Ben Foss was a bright kid, but as a student, he struggled with reading even the simplest text. Afflicted with severe dyslexia, he relied on parents and tutors to read him his homework since the words on the page made no sense to him. At Stanford, he managed to earn two advanced degrees by laboriously scanning books and then running them through synthetic speech software so he could comprehend the words.
As an adult, much of the content he wanted in professional journals and magazines wasn't available in audio form.
So, when he was hired as a researcher at Intel, he vowed to make designing a reading device one of his first priorities. At CES 2010, his brainchild, the Intel Reader made its debut. "Feelings of loneliness are often the experience of not being able to read easily," he says, based on years of trying. "We hope to open the doors for people who have dyslexia, blindness or other reading-based disabilities."
The device, designed by Silicon Valley design shop, Lunar, for Intel's Digital Health Group, is about the size of a paperback book or a hand-held video game. It works by taking a picture of a page of text, then converting it to speech.
"It's designed around the ergonomics of reading," says Gretchen Anderson, director of interaction design, at Lunar. "It's purposefully not designed as a digital camera. You can use it with your elbows on the table, at the right height."
There are an estimated 55 million people with dyslexia, low vision or blindness, who find reading printed text difficult or impossible. In addition to students, the device is designed to be convenient for older people who find it hard to read restaurant menus or mail, and it has clever tactile cues, such a corner cut off like a dog eared book and buttons distinguishable by feel and location, to help the blind orient themselves.
A portable capture station allows users to scan larger amounts of text, such as complete books or journals. They can be saved, much as one would with an ebook, for listening later. The device comes with earphones for listening privately, in the car, or in class, and files can also be exported to MP3 players.
The device has been endorsed by the International Dyslexia Association and will be available for about $1,500 through CTL, Don Johnston Incorporated, GTSI, Howard Technology Solutions and HumanWare. The capture station costs an extra $400.
"At CES, we see people who love their iPhones," says Lunar's director of engineering, Robert Howard. "When Intel demo-ed this, people who have dyslexia could see their futures change when watching the device. It's truly a transformative device for people who haven't had a lot of transformation in their lives."