat screen operating devices. We will dream about what we want the technology to do, and we will set our minds to inventing the enhancements that will make the Reader even better than it is today. The exciting part is that this reading system belongs wholly to us and that how it behaves in the months and years ahead will be determined by the imagination we bring to it.

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