Craig was able to "read" everything from menus to cooking directions by positioning the reader over print and taking a picture. In seconds, the device's synthetic voice read the printed message to him.
"The reader provides access to materials that a lot of times you just didn't read," said Craig, 51, of Austin, Texas, who was one of about 500 blind people who tested the device over the past few months. "It certainly makes you more independent."
The National Federation of the Blind plans to put the device on sale Saturday, when its annual meeting gets under way in Dallas.
"It's not quite like having a pair of eyes that work, but it's headed in that direction," said James Gashel, executive director for strategic initiatives at the Maryland-based National Federation of the Blind.
The device, combining a personal digital assistant and a digital camera, was developed by inventor Ray Kurzweil and the membership organization of more than 50,000 blind people. It's been dubbed the Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader.
"This is really the hottest new technology to be developed for blind people in the last 30 years," said Gashel, who calls it "the camera that talks."
About three decades ago, Kurzweil invented the first device that could convert text into audio. It was about the size of a washing machine. That gave way to software that could be used by a computer and scanner to perform the same function. The latest device, about the size of a paperback book, introduces portability.
"It's always been considered desirable to have a reading machine that a blind person could carry along with them," Kurzweil said. "We're getting phenomenal feedback."
There are about 10 million blind and visually impaired people nationwide, and that number is expected to double in the next 30 years as baby boomers age.
The device also can be useful for those who have limited vision, said Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind.
The federation expects that the reader, which costs about $3,500, will be a big hit among the 3,000 participants at the annual meeting. It will be sold though Massachusetts-based Kurzweil Education Systems Inc. and will be available on the Internet and in stores.
People who have tested the reader said they enjoy being able to read text they couldn't before.
Maurer also points out another advantage: "Sometimes you get something that you want to read that you don't want anyone else to read."
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