By Associated Press
BALTIMORE (AP) - Chris Danielsen fidgets with the cell phone, holding it over a $20 bill.
"Detecting orientation, processing U.S. currency image," the phone says in a flat monotone before Danielsen snaps a photo. A few seconds later, the phone says, "Twenty dollars."
Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, is holding the next generation of computerized aids for the blind and visually impaired.
The Nokia cell phone is loaded with software that turns text on photographed documents into speech. In addition to telling whether a bill is worth $1, $5, $10 or $20, it also allows users to read anything that is photographed, whether it's a restaurant menu, a phone book or a fax.
While the technology is not new, the NFB and the software's developer say the cell phone is the first to incorporate the text-to-speech ability.
"We've had reading devices before," Danielsen said, noting similar software is already available in a larger handheld reader housed in a personal digital assistant. Companies such as Code Factory SL, Dolphin Computer Access Ltd. and Nuance Communications Inc. also provide software that allows the blind to use cell phones and PDAs.
Inexpensive hand-held scanners such as WizCom Technologies Ltd.'s SuperPen can scan limited amounts of text, read it aloud and even translate from other languages.
However, the $2,100 NFB device combines all of those functions in one smart phone, said James Gashel, vice president of business development for K-NFB Reading Technology Inc., which is marketing the phone as a joint venture between the federation and software developer Ray Kurzweil.
"It is the next step, but this is a huge leap," Gashel, who is blind, said in a telephone interview. "I'm talking to you on the device I also use to read things. I can put it in my pocket and at the touch of a button, in 20 seconds, be reading something I need to read in print."
Ray Kurzweil, who developed the first device that could convert text into audio in the 1970s and the current NFB device, said portability is only the first step. Future versions of the device will recognize faces, identify rooms and translate text from other languages for the blind and the sighted.
The inventor plans to begin marketing the cell phone in February through K-NFB Reading Technology. The software will cost $1,595 and the cell phone is expected to cost about $500, Kurzweil said.
Dave Doermann, president of College Park-based Applied Media Analysis said his company is working on similar software for smart phones that could be used by the military for translation and by the visually impaired.
"We don't anticipate ours being that expensive, but unfortunately we're not quite to the release yet," said Doermann, who is also co-director of the University of Maryland's Laboratory for Language and Media Processing.
Doermann said the company, which has received funding from the Department of Defense and the National Eye Institute, hopes to have its software ready in the next 12 to 18 months.
Kurzweil's device uses speech software provided by Nuance, said Chris Strammiello, the director of product management at Nuance, who said the company has also developed a prototype reader that uses the Internet to access more powerful server-side computers.
"As you can harness the power of remote environments and do that so quickly with the Web technologies, it gives a lot more capability, flexibility and options to the way you solve these type of problems," Strammiello said.
There are about 10 million blind and visually impaired people in the U.S., a number that is expected to double in the next 30 years as baby boomers age.
Kurzweil said those with vision problems are not the only ones expected to benefit from the technology. Dyslexics, for example, are expected to be among the users of the current device because of its ability to highlight each word as it's read aloud, helping them cope with their disability, which affects the ability to read. The highlighting function can also help them improve their reading skills, he said.
"What's new here is both blind people and kids can do this with a device that fits in their shirt pocket," Kurzweil said.