pressfrom | the New York TimesvintageNew library device reads to the blind

feat. Ray Kurzweil
January 1, 2023


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publication: the New York Times
story title: New library device reads to the blind
deck: Optical scanner machine is called most valuable rehabilitation aid since invention of Braille
date: March 1978

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An introduction.

This optical scanner machine is called most valuable rehabilitation aid since invention of Braille.

Frank Perino had never read the poem Paul Revere’s Ride. But as he sat in an orange chair in a quiet room at the New York Public Library’s mid-Manhattan branch — he went over the poem line by line, repeating several passages, and spelling out some of the words along the way.

Frank Perino is blind, but he read the poem with the help of a blue machine that read the printed material aloud in a nasal, computer‐generated voice that he was sure was Swedish.

For two million Americans who are blind or visually impaired, the 80‐pound machine may be the most important invention since Louis Braille developed the Braille system of raised‐dot fingertip reading in year 1829. Officials of the National Federation of the Blind — who tested the device before it was delivered to the library last week — predict that it will change the nature of rehabilitation and vocational training for blind people.

The library’s machine is one of 15 in existence, and the only one in a public Library. The others have been installed in hospitals and rehabilitation centers around the country.

Optical scanner used.

The machine contains an optical scanner that shoots a beam of fine white light across the printed page — and converts it into a stream of digital data, to be analyzed by its built‐in computer and transformed into speech.

The machine began as an undergraduate computer science project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But not until after graduation did Ray Kurzweil (who has normal vision) realize that his work could help blind people to read.

The machine has controls to make it speak faster or slower, repeat phrases, or spell-out words. There’s also a master control button to make the 33 others on the keyboard tell the user what functions they’ll make the machine perform, eliminating the need to mark them in Braille.

‘It’s kind of hard to understand,’ Mr. Perino said about the voice. He said it stretched some vowel sounds and accentuated the wrong syllables. And then there was the Swedish accent — or maybe it was German. ‘You have to get used to that accent,’ he said.

But he said the machine was so simple to use that be would soon progress from poetry to legal research. He hopes eventually to have a law practice of his own. James R. Gashel of the National Federation of the Blind said the device would make pleasure reading possible for people whose literary diets had long been limited to Braille textbooks, some newspapers, and phonograph recordings of written materials.

Training course planned.

‘It opens up the libraries, and rapidly,’ said Mr. Gashel, who taught library staff members to use the machine. He estimated that a blind reader could learn to operate the machine in 20 hours. But Armand Isip — a library staff member — is planning a training course of only six hours. He said: ‘It took me 12 hours — using blindfolds — to master this thing. But I’m pretty slow.’

Mr. Gashel said, however, that 12 hours was far less than the ‘half a lifetime’ it takes to master Braille, which doesn’t offer the range of titles the machine can read. Only about 350 of the 40,000 books printed each year are issued in Braille editions, he said, and there are often delays in the preparation of Braille volumes. The Kurzweil machine can read all 40,000 new books as soon as they’re published.

Mr. Gashel said, ‘It’s not that Braille isn’t useful. The problem is the system of teaching Braille has not been successful. It’s complex and time‐consuming. And sometimes the teachers don’t seem to believe a blind student can learn.’ But Mr. Perino mastered the machine in a few minutes.

1,000 rules programmed.

With Mr. Isip’s help, he slipped a copy of the poem under the machine’s clear glass cover and punched a button. The machine beeped loudly, and then Mr. Perino heard Paul Revere’s Ride.

The machine read the poem by consulting 1,000 pronunciation rules — and 2,000 exceptions to them — all of which have been programmed into the computer. It recognizes each letter by measuring its geometric shape. And Mr. Kurzweil — who has founded a company in Cambridge, MA to produce the machines — is working to improve its ability to recognize characters + speak clearly.

The inventor said that, by summer, one machine would be manufactured each week. Mass production will help lower the price from the current $50,000 — to between $5,000 and $10,000, he said.

For Mr. Gashel and Mr. Perino, however, money matters little. “Our major barrier in life has always been the print barrier,” Mr. Gashel said. Putting this thing in the New York Library is significant because until it arrived, most of the books in the world’s largest public library were off‐limits to blind people.”

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for reference

from: Wikipedia

profile | Braille
profile | poem: Paul Revere’s Ride


— notes —

MIT = the Massachusetts Institute of Technology