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Reading Printed Material


It is very useful to have some way to independently read printed material such as letters and bills. There are several options depending on your residual vision and how and where you want to read print:-

  • Video magnifiers. These are great if you have adequate residual vision. They magnify and enhance the contrast of text such as inverting it to bright characters on a dark background. They do not do Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and so can handle handwriting and even diagrams. Some models are read only while others have space for you to use a pen and thus write as well as read. There are portable models, models which connect to a computer, and desktop models with large monitor screens.

  • A Video Magnifier application for an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. These use the camera on the IOS device to take a picture of the material of interest and then enlarge and contrast enhance the image. Similar applications are probably available for Android phones.

  • Scanner attached to a computer. Most scanners come with basic Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software which converts print into a text format which you can read and edit using a screen reader on your computer. This basic OCR software can handle print in normal fonts with simple layout but cannot handle complex layouts or handwriting. You can buy extra software which performs useful functions like doing optical character recognition for documents with complex multi-column layout and embedded images. They can scan such documents even if the page is upside down and they can scan multiple page documents. But even this extra software cannot understand handwriting.

  • Digital camera attached to a computer. These do a better job of scanning bound books than the usual flatbed scanner. For most flatbed scanners the scanner glass is surrounded by a frame so that you cannot position bound books so that the scanned area extends to the edge of the page adjacent to the spine of the book. You can instead use a digital camera to capture an image of a book page and then use optical character recognition to convert that page into text.

  • Digital camera in a mobile phone. If you own a suitable high end mobile phone such as an iPhone or an Android phone or a high end Nokia phone which runs the Symbian Series 60 operating system you can install software on your phone which will help you take a picture of the printed material and will then do optical character recognition on that picture to turn it into synthetic speech. You can take this anywhere and so read material like restaurant menus and bus time tables. you can buy bundled packages which include the mobile phone and all the software pre-installed and ready to use.

Video magnifiers

Video magnifiers, or CCTVs as they are sometimes called, use a camera and a screen to magnify things electronically. They are mostly used for reading and writing but can help with any task where magnification would help. There are several kinds of video magnifier, including models that can share a monitor with a computer, portable models and units that can focus on distant objects such as signs and notice boards.

the Royal National Institute of Blind people (RNIB) supply a wide range of video magnifiers. Below are details of representatives of each type of video magnifier:-

  • MAX Black and White TV based video magnifier from the RNIB.
    This is the cheapest video magnifier in the RNIB catalogue. It is typical of the low cost TV-based video magnifiers. It is about the size of a computer mouse and connects to a domestic television. This simple, yet effective tool enables you to use your existing TV set to read printed items, bills, newspapers, books, recipes, instructions and much more. It has three video modes, grey scale monochrome, inverted i.e. white characters on a black background, and enhanced contrast black characters on a white background. The effective magnification is between 15X and 28X depending on the size of your TV screen. You scan the "mouse" across the source material. It takes some practice to accurately scan a line of text. You cannot use this magnifier to help with writing as the camera is in direct contact with the material you are reading. The monochrome model costs about £90 and a colour model costs about £120.

  • Maggie-MD portable video magnifier.
    the RNIB sells a wide range of different portable video magnifiers ranging in price from £130 to £1,195. The Maggie-MD is a low cost, (£130) video magnifier that enables you to enlarge text and images while you're out and about or around the home. It has a 3 inch colour screen and a centrally mounted camera that makes it easy to aim at the item you want to read. It magnifies from 4X to 11X and has three colour modes: full colour, monochrome and inverted (white text on a black background). Its built-in rechargeable battery lasts for about 3 hours of continuous use. It comes with a handy stand positioning the magnifier at the right distance from the page for comfortable reading at a desk.

  • Optelec FarView portable video magnifier.
    The Optelec FarView is the most expensive portable video magnifier from the RNIB and costs £1,195. It is a lightweight video magnifier for both close up and distance magnification. It can be used to enlarge magazines, newspapers and books as well as objects in the distance such as arrivals boards, posters or bus numbers. When using close up mode it has a magnification from 3X to 12X. In distance mode magnification is from 2.7X to 42X. The TV-out socket enables you to connect it to a TV to give even greater magnification and more comfortable reading. For example, a 20 inch TV will give close up magnification of between 14X and 56X. It has five high contrast colour modes; black on white, white on black, yellow on black, yellow on blue, and blue on yellow. These high contrast colour modes remove shades to leave clearer text that is easier to read. Its LED lights help give a bright, clear image regardless of the surrounding light. They can also be turned off so you can look at glossy images such as a photograph or magazine without the reflection from the LED lights. Its auto focus image capture function allows storage and recall of 100 images. The automatic scroll feature enables you to read an A4 or letter size document quickly and easily. The FarView enables you to manipulate the image and adjust it so the lines of text are parallel to the screen. Then by indicating the left and right margins you can read line by line and move to the start of the next line at the touch of a button. Images can be transferred to your computer using the included USB cable. Its fold out stand enables you to handwrite underneath the camera and view your writing on screen. When reading a book or document the stand can be used to hold the screen at an angle and provide a more comfortable reading position. The rechargeable battery provides up to four hours of continuous use.

  • Optelec ClearView One desktop video magnifier (CCTV).
    The RNIB offers two desktop video magnifiers. The Optelec ClearView One desktop video magnifier (CCTV) is the cheapest at £1,195. Rediscover your love of reading with the Optelec ClearView One. Now everything can be read in large, easy-to-read print. Its one button operation enables you to get reading quickly without the complications found on other video magnifiers. The built-in 19 inch screen and wide magnification range ensures you can read everything in a text size that suits you. Whether its your local newspaper, a gripping novel, your bank statement, bills or identifying the junk mail from your important mail you can see it all more clearly with the Optelec ClearView One. It magnifies from 2.8X to 56X and has a wide range of colour modes including several inverted modes. There is plenty of space under the camera for you to write or pursue your hobbies with magnification.

  • martView Synergy SI desktop video magnifier (CCTV).
    At nearly £2,000 the SmartView Synergy SI desktop video magnifier (CCTV)myReader is the most expensive desk top video magnifier offered by the RNIB. This top of the range model has accurate colour and tone reproduction so it's great for photographs and colour images. Its high specification camera minimises blur, lag and distortion making reading easier and more comfortable for extended periods. Read crisp, clear text throughout the magnification range and text can be enhanced further by using one of the high contrast colour modes. It magnifies from 3X to 75X and has a wide range of colour options.

  • MonoMouse computer based video magnifier.
    The MonoMouse USB (£275)and ColorMouse USB (£370) video magnifiers connect to any Windows XP or later computer using a USB port. They are simple to use, simply install the included software and plug it into a spare USB port. Perfect for reading schoolwork, magazines, books, receipts, instructions and much more. the MonoMouse USB and ColorMouse USB are hand-held video magnifiers that are similar in size and shape to a computer mouse. MonoMouse USB enables you to see a black and white monochrome image of material you are viewing, ColorMouse USB gives a full colour image of material you are viewing. You size the viewing window in the normal way and scan the mouse over the material to be viewed. YOU cannot use this to help with writing.

Video Magnifier App on an IOS device (iPhone, iPod Touch,iPad)

VisionAssist app for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.
VisionAssist is a new category of handheld electronic magnifier that utilises your smartphone. It is designed to help people with Low Vision conditions including AMD (age related macular degeneration), Glaucoma, Diabetic Retinopathy, Cataracts and colour blindness. Why purchase an expensive dedicated electronic video magnifier when you can utilise your smartphone or tablet that is always with you. Use it on your iPhone for when you are out and about, use it with your iPad for big easy to read images, or connect it wirelessly with your Apple TV and your big screen TV or computer monitor at home for extra large viewing. If you find that a magnifying glass or glasses do not provide enough clarity, VisionAssist will provide magnification and enable you to improve the contrast to help you read or see what you want to read. If you are in a dark area, you can use the iPhone's flash as a torch to lighten up what you are reading. The VisionAssist App costs about £4.

Similar Apps are probably available for Android smart phones.

Scanner attached to a computer

If you are blind the cheapest way to read print is to use a low cost scanner attached to your computer, in conjunction with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software and a screen reader. You can buy scanners or all-in-one printer/scanners for around £60. However be careful in your choice as some scanners and all-in-one printer/scanners have a built-in screen which you use to choose what you want to do. These screens are inaccessible so be sure to avoid such models. The author uses a Cannon MP260 all-in-one printer/scanner which Amazon will sell you for about £70. This comes with basic optical character recognition (OCR) software for both the Apple Mackintosh and Windows computers. On the Apple Mackintosh this software (MP Navigator) does a good job with good quality print with simple layout, but you do have to put the document the right way round on the scanner glass, which could be a problem if you are not sure which way up the document is. If you get nonsense results try turning the document upside down. Using this basic software you have to scan multi-page documents a page at a time and combine the results. the basic software did not cope well with a typical page of the "Radio Times". This basic OCR software is inaccessible on Windows, even using a full function screen reader. However the author used to own a Lexmark all-in-one printer/scanner and the basic OCR software in this package was accessible on Windows.

You can purchase Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software for both the Apple Mackintosh and Windows which is fully accessible and which copes with the typical "Radio Times" page even if it is put on the scanner glass upside down. On Windows ABBYY fine reader version 10 works well with the free screen readers to convert printed material into various document formats. It costs about £90 and you can download a 15 day free trial version. On the Apple Mackintosh ABBYY fine reader Express edition for MAC is accessible using Voice Over and costs about £80. There is no downloadable time limited free trial version. It does not support all scanners so if you have an old scanner you may also need to install VueScan scanning software for the MAC. This supports nearly all scanners and costs about $40. You can download a trial version. You can direct the result of the VueScan scan to ABBYY fine reader to do the OCR processing. VueScan alone provides limited OCR capability but cannot cope with upside down documents or the Radio Times page.

One problem of standard flatbed scanners is that they are not good with bound books, especially thick books. This is because they have a frame around the scanner glass which prevents you positioning the book so that the scanner will scan right up to the edge of the page adjacent to the spine of the book. Xerox used to supply the Reading Edge scanner whose glass extended right to the edge of the scanner but that is no longer available. The solution is to use a digital camera with optical character recognition software.

Digital camera attached to a computer

If you want to convert bound books, especially thick books, into text using optical character recognition software you should look at using a digital camera with your OCR software. This is because the frame around the glass of a flatbed scanner prevents you positioning a thick bound book so that the scanner can scan right to the edge of the page adjacent to the spine of the book. With thin paper back books you can usually open the book enough to place the page of interest flat on the scanner, but this is not possible with thick bound books without risking damage to the book.

The ABBYY fine reader software mentioned in the prior section will convert images from a digital camera into text. You could thus perhaps connect a standard autofocus digital camera to your computer, photograph each page of a book, and use your OCR software to convert the images into text. However the mechanics of reliably doing this could be difficult.

The Eye-Pal is a commercial device which uses a digital camera connected to OCR software on a computer. It claims that blind users know exactly where to place the material to be scanned because they can touch and feel L-shaped edges. The foldable stand designed for the blind holds a digital camera over the printed matter. The camera is always at the exact distance needed to create a clear image. Eye-Pal's patented motion detector allows scanning a bound book at 20 pages per minute. You turn a page over; wait half a second for the shutter sound, turn again and again, it's that easy. It costs about $2,000.

Mobile phone based readers

The most portable text to speech solution for the blind is Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software on a high end mobile phone. the following lists some of the options:-

  • Prizmo OCR for iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.
    There are several Apps for the iPhone and other IOS devices which support Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Prizmo is liked by many in the blind community, but others also like Perfect OCR and Text Detective. Text Detective is easier to use than Prizmo but is less functional. Prizmo is fully accessible using VoiceOver. Prizmo costs about £7.

  • Text Detective for iPhone 4 and later.
    Text Detective was designed for use by the visually impaired and is thus fully accessible. Text Detective finds and reads text in printed documents within seconds using your iPhone's camera. The detected text can easily be read, edited, copied and pasted into documents, emails or other apps. It even stores all the scanned text in a history, which allows you to refer to it later. Every step is accessible. Text Detective works best with the clean and crisp text you find in documents, and at a distance of about the length of a forearm. You can use it wherever you go, and you don’t need to worry about network coverage – it even works on the plane. The app is optimised for iPhone 4S, but can be used with iPhone 4 and iPod touch. If you want to use Text Detective on an iPad, please be aware that the camera position is different to the one on the iPhone / iPod, which might require additional training and practice to align the camera lens and align the text. Text Detective costs about £2.
  • KNFB mobile reader for Nokia phones.
    This is software which you can install on a high end mobile phone which uses the Symbian Series 60 operating system to read aloud printed material of all types, such as pages of a book, instructions on packaging, collection times on a post box, MENUS AT A RESTAURANT, and so on. the software first helps you to use the phone to take a photograph of the material of interest. It tells you which edges of the material are in view and advises you how much to rotate the phone to properly align the material. You then take the photograph and a few seconds later the phone will start reading the text aloud using high quality optical character recognition and speech synthesis. The software is very forgiving and will cope with material which CONTAINS MULTIPLE COLUMNS, OR is upside down or sideways on. If you also have the Nokia Screen Reader installed you can use all the phone's other functions such as contacts, text messages, appointments calendar, global positioning system, voice recording, and music player. the KNFB reader was the first mobile phone OCR package designed for the blind and is thus highly usable and functional. However it does cost over £500 and so needs to do a lot more than the above low cost iPhone Apps!

  • The Georgie suite of Apps running on an Android smart phone.
    The Georgie suite of Apps is a collection of Apps specially tailored for use by the blind. It runs on an Android smart phone and you can purchase a package of both both a suitable phone and the Georgie App pre-installed. The Georgie suite comprises a core application which costs about £150 and a number of add-on packages which cost about £30 each. The LifeStyle package includes an Optical Character Recognition Apps.

Page last modified: November 2012

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