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Cellphone can read to you from pictures it takes

March 5, 2008 | Chris Payatagool
baigx.jpgEven those of us who don't gab on cellphones appreciate having one for an emergency. For a blind or visually impaired person, the Nokia N82 promises much more: It's a liberating day-to-day tool that grants access to printed materials not otherwise easily available.

A sightless person can use the phone to snap a picture of a menu, book, printed receipt or business card. Software on the phone processes the words on those items and reads the text aloud in a synthesized voice. The device can even let a blind person know if paper currency is a $5 or a $20 bill.

As you might expect, the candy-bar-shaped Nokia houses an extremely capable digital camera - 5 megapixels, auto-focusing, high-intensity flash. But it's the character-recognition and text-to-speech software from KNFB Reading Technology that makes it so powerful. KNFB is a joint venture of the National Federation of the Blind and Kurzweil Technologies.

Late last month, the knfbReader Mobile was launched with the N82. It's currently the only cellphone to work with KNFB's software.

The cellphone reader is less expensive than the PDA version. But the software alone will still set you back $1,595, and the Nokia phone an additional $500 or so. (You'll also need thin, plastic filters, or polarizers, that reduce glare on the phone.) You can find a dealer at

There are other potential constraints beyond the size of your wallet. The list of items the Reader can't decipher includes handwritten text, street signs, vending machine buttons and scrolling text or text wrapped around soup cans or medicine bottles.

Moreover, surface glare, wrinkles and creases, shadows and ambient lighting can affect its accuracy, though it is very good.

It's hard not to come away impressed. While I cannot pretend to know what it is like to be blind, I'm convinced the phone can provide a huge benefit to those with poor vision. KNFB's vice president for business development, James Gashel, who is blind, says it can enhance a person's independence. Among the ways he uses his is to distinguish between the caffeinated and decaf packets of coffee in a hotel room. And Gashel says blind people learn to compensate for any of the Reader's shortcomings.

More about how the Reader works

Preparing to shoot.

There's a bit of a learning curve to figure out which of the Nokia's keys snaps a picture and performs other functions. Audio cues come in handy.

You may wonder how any blind person figures out where to aim the reader relative to the page or item they are taking a picture of.

Ideally, you want to place a book or the text on a flat surface in front of you and hold the phone in the middle, about 10 inches above. But how do you know where that is?

One way is to take advantage of something called a "field of view" report. Pressing the appropriate key triggers the flash as the camera determines the page alignment.

It doesn't matter whether a page is right side up or upside down. A few seconds later, the voice clues you in along these lines: "Bottom, left and top edges are visible; 9% filled, rotated 3 degrees counterclockwise."

The goal is to have all four edges visible and have at least 70% of an 8 1/2-by-11-inch page filled. Some trial and error before coming up with an acceptable position is likely.

Not everyone will need the field of view report. People with limited vision or dyslexia can switch on the phone's view finder to see how much of a page fits the screen.

Taking a picture.

There's about a two-second lag between pressing the button to take a picture and the time it takes for the shutter to snap. If all went well, the phone will process the text and start reading aloud within about 20 seconds. The synthesized voice is robotic but generally clear. You can alter the volume and playback speed.

The phone can also highlight spoken text on its large screen, useful for those with limited sight or who are learning disabled.

You can save text once it has been processed. Stored pages can be transferred to computers or Braille note-takers.

I snapped pictures of insurance forms, art books (it reads around pictures), paperbacks and business cards. Occasionally, spoken words got clipped or mumbled because of the layout of a page or the position of the phone. But the overall accuracy was quite decent. I was impressed that the device was smart enough to read the words in one column before the text in another.

I wish the technology were cheaper and available in more than one cellphone model. But it's difficult to put a price on a product with the potential to improve your own life or that of a loved one.

[via USA Today]

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