by Joel Zimba
From the Editor: Joel Zimba is the reading project innovation manager for the National Federation of the Blind. One of his major responsibilities is to supervise the innovation of the KNFB Reader, a dream come true for those of us who want to be able to read print with a device small enough to fit in our pocket. Joel and Jim Gashel recently had the opportunity to introduce the groundbreaking program to the wider tech world at the largest assistive technology conference on earth, hosted by California State University, Northridge. Here is what he has to say about that experience:
I am taking the stage with Jim Gashel, vice president of business development and product evangelist for KNFB Reader, LLC, and Jenny Lay-Flurrie—the chief accessibility officer for Microsoft. The room full of onlookers quiets as she approaches the podium. It is the first day of the thirty-second annual CSUN Assistive Technology Conference, and we are launching a new product.
After over a year of development, a project I was introduced to on my first day working with the National Federation of the Blind is being presented to the world. I man the controls and demonstrate the capabilities of KNFB Reader for Windows, while Jim describes the history as well as the globe-spanning collaboration that led to this moment.
I can remember sitting in the audience of the 2014 National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind, when Jim Gashel first demonstrated the modern incarnation of KNFB Reader for the iPhone. You can read Jim’s perspective on those events in the December 2014 Braille Monitor article, “A New Era in Mobile Reading Begins: Introducing the KNFB Reader for iOS.” In that article Mr. Gashel details his first meeting with Ray Kurzweil. He discusses events leading to the creation of the first reading machine for the blind, resulting in the KNFB Reader Mobile line of products. Finally these collaborations bring us to the indispensable KNFB Reader app so many of us carry everywhere and use every day. On that July afternoon, I never imagined I would be part of the team that would keep KNFB Reader evolving, much less metaphorically cutting the ribbon on an app that brings the power of KNFB’s text recognition to Windows 10-powered desktops, laptops, tablets, and phones.
The launch event, held in the Microsoft area of the CSUN conference rooms, is not the end of a story but the beginning of an ongoing tale. It consists of three madcap days of networking, demonstrating KNFB Reader on three platforms and multiple configurations, and promotion of the KNFB Reader technology, which is the most widely available, efficient, and powerful text recognition solution available to date. By night I am mingling, recruiting distributors of our multi-platform Enterprise product, and talking with researchers and other app developers.
I am no stranger to conference exhibit halls. Since 2011 I have demonstrated various forms of assistive technology for both professionals and end users at dozens of such events. None compare to the size and scope of the CSUN exhibit hall. If you have attended a national convention, you will have some idea of the frenzy of such a loud, busy, and heavily populated space. Hundreds of vendors both intentionally and unintentionally competing for the attention of passersby with their colorful displays, video presentations, and of course the talking, beeping, and otherwise calamitous technology itself.
On the second day I am already losing my voice from trying to be heard over the call of the great blue whale echoing from the Touch Graphics booth next door. Behind me President Riccobono announces the debut of KNFB Reader for Windows in our own multimedia promo created just for CSUN, while I demonstrate the stand mode feature of KNFB Reader, which takes pictures automatically as you turn the pages of a book. The gentleman I just met had not yet ventured into the modern era and still uses a desktop-based, stand-alone device from the last decade. My new friend will likely purchase his first smartphone just for KNFB Reader, which is not an uncommon situation.
On Friday morning a visitor to our booth had a question about using KNFB Reader on her BrailleNote Touch from HumanWare. In November of 2016 all users of the BrailleNote Touch received KNFB Reader free of charge. The device I am now holding in my hand is the first product of its kind which can turn printed text into Braille with a single command. This makes good on the promise Jim Gashel made in the final lines of his 2014 article, when he teased the KNFB Reader expansion to the Android platform. I battle the typically congested conference WiFi to configure cloud synchronization using Dropbox for her.
This is my job: to know the intricacies of our products on all platforms, to work with our engineers to squish bugs, and to provide support to KNFB Reader customers. I usually do this from behind a desk or at the end of an often-tenuous telephone connection. Meeting so many KNFB Reader users from all over the world face-to-face reaffirms my goal of improving this powerful tool that increases the independence of blind people worldwide, enabling them to live the lives they want. This is the mission of the National Federation of the Blind, and I am honored to play my part.
Perhaps my favorite question comes from the sighted person being introduced to KNFB Reader for the first time. “How do you take a picture if you’re blind?” Of course, I was wrestling with this question myself before the release of the app in 2014. When I demonstrate the program’s Field of View Report, which details how much of the printed page is visible to the camera and how that can be coupled with tilt guidance to help keep the device in the horizontal plane, incredulity gives way to surprise and then often unease. No longer is this seemingly fundamentally visual activity solely the domain of the sighted.
I now know that this is only half the story. The part we benefit from, but never directly observe, is the powerful KNFB image pre-processing system, which can turn a picture that would otherwise be unsuitable for recognition into a document that is read nearly flawlessly. I am often cavalier when I throw a piece of paper under a document camera at a rakish angle. I know I will soon be navigating the recognized output with ease. Some of the algorithms developed by Ray Kurzweil forty years ago are still alive and well in KNFB Reader. We use them every day. This is how that crumpled receipt still gives up the telephone number of the restaurant where I left my hat.
I am not alone in representing KNFB Reader at CSUN. I am joined by Jim Gashel and William De Prêtre. William is a chief software engineer with our partner Sensotec NV located in Belgium. He, very nearly single-handedly, coded the Windows version of KNFB Reader. Every morning we gather for a working breakfast to assess any new developments from the Twittersphere, take on long-standing challenges in real time, and plan for where we are going next. In addition to the pleasure of having a colleague become a good friend, I have the opportunity to personally express my appreciation to William for his herculean effort over the past year: deadlines, unexpected dead ends, and undocumented interfaces—he faced them all; developers all-too-often never meet the happy customers who benefit from their work every day.
In the launch event speech, Mr. Gashel stressed the importance of partnerships. Indeed, I would say that is the thread which unites all of my experiences throughout the CSUN conference. Our ongoing partnership with Microsoft, which certainly shaped KNFB Reader for Windows, also led to changes and improvements in Microsoft products, especially with regard to accessibility. While I was acquainted with many of the Google contingent attending CSUN, many more of them were familiar with KNFB Reader and certainly with Ray Kurzweil, who is now a vice president at Google devoting his time to the arcane art of machine learning and artificial intelligence. A gathering composed of thousands of people from all over the world very quickly came to feel like a community.
A three-day conference is never all business. Several of us spent the entire day wearing Cat-in-the-Hat-style hats in celebration of Read Across America Day—March 2. Several Dr. Seuss books were on hand for reading with KNFB Reader. Theodor Seuss Geisel was born on March 2, 1904. Every year the National Federation of the Blind marks this auspicious occasion and promotes literacy—especially Braille literacy—and access to books for all.
Speaking of community, our Federation family was well represented. Dozens of us descended upon a nearby restaurant early in the week. Before I knew it, I had plenty of volunteers for the exhibit hall booth. I am especially thankful for the help I received from Lisa Irving, Nahrain Spurlock, and Ali Farrage, intrepid members of the San Diego chapter who took on the duty of breaking down the booth and shipping everything home on the last day.
The launch was not the end, and CSUN was not the end. The Windows product will establish a foothold, and it will grow and change. KNFB Reader will continue to become more robust and powerful. Very soon another of Jim Gashel’s promises will come to pass; Chinese and Japanese will make an appearance. This will put KNFB Reader into the hands of countless more of the world’s blind people. Soon a document recognized on your home computer will appear, ready for reading on your mobile device with no effort on your part. A separate multi-platform product called KNFB Reader Enterprise now brings our software to all of your devices at one low price. Looking ahead, major new developments are underway which will begin to reveal themselves at our National Convention this coming July. Stay tuned.To learn more about KNFB Reader and KNFB Reader Enterprise, go to www.knfbreader.com or call (347) 422-7085. You can also email email@example.com. To obtain a quote for volume purchases of KNFB Reader Enterprise or a site license, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.