In 1824, Louis Braille invented a tactile alphabet to allow blind people to read. Though enormously successful, it requires specifically braille versions of reading material that can be hard to acquire and don't always exist.
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are trying to solve that problem with a portable device that can read visual text to the visually impaired in real time.
The small, ring-shaped device is known as the FingerReader, and can scan text and read it aloud for those who can't see it.
According to the Associated Press, the FingerReader ring has a small camera mounted on top, which processes printed words that are being pointed to along a page and sends the information to a computer, where specially-written software tracks the finger's movement, identifies each word, and reads it aloud through audio output.
The project has been in development for three years, and it's not done yet. But the 3D-printed prototype is an important step towards completion of a dream that could potentially help visually impaired people all over the world.
While the FingerReader is not the only optical reading assistance device available for the visually impaired, the innovator behind the device, MIT researcher Roy Shilkrot, says the FingerReader will be an affordable and better solution compared to what is currently on the market, according to BostInno.
The reason for the FingerReader's potential success is primarily its convenient size and portability. The device itself is only slightly bulkier than any other ring, and the software to process the data and read it back can be conveniently loaded onto a cell phone for audio output. The Associated Press notes that currently available devices involve bulky scanners that have to process print before using text-to-voice software to assist reading.
Pattie Maes, an MIT professor in charge of the group developing the prototype, says the FingerReader is "a lot more flexible, a lot more immediate than any solution that they have right now." according to the Associated Press.
The prototype is currently being tested and developed further for maximum effectiveness. Jerry Berrier was born blind and is a tester for the device. He says that the FingerReader is helpful for reading books and magazines that aren't available in Braille, but has even more important and immediate uses, like reading menus, important forms, and other everyday pieces of printed material people who are not visually impaired take for granted.
"For folks who are sighted, there are things that inform us about the products that we are about to interact with. I want to be able to interact with those same products, regardless of how I have to do it," Berrier said to the Associated Press.
There's still work to be done on the device, of course, but various innovations have already been made to fix potential problems. One such breakthrough is a vibration motor in the ring that activates when the user's finger has finished a line or has strayed from written text. There's still a lot to be done to make it completely accessible before it can be placed on the market for the visually impaired.
Still, the FingerReader is already an innovative piece of technology that has the potential to help millions.
"Any tool that we can get that gives us better access to printed material helps us to live fuller, richer, more productive lives," says Berrier.
Weston Williams is a Monitor contributor.