Martha O'Keefe, a homemaker from McLean, Va., whose multiple sclerosis has taken most of her eyesight, hadn't been able to read a letter, newspaper, magazine or theater program for 10 years.
In November, she brought home an Open Book. It's not a book book, but a startling combination of off-the-shelf personal computer technology and innovative software.
"Now, if I get a typed letter from a friend, I just go upstairs and put it on the machine and just let it read the letter to me," Mrs. O'Keefe said. "I can put almost anything on it. It's been a godsend."
Open Book represents the latest technology for the blind, and it's computer magic at its best. Throw anything on its scanner -- a book, a magazine, telephone bill, even a fuzzy fax. Push a button, and a minute later a vaguely Eastern European voice reads it to you, word for word.
The machine comes from Arkenstone Inc., an unusual, 3-year-old nonprofit corporation in Sunnyvale, Calif., that produces hardware and software for the visually impaired.
Arkenstone has produced computer add-ons for the blind since the company was started by Jim Fruchterman, one of the founders of Calera Recognition Systems, an industry leader in optical character recognition, or OCR.
"But we found that a lot of our customers didn't want anything to do with computers," said Robert Brosnahan, Arkenstone's marketing director. "Many of them are scared of computers. So we decided to design something that didn't look like a computer."
But it is. The machine consists of an IBM-compatible PC with an 80386 microprocessor in a custom case with large slide controls for tone, volume and other adjustments; a Hewlett-Packard Scanjet IIP scanner, and a small numeric keypad. There's no monitor or keyboard (although you can buy both and hook them up). The computer talks users through every step of the process with only a couple of taps on the keypad.
For a generation weaned on "Star Trek," a reading computer may not seem like much to brag about, but like "beaming up," it's a lot easier said than done. And Open Book's effortless operation masks the sophisticated technology underneath.
For starters, the computer uses HP's scanner technology to read a page and turn it into a pattern of dots in the computer's memory, called a bitmap. Then Open Book puts Calera's WordScan program to work, turning the dot patterns into actual characters. Finally, Open Book feeds the text to a DECtalk speech synthesizer from Digital Equipment Corp., which broadcasts the result over the speaker.
All of this is invisible to the user, who puts a page on the scanner -- upside down or rightside up -- and pushes a button. It takes about a minute to process an average page -- about 20 seconds for the scan and 40 seconds to turn it into speech. But users with long documents or books can scan the pages all at once, store them on disk and let the computer process them all while they do something else.
While the scanning is governed by the speed of the scanner, Mr. Fruchterman said the new generation of superfast 80486 microprocessors will dramatically cut the processing time in future models.
Open Book was remarkably accurate. I brought along a computer book, the front page of The Sun, a printed press release and a fax that had arrived a few minutes earlier. Open Book read them all, although the order of things can get a bit
scrambled in documents with complex layouts (the computer may read a picture caption in the middle of a newspaper or magazine article if the caption appears to be on the same line with the text).
You can skip forward and backward through a page, and if a word isn't clear, you can push a button and Open Book will spell it out.
Like most text-to-speech converters I've heard, Open Book speaks clearly, but with a vague accent. "Why does it sound like Yakov Smirnov?" asked a colleague.
"You have to remember that computers are not native English speakers," Mr. Fruchterman said, "so they sound a little foreign."
Users actually have a choice of nine voice personalities with names to match. The favorite seems to be Perfect Paul (Romanian, to my ears), but others prefer Beautiful Betty, Doctor Dennis, Uppity Ursula or Kit the Kid.
While scanning, OCR and digital speech have been around for bTC more than a decade, only in the last few years have they become cheap and accurate enough to make these kinds of visual aids for the blind practical for home and small business users.
According to David Andrews, director of the International Braille and Technology Facility operated by the National Federation of the Blind at its Baltimore headquarters, the first reading machine was developed in the late 1970s by OCR pioneer Ray Kurzweil, whose company is now a division of Xerox.
"It was quite large, cost $50,000 and it didn't work very well," Mr. Andrews recalled.
But Mr. Kurzweil and others persevered, and as PCs became more powerful, scanning and OCR migrated from expensive, dedicated computers to relatively inexpensive desktop machines.
The breakthroughs that made Open Book and the latest Kurzweil reading machines possible involve scanning and OCR technology. Human brains are great at sorting out visual clues and matching patterns. We can look at a character and figure out that it's the letter "A" whether it's in a stark, modern typeface or Olde English. When we read a book or article, we know that something printed in red or shaded in gray is probably important.
But when it comes to this kind of thing, the best computer can't come close to the discrimination of the average 8-year-old.
Until recently, shaded or multicolored text gave scanners fits, while OCR software could only recognize a few standard typewriter character sets, and then only if the text was clean. Faxes were out of the question. But automatic contrast adjustment in scanners and better OCR software running on faster computers have solved many of those problems.
The technology still isn't in the bargain basement. Open Book reading machines sell for $5,000 to $6,000, depending on the processor and disk space. Users who already have PCs (don't try it without a fast 80386 computer) can purchase the scanner, a speech board and OCR software separately for about half the price of the complete stem. For many people with visual problems who wouldn't be able to read otherwise, the machine may well be the bargain of the century.
For information on the Open Book and related products, contact Arkenstone Inc., 1300 Borregas Ave., Sunnyvale, Calif. 94089. For information about the wide variety of technology available for the visually impaired, contact the National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson St., Baltimore, Md. 21230.
(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)