FingerReader Helps the Blind Read Traditional Text


Researchers at MIT have unveiled a new device that they believe will help eliminate reading barriers for the blind by giving them a tool that they can use to read non-Braille text. The device is a product from the Fluid Interfaces Group, a team working within the MIT Media Lab.

The device, which they are calling FingerReader, is a small ring worn around the index finger. On top of the ring is a video camera that peers directly down the index finger, reading the text below it. As the reader moves their finger across the line of text, optical character recognition software translates the text into spoken audio output that plays back to the reader through an ear bud. The software also helps keep the readers finger on track as they scan the lines of text, vibrating if they veer off course and when they come to the end of the line. When the reader comes to the end, the vibration guides them to the beginning of the next line, where they can then continue reading.


The researchers developed the device with the aid of two focus groups made up of congenitally blind participants. Prior to testing the device, the participants were interviewed about their current reading aids. Every participant reported using either flatbed scanners paired with computer software or smartphone apps on a daily basis to help them read non-Braille text. Participants reported that neither approach was ideal. Use of a smartphone app was preferred because of its portability, but it was reportedly difficult and tedious to focus the camera on the print consistently. Flatbed scanners were reportedly easier and more straightforward to use, but portability was a very real and prohibiting issue for them. Neither solution is addressing the needs of the visually impaired, as one participant put it, “I want to be as efficient as a sighted person.”

The FingerReader is still just a prototype, which is evident by its bulky design and its choppy computerized voice. However, focus group participants using the prototype were optimistic about its future. They were each asked to use the device to read three lines of text. They reported having an easier time tracking the text than with a smartphone app, and were happy with the portability of the device. The general consensus was that “they could envision the FingerReader helping them fulfill everyday tasks, explore and collect more information about their surroundings, and interact with their environment in a novel way.”

Researchers say that the device could help give anyone with vision impairment a sense of independence because they can use it to read not only books, but also more problematic everyday items like menus, business cards, nutrition labels, and words on a computer screen. For the blind, the world is full of illegible text, a problem that science has yet to fully address.

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