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Inovative computer 'eyes' help blind read

17 March, 2005 by Peter Verhoeven

Thanks to an innovative device developed by students and staff at the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC) at Arizona State University, visually impaired people will now have a chance to read their mail, browse through a magazine or look over a restaurant menu quickly and easily.

Graduate students Michael Rush and Sushant Bhatia began creating the computerized device, called the iCARE Reader, in 2002, collaborating with ASU's School of Architecture and Design.

The iCARE Reader uses a 13.7 megapixel camera to take a picture of any type of printed page and load it within seven seconds into a computer. The text can then be read aloud at different speeds by a synthesized voice.

"This is a tremendous opportunity to bring the power and potential of computing and information technology to help individuals with disabilities and in general in the realm of enhancing human performance," said Sethuraman Panchanathan, 43, director of the center, part of the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.

Unlike traditional scanning devices that can also convert text into voice, Panchanathan said the iCARE Reader is faster, more accurate and lets visually impaired people skip through documents quickly and easily.

"You can go back by word, character or paragraph," he said.

Laura Bratton, a junior majoring in psychology at ASU, said she enjoys using the iCARE Reader.

"It's a lot faster than the traditional scanners," said Bratton, 20, who was diagnosed at age 8 with a condition that has caused her retina to deteriorate.

Bratton, who works in CUbiC and helped test the device, said she uses the reader about once a week and likes the freedom that the device provides.

"I have used it mainly for pleasure readings - books that are not available in alternative formats that I can scan, mail and personal letters," she said. "I think it will provide me the chance to do more things independently like read books and fliers."

Terri Hedgpeth, 43, is a disability research specialist at CUbiC who lost both eyes at 18 months of age due to retinal blasphoma. Hedgpeth said that before developing the iCARE Reader, staff members met with visually impaired people, disability specialists and teachers to learn what would be wanted in such a device.

"We took the unique approach. We decided to ask the consumer what they want," the Tempe resident said, laughing.

Once the iCARE Reader was created, Panchanathan said he and others from CUbiC sought additional feedback from visually impaired people and other groups.

"We are getting feedback before we deploy it," Panchanathan said, adding that CUbiC recently debuted the iCARE Reader at the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix.

John Black, 56, a research scientist at CUbiC, is proud of the work done to create the iCARE Reader.

"All my life I've had a love affair with books, and allowing people access to these books is important to me," the Tempe resident said.

Hedgpeth said she knows from personal experience that without new and innovative devices, many visually impaired people simply avoid reading things that are not readily available in Braille.

"For a lot of visually impaired students and the elderly, if it is too much hassle to read, then people don't," she said.

Hedgpeth, who has used other forms of reading technology for years and found them "tedious and time-consuming," loves the ease of iCARE Reader.

"It's a lot easier. I like to be able to go in there and put something down and know what it is quickly," she said. "This gives the person a chance to read a book the way anyone else does."

"The important word is 'independent,' " Black said. "We are hoping to give independence to people to read without relying on anyone else."

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