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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 June 2006, 09:04 GMT 10:04 UK
Reading 'to go' for blind people
By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website

Photo of the Kurzweil K-NFB portable scanner
The new device allows people to read on the move
A portable scanning device that reads text to visually impaired people will go on sale in the UK next month.

Called the K-NFB, it is the latest product to be developed by American inventor Raymond Kurzweil.

Until now, scanning and text-to-speech output meant having to take the printed material to the hardware.

The K-NFB, which combines a PDA and a digital camera, means that people will be able to read menus, train timetables and product labels in shops.

High price tag

The new handheld device is the latest in a long line of hardware and software developed by Raymond Kurzweil.

His first Reading Machine in 1981 was the size of a washing machine and cost 35,000.

For the first time, you'll be able to take the scanner to the print rather than the other way around
Mark Prouse, RNIB
Although the K-NFB is considerably cheaper, its price tag of 2,625 is substantially more than the cost of a PDA and a five-megapixel digital camera.

"This has probably taken something like three years' effort by some fairly diligent scientists," explained Mervin Robertson, managing director of Sight & Sound Technology, who will be selling the device in the UK.

"Effectively, it's a software cost that makes up the vast majority of this."

The K-NFB gives the user an initial "situation report", describing what it can see. The user then makes a decision about whether to take a picture.

After a few seconds to process the image, the contents of the document are read aloud.

A set of earbuds come as standard, but the sound could also be routed through a Bluetooth headset or a set of speakers.

Sight & Sound says it will help with the ad-hoc reading of documents such as bills and receipts, instructions on food packaging or medication or emergency evacuation notices in hotels.

According to Mr Robertson, the biggest limitation is the power of the host PDA.

"It's never going to be the powerful device that the PC is," he said.

The prototype has also experienced difficulties reading inverted text, for example white text on a black background.

But Sight & Sound is confident that bugs will be ironed out before the production version goes on sale.

Good reception

Manufacturers have decided not to use the Pocket PC 2003 platform and have opted for Mobile 5 instead.

Photo of the original Kurzweil Reading Machine
In the early eighties the hardware was bulky
"Pocket PC has inherent problems in that if the battery goes flat, you tend to end up with a device that is pretty worthless because you have reload all the information," said Mr Robertson.

"That is challenging in itself for a blind person."

Using Mobile 5 will effectively keep the device intact if the battery goes dead.

The K-NFB received an enthusiastic initial welcome from a member of the Royal National Institute of the Blind's (RNIB) products and publications team, Mark Prouse.

"This is fantastic. For the first time, you'll be able to take the scanner to the print rather than the other way around," he said.

"The price is a bit of an issue, it is with all of these things. But to be able to read as and when you want is very exciting and very tempting."

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