Finger reader is a new and exciting idea in accessibility for the visually impaired.
What it is
I’ll tell you about it first. Then I’ll explain why I think it matters so much.
The finger reader is a project from the Fluid Interfaces group at MIT. It aims to help blind and visually impaired people read with a device that is small, portable, intuitive and… wearable. Wearable is important: your wrist watch is wearable, but your smartphone isn’t. People love smartphones but wearable is even better. That’s why people have wrist watches, sometimes ones connected to their phone via Bluetooth, even though they could just have pulled the phone out and looked at that. That’s why although Google Glasses seem crazy really (what will people think of me, and I can’t get an internet connection half the time and the UK government won’t approve them for drivers and lots more problems) they might just catch on all the same.
How’s the finger reader used? Well you wear a ring. It’s a little clunky right now but if it catches on there will be designer versions. You run your finger along a line of text, as readers did traditionally and many people with impaired vision find it helpful to do. And the finger reader… reads. And it works with the grain of what people instinctively do.
At the Fluid Interfaces website you can see a brilliant video of the device in action. I think the enthusiasm and creativity are most inspiring.
Why it matters
For anyone blind or visually impaired and using a computer there are lots of apps that will read aloud what’s on the screen.
But what if it’s not on the screen? Going out and about we meet lots of stuff we want to read. Naturally if we are blind we can give up on ads on the side of buses and buildings (maybe no bad thing!), and we can’t tell the time by looking at Big Ben, but at a smaller scale it should be possible to read a rail ticket or a restaurant menu.
Think about the restaurant menu. It’s a kind of a gold standard for discussions about accessibility, because it’s tough. How can a blind person read a menu independently? What technology could help? Well not a laptop or desktop computer plus a scanner. We aren’t going to lug those to the restaurant. But a smartphone is pretty portable, it has a camera, and there is good character recognition software, and apps to read text.
Problem solved then?
Well no. One difficulty is holding the phone steady at exactly the right distance for the camera to capture the menu page, the whole menu page, and nothing but the menu page. I tried it and it’s very hard.
But maybe some kind of portable stand would solve this? And indeed a lightweight portable pop-up reader has been designed by the people at the Royal College of Art. I admire the user-centered focus of this project, which sets out to understand the needs of users and make them central.
But the pop-up reader is not something that you will feel is part of you. It’s not like your spectacles or your wrist watch, which get integrated into self. And it doesn’t work naturally: you can’t use it for scanning or skim reading, for example, things you would probably want to do with a menu.
The finger reader comes at all this from a different angle. If you wear a ring regularly you just feel it’s a sort of honorary body part. And you can point with your finger to any bit of the text, so now you magically have the ability to navigate what you are reading in a way that is simply impossible when static scanning is used. In fact the Fluid Interfaces video shows that it can be used effectively when reading a Kindle.
This device is only a prototype and the present design may never lead to a commercially viable device. And it isn’t quite as simple as a ring: you can see in the pictures that there is an umbilical cord that connects it to a smartphone or something like that. It needs to be evolved into something more like an invisible hearing aid.
But all the same it is a huge step. It tries to address what a participant in the trials gave as their wish:
“I want to be as efficient as a sighted person”.
There’s a paper about the finger reader that explains the goals of the project very well.