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Low-cost reading system enables visually impaired to hear graphical content


July 31, 2014

Dr Iain Murray and PhD student Azadeh Nazemi with the digital reading system they developed at Curtin University

Dr Iain Murray and PhD student Azadeh Nazemi with the digital reading system they developed at Curtin University

From a contact lens that delivers tactile sensations to the cornea, to a 3D-printed ring that reads text aloud in real-time, advances in technology have opened up some groundbreaking ways for the visually-impaired to consume printed content. Researchers from Australia's Curtin University have now unveiled a low-cost reading device that processes graphical information, enabling the blind to digest documents such as bills, PDFs, graphs and bank statements.

"People who are blind are often blocked from certain career paths and educational opportunities where graphs or graphics play a strong role," says Dr Iain Murray, Senior Lecturer at Curtin University's Department of Electrical and Computing Engineering who developed the digital reading system with PhD student Azadeh Nazemi. "We hope this device will open up new opportunities for people with vision impairment."

The device measures 20 x 15 x 3 cm (7 x 6 x 1.1 in) and features a set of high contrast controls with tactile markings for navigation. Using pattern recognition, machine learning technologies and a range of segmentation methods, the system separates content into blocks of text and pictures that are arranged in the correct reading order.

These blocks are then identified as images, graphs, maths or text and extracted either though optical character recognition (OCR) or Mathspeak, a tool for verbalizing mathematical calculations. The information is then converted to audio format with navigation markup and can be translated into 120 different languages via the built-in speech engine. Audio instructions are also built into the device.

“Our system is easily operated by people of all ages and abilities and it is open source, meaning anyone with the skill can use and modify the software to suit their application,” Dr Murray said. He expects that the cost for the reading device will be as low as US$100 per unit, a price that could make it a very real solution for many, even in developing countries. He is now seeking philanthropic financing to get the device into production.

Source: Curtin University

About the Author
Nick Lavars Nick was born outside of Melbourne, Australia, with a general curiosity that has drawn him to some distant (and very cold) places. Somewhere between enduring a winter in the Canadian Rockies and trekking through Chilean Patagonia, he graduated from university and pursued a career in journalism. Having worked for publications such as The Santiago Times and The Conversation, he now writes for Gizmag from Melbourne, excited by tech and all forms of innovation, the city's bizarre weather and curried egg sandwiches. All articles by Nick Lavars

I wonder if it could be possible for the text book industry and academic institutes to draw up a standard format for graphics, charts, etc. that appear in their printed materials to enable the interface between this device and those materials to be facilitated. for instance mark something as a photograph to point the software in the right direction, so to speak.

Of course, visually - impaired young people need to be catered for, so children's materials could join in in developing the standard. (It would save a lot of processing if the digital file for a drawing had a simple code for types of animal rather than the software having to calculate that something is a lion, say, from all the other four-legged animals).

It is not a stretch of the imagination to see this technology potentially developed to accept video input, perhaps with an automatic pause for the information to be fully comprehended before continuing.

Mel Tisdale

This technology will replace the ability to read for the youth whose literacy rates are tanking. Apple will build it into the iPhone 14.


Mr. Tisdale - great idea. Any standards they instituted could be adopted by the general publishing industry. Such cues would help not only those sight-impaired due to illness or accident, but those who are aging, and those who are moving across cultures & languages. A win for everybody. Eddie - maybe even for those not literate!!!


OCR glasses for the visually impaired - now, there's an app for Google glasses if someone can be bothered to write it.

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