Cell Phone Reads to the Blind

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A new cell phone offers the smallest text-to-speech reading device ever built, a device especially useful for people with impaired vision. The phone and software come with a $2,000 price tag.

If you have normal vision and can read, there are thousands of things you do every day without even thinking even about it, little problems you solve with just a glance — like knowing which coffee bag in a hotel is caffeinated or decaf.

James Gashel is blind, but he can get his caffeine fix with help from his cell phone.

"All you have to do is snap a picture of the bag, and it tells you," he says.

Gashel is showing off his new phone in a hotel ballroom filled with people who have come to check it out. Many are holding white canes, and there's a guide dog resting by the wall. Everyone listens to the small silver phone as Gashel holds it a few inches above a green rectangle.

"Taking picture ... detecting orientation," a digitized voice from the phone says. "Processing U.S. currency image, please wait … $20."

The phone is loaded up with software developed by the company Gashel works for — K-NFB Reading Technology, a joint venture between Kurzweil Technologies and the National Federation of the Blind.

Besides reading labels and telling a $20 from a $10, the phone can read pages of printed text.

Reading machines have been around for decades — this company already makes a hand-held device. But this reader is the smallest yet — just 4 ounces and a few inches long. And it's in a high-end Nokia phone with features like an MP3 player, high-speed data connection and a GPS navigation system.

That's appealing to people like Mike Hanson, from Minnesota. He uses a desktop reading machine for all kinds of things, including books, mail and bills.

"I'm a lawyer, so I'll use it to read material related to cases I'm working on," Hanson says.

But he never wanted a handheld reader before; he saw it as just one more gadget to lug around. This multifunctional cell phone, though, is a different story.

"It's next on my list of technology items to seriously consider," he says.



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