in print | blog: Illuminify Tech • A trailblazer’s invention helps the blind read

feature: with Ray Kurzweil
March 1, 2020


— feature —

platform: Medium
blog: Illuminify Tech
story title: the Kurzweil effect
deck: Where it all began: the Kurzweil Reading Machine
author: by Aditi Chandrasekar

tag line: Assistive technology re-defined.

— summary —

How Raymond Kurzweil changed assistive technology for years to come.

note: This story is collected for the Kurzweil library.


— introduction —

by Aditi Chandrasekar

Assistive technology for the visually impaired market has been segmented into:

  • educational devices
  • mobility devices
  • low-vision devices

The educational devices can be further classified into varying types and products:

  • Braille duplicators + writers
  • Braille computers
  • math + science devices
  • reading machines

Anniversary of the Kurzweil Reading Machine.

In January 2020: the Kurzweil Reading Machine — the first commercial reading machine capable of translating printed material into spoken words — celebrated it’s 43 year anniversary.

It was unveiled in year 1976 by inventor Ray Kurzweil — along with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in the United States. When he was a high school student in 1965, Raymond appeared on host Steve Allen’s “I’ve got a secret” television show showcasing that he already invented a computer capable of composing music. Since then, Kurzweil has continued breaking tech’s barriers.

In year 1975, he made a pioneering move in the domain of educational devices for visually impaired people. Then, computer programs that could recognize printed letters — called optical character recognition (OCR) — were capable of handling only 1 -or- 2 specialized type styles. Kurzweil founded the company Kurzweil Computer Products that year to develop the first OCR program that could recognize any style of print — which they succeeded in doing. So the question then became: what is it good for?

A solution in search of a problem.

Like a lot of clever computer software, it was a solution in search of a problem. On a flight, Ray Kurzweil was sitting next to a blind gentleman. He explained to Ray that the only real handicap he experienced being blind was his inability to read ordinary printed material. A light-bulb went off in Ray’s head then. The man’s visual disability created no real handicap in either communicating or travelling — it was in reading.

This was the problem that Ray’s software could solve. He deduced that his omni-font OCR tech could be applied to overcome this principal handicap. Over-coming the handicaps associated with disabilities using artificial intelligence (AI) tech had long been Kurzweil’s personal goal. Remember: none of the ubiquitous scanners — or text-to-speech synthesizers — that are so readily available today, existed at that time.

Creating from scratch.

So Ray’s team had to create this tech from scratch. And after much blood, sweat, and tears: they put together 4 new technologies:

+ omni-font optical character recognition | OCR
+ charge-coupled device | CCD
+ flat-bed scanners
+ text-to-speech synthesis

to create the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, dyslexic, and low-vision.

The Kurzweil Reading Machine was able to read ordinary books, magazines, and other printed documents out-loud — so now a blind person could read anything he / she wanted. Ray was a trailblazer —  for the emergence of optical character recognition being used in the development of Braille educational software.

— quote —

There’s a fortuitous match between the capabilities of contemporary computers + the needs of a disabled person.

Ray Kurzweil

from his book: the Age of Spiritual Machines
year: 1999

Keeping the spirit of invention bright.

It continues to be one of the best-integrated solutions to a problem that still largely looms-over us — education for blind people. Despite the tech leaps the world has experienced over the past few decades, educational assistive tech for the visually impaired has not experienced a boom. Which is surprising when considering the seriousness of the problem.

With a knowledge of the needs of the disabled, and taking inspiration from the solutions that have come before — like the Kurzweil Machine — we must proceed with an urgency to come-up with innovative + affordable results. Ray Kurzweil’s invention truly began a wave of inventions in the field of assistive tech. This is what we’re calling “the Kurzweil effect.”

Budding entrepreneurs and new-age assistive tech companies have to keep the fire burning — and keep the spirit of invention alive. Constant invention + evolution is the way we can hope to build a better tomorrow.

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— summary —

Illuminify Tech is an assistive tech start-up founded in 2019 with the collective goal of enhancing the way of life of humans. We aim to touch the lives of millions through world class tech — delivered with precision. We also aim to create a change, that addresses real world problems.

tag line: Assistive technology re-defined.

— notes —

AI = artificial intelligence
OCR = optical character recognition
CCD = charge-coupled device