Wear it like a ring around your finger, and it will read out any text you point at in real time.
Called the FingerReader, it is a plastic, 3D-printed device aimed at making reading material that is not available in Braille more accessible to the visually impaired.
All that the user has to do is scan his finger across texts such as those found in restaurant menus or on a computer screen, and the FingerReader will read out the text captured by a tiny high-resolution video camera found on the front of the device through software on a computer or mobile device.
To better aid the visually impaired in accurately tracing and capturing lines of text, the FingerReader uses haptic feedback in beeps and vibrations to guide the user's finger across.
This means it will let the user know, for instance, if the finger strays too far from what the camera has detected is a line, or the text has ended, or if the finger is at an undesirable angle.
The device is the brainchild of four scientists from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The co-creators are SUTD's Dr Suranga Nanayakkara and Dr Jochen Huber, and Professor Pattie Maes and PhD candidate Roy Shilkrot, who are from MIT.
It is believed to be the first reading aid of its kind, and when completed it will be wireless and portable, so that a visually disabled person can easily carry it around with him, said Dr Nanayakkara, an SUTD assistant professor.
His team is already into their third year of research and development, and they hope to make the FingerReader commercially available at an affordable cost within the next two years.
"After many feedback sessions with people who are blind, we think the FingerReader can fill a gap in the technologies available for the visually impaired when it comes to aids that can help read out written text in real time," said Dr Nanayakkara.
One of those who have tested out the FingerReader is Dr Wong Meng Ee, an assistant professor of early childhood and special needs education at the National Institute of Education.
Dr Wong started losing his sight to an incurable eye condition from the age of 10.
"I have not come across any device that gives real-time reading, and if they are able to refine the FingerReader such that there is less reliance on the exact pointing at text you cannot see, it would certainly be a very interesting and useful device," he said.
There are already certain apps on cellphones that allow people to take pictures and translate the text, reading it back afterwards.
It is a challenge, however, for blind users to take good pictures for accurate readings, added Dr Wong, who has conducted seven years of research on assistive technologies for visual impairments.
"The other advantage is being able to read off a screen - that would certainly improve the accessibility for many people to access the many machines around today that do not have the Braille interface," he said.
In its current full-functioning prototype, the FingerReader can read out English-only text, but its creators hope to expand this to other languages.
This would allow the device to serve more applications such as language learning for those with dyslexia, and translation, enabling a tourist in a foreign country, for example, to easily access foreign signage.
Using the FingerReader
The user scans his finger across texts on computer screens or on paper.
The FingerReader will read out the text captured by a tiny high-resolution video camera on the front of the device through software on a computer or mobile device.
The device uses haptic feedback (involving the sense of touch) in beeps and vibrations to guide the finger. It will let the user know if the finger strays too far from what the camera has detected is a line, or the text has ended, or if the finger is at an undesirable angle.
This article was first published on August 4, 2014.
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