Snapshots of the KNFB Reader app

'Life-changing' reading app for blind launched on iOS

Apple has launched a new app for blind people promising to ‘change their lives’ by allowing unprecedented levels of engagement by translating written signs to spoken words.

The KNFB Reader app, connected to an iPhone camera allows the visually impaired to take pictures of labels, leaflets or any written signs, instantly reading the text out loud.

"I couldn't believe how accurate it was," said Jonathan Mosen, an assistive technology consultant from New Zealand after testing the app for the first time..

Using cutting-edge pattern recognition and image-processing technology, the $99 (£61) app is a product of four decades of cooperation between the National Federation of the Blind and Ray Kurzweil, a well-known artificial-intelligence scientist and senior Google employee.

The app, developed by Kurzweil’s K-NFB Reading Technology and Belgium-based Sensotec NV, allows users to adjust or tilt the camera to read printed materials loud or display the text on Braille displays near-instantaneously.

It is programmed to recognised different languages and can scan PowerPoint slides from up to 7.6m away.  

First blind users hailed the KNFB Reader app, saying it will enable a new level of engagement in everyday life, from reading menus in restaurants to browsing handouts in the classroom. One early adopter said on Twitter he used the app to read his polling card when casting a vote in the Scottish independence referendum.

Kurzweil, who demonstrated the app on stage at the NFB's annual convention in June, has been developing reading machines for the blind since an encounter with a visually impaired passenger aboard a plane forty years ago.

His first reading machine, the size of a washing machine, cost $50,000. However, the technology has gone a long way since.

The latest version marks a significant price reduction, making the app affordable to a wider range of customers. An earlier version for Nokia cell phones used to sell at at $1,000 - ten times the current price,

The app will be available on Android in the coming months, Kurzweil told Reuters in an interview. He may also explore a version of the app for Google Glass.

"Google Glass makes sense because you direct the camera with your head," Kurzweil said.

San Francisco-based Bryan Bashin, executive director of the non-profit Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said the KNFB app shows the positive and profound impact that technology can have.

"There are innumerable times in life that I'll have a bit of print and there will be nobody around who can help me out, and I'll just want to know something as simple as 'Is this packet decaf or caffeinated coffee?'" Bashin said.

"The ability to do this easily with something that fits in your pocket at lightning speed will certainly be a game changer."

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