in printfrom | the Illuminify Tech blogA trailblazer’s invention helps the blind read.

feat. Ray Kurzweil
January 1, 2024


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platform: Medium
publication: the Illuminify Tech blog
story: A trailblazer’s invention helps the blind read.
deck: the Kurzweil Reading Machine.

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company: Illuminify Tech
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banner: Assistive technology re-defined.

platform: Medium
publication: the Illumify Tech blog :: visit


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Illuminify Technologies is an assistive tech start-up company founded in 2019. It’s developing a text-to-braille device for visually impaired people.

The device recognises any written text and converts it to braille — and gives the output to the user, using a refreshable braille display. The company hopes to improve quality of life — addressing problems of visual impairment.


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An introduction.

Assistive tech for the visually impaired market has been segmented into:

  • educational devices
  • mobility devices
  • low-vision devices

The educational devices can be further classified into varying types and products:

  • Braille duplicators + writers
  • Braille computers
  • math + science devices
  • reading machines

How Ray Kurzweil changed assistive tech.

In January 2020: the Kurzweil Reading Machine — the first commercial reading machine capable of translating printed material into spoken words — celebrated it’s 43 year anniversary.

It was unveiled in year 1976 by inventor Ray Kurzweil — along with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in the United States. When he was a high school student in 1965, Raymond appeared on host Steve Allen’s “I’ve got a secret” television show showcasing that he already invented a computer capable of composing music. Since then, Kurzweil has continued breaking tech’s barriers.

In year 1975, he made a pioneering move in the domain of educational devices for visually impaired people. Then, computer programs that could recognize printed letters — called optical character recognition (OCR) — were capable of handling only 1 -or- 2 specialized type styles. Kurzweil founded the company Kurzweil Computer Products that year to develop the first OCR program that could recognize any style of print — which they succeeded in doing. So the question then became: what is it good for?

A solution in search of a problem.

Like a lot of clever computer software, it was a solution in search of a problem. On a flight, Ray Kurzweil was sitting next to a blind gentleman. He explained to Ray that the only real handicap he experienced being blind was his inability to read ordinary printed material. A light-bulb went off in Ray’s head then. The man’s visual disability created no real handicap in either communicating or travelling — it was in reading.

This was the problem that Ray’s software could solve. He deduced that his omni-font OCR tech could be applied to overcome this principal handicap. Over-coming the handicaps associated with disabilities using artificial intelligence (AI) tech had long been Kurzweil’s personal goal. Remember: none of the ubiquitous scanners — or text-to-speech synthesizers — that are so readily available today, existed at that time.

Creating from scratch.

So Ray’s team had to create this tech from scratch. And after much blood, sweat, and tears: they put together 4 new technologies:

  • omni-font optical character recognition (OCR)
  • charge-coupled device (CCD)
  • a flat-bed scanner
  • text-to-speech synthesis

to create the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, dyslexic, and low-vision.

The Kurzweil Reading Machine was able to read ordinary books, magazines, and other printed documents out-loud — so now a blind person could read anything he / she wanted. Ray was a trailblazer —  for the emergence of optical character recognition being used in the development of Braille educational software.

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There’s a fortuitous match between the capabilities of today’s  computers + the needs of a disabled person.

Ray Kurzweil

Keeping the spirit of invention bright.

It continues to be one of the best-integrated solutions to a problem that still largely looms-over us — education for blind people. Despite the tech leaps the world has experienced over the past few decades, educational assistive tech for the visually impaired has not experienced a boom. Which is surprising when considering the seriousness of the problem.

With a knowledge of the needs of the disabled, and taking inspiration from the solutions that have come before — like the Kurzweil Machine — we must proceed with an urgency to come-up with innovative + affordable results. Ray Kurzweil’s invention truly began a wave of inventions in the field of assistive tech. This is what we’re calling “the Kurzweil effect.”

Budding entrepreneurs and new-age assistive tech companies have to keep the fire burning — and keep the spirit of invention alive. Constant invention + evolution is the way we can hope to build a better tomorrow.

— notes —

AI = artificial intelligence
OCR = optical character recognition
CCD = charge-coupled device