In this excerpt from The Age of Spiritual Machines (Viking, 1999), Ray Kurzweil recalls the creation of the world's first reading machine.
"In 1974, computer programs that could recognize printed letters, called optical character recognition (OCR), were capable of handling only one or two specialized type styles. I founded Kurzweil Computer Products, Inc. that year to develop the first OCR program that could recognize any style of print, which we succeeded in doing later that year. So the question then became, ‘What is it good for?’ Like a lot of clever computer software, it was a solution in search of a problem.
"I happened to sit next to a blind gentleman on a plane flight, and he explained to me that the only real handicap that he experienced was his inability to read ordinary printed material. It was clear that his visual disability imparted no real handicap in either communicating or traveling. So I had found the problem we were searching for - we could apply our ‘omni-font’ (any font) OCR technology to overcome this principal handicap of blindness. We didn’t have the ubiquitous scanners or text-to-speech synthesizers that we do today, so we had to create these technologies as well. By the end of 1975, we put together these three new technologies we had invented - omni-font OCR, CCD (Charge Coupled Device) flat-bed scanners, and text-to-speech synthesis to create the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind. The Kurzweil Reading Machine (KRM) was able to read ordinary books, magazines, and other printed documents out loud so that a blind person could read anything he wanted."
Thirty-two years later...
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and Kurzweil Technologies, Inc. (KTI) have created the world’s first portable OCR device, that allows an ordinary page of text to be photographed and subsequently translated into voice. Over the last three decades there have been several computer-based solutions for translating OCR to voice, but none of them are portable.
In Spring of 2005, NFB and KTI approached Sagentia, Inc. to develop a customized casework for this portable OCR device (aka knfbReader). Sagentia then designed, developed, assembled and tested a set of prototype caseworks in two distinct and functional configurations. This work was completed by the end of June 2005, in time for a large NFB conference, where the working prototype of the Portable Reader was unveiled - to thunderous applause, and a standing ovation.