On Tuesday, Intel will start selling a nifty new e-reader that can snap pictures of books and newspapers and then read them back to people who have a hard time reading the printed page.
Called the Intel Reader, the US$1,499 device assists people who are blind, dyslexic or have weak vision, said Ben Foss, the director of access technology with Intel's Digital Health Group, who came up with the idea for the reader. "It's designed to give them independence and access to reading."
Intel estimates that there are as many as 55 million people in the U.S. who could use its device. Foss says that the Reader will give many of them a new freedom to read books, magazines and newspapers that would otherwise be inaccessible. Users simply hold the Reader a few feet above the paper they want to read; it snaps a photo, and within seconds converts the page to text, which it can then display in a large font or read out loud.
"We're excited by this and we think it will really make a difference for millions of people with disabilities," said James Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, speaking at a Monday press conference where the device was unveiled.
Sold by resellers such as CTL, Howard Technology Solutions and HumanWare, the paperback-sized device combines a 5-megapixel camera with a Linux-powered, optical character-recognition system and software that converts text into the spoken word. With 2GB of storage, it can store about 600 snapshots of scanned pages -- at two pages per snapshot that would represent a 1,200-page paperback novel.
The device can play back scanned items, but it also supports MP3s, WAV files, text files and the DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) format, used to publish books for people with reading problems. The battery can power about four hours of playback between charges.
The reader has a special user interface designed for people who have a hard time reading, and it can play back audio at varying speeds. Foss likes to hear playback at the almost comically high-pitched speed of 200 words per minutes, which he likens to speed-reading.
Intel also makes a briefcase-sized docking station that can hold and power the reader while it's being used to scan a large number of pages. The company will introduce a U.K. version of the Reader in a few days and plans to roll it out in other countries as well, Foss said.
The device represents a sleeker alternative to more cumbersome reading aides such as text magnifiers, which cost around $3,000 each, and Braille readers, which can cost between $7,000 and $10,000, Foss said.
With Amazon's Kindle, the e-reader market has taken off in recent years, but until now, nobody has built one for people with diminished eyesight that can scan and replay anything on paper, said Dorrie Rush, director of marketing with Lighthouse International, a nonprofit group that helps people suffering from vision loss.
Rush, who has lost vision because of an eye disorder called Stargardt's disease, can barely read the headlines from the New York Times while holding the paper about 4 inches from her face. She has tried out Intel's device and she loves it. "Intel has really done their homework and created something that does good and looks good."
Intel's Foss has a personal connection to the project. Diagnosed with dyslexia in elementary school, he spent hours during his college years faxing papers to his mother, who would then read them back to him over the phone.
Now he hopes that the device he helped create will help other students in his shoes. "Ultimately we're trying to give people access to hope and to self-respect."