July 8, 2014

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a 3D printed audio reading device that enables people with visual impairments to read text printed on papers, books, computer screens and other devices.

The so-called FingerReader, produced by a 3D printer, can be worn on the index finger of a user. It is equipped with a small camera that scans text, all you need to do is to point the finger at text. Your finger movement is tracked by a special software, which identifies words and processes the information. A synthesized voice then reads words aloud.

In order to help people with visual impairments move their reading fingers along a straight line of printed text that they could not see, the device has also vibration motors that alert readers at the beginning and end of the reading material, and when they stray from the script, said Roy Shilkrot, the developer of the FingerReader at the MIT Media Lab.

For people with visual disabilities, the promise of the FingerReader is its portability and offer of real-time functionality. Pattie Maes, an MIT professor who founded and leads the Fluid Interfaces research group developing the prototype, says the FingerReader is like “reading with the tip of your finger and it’s a lot more flexible, a lot more immediate than any solution that they have right now.”

It took researchers three years developing the software, experimenting with various designs and working on feedback from testers. Much work remains before it is ready for the market, Shilkrot said, including making it work on cellphones. Currently the FingerReader still has problems reading text on a touch screen, “that’s because touching the screen with the tip of the finger would move text around, producing unintended results. Disabling the touch-screen function eliminates the problem,” Shilkrot said.

According to U.S. Census Bureau, there are 11.2 million people in the United States with vision impairment. Shilkrot said they believe that they could provide this market with an affordable FingerReader, but he could not yet estimate a price. He believes affordable FingerReader could help people with vision impairment integrate into the modern information economy.

“Any tool that we can get that gives us better access to printed material helps us to live fuller, richer, more productive lives,” Berrier said.


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