Walt Mossberg

Intel Makes Leap in Device to Aid Impaired Readers

Despite all of the advances in digital technology, too few high-tech products have emerged to help the blind read books or other paper documents, or to make reading such texts easier for people with impaired vision or language-related learning disabilities.

A few years back, a breakthrough was made with text-to-speech software that could be installed on a specific mobile phone, but with limitations due to the phone’s small screen and buttons, and restricted processor power.

Now, Intel (INTC), the giant chip maker, is attacking this problem with a new product: the Intel Reader. It’s a chunky, book-size device with a computer-grade processor and a large, forward-facing screen that can be viewed easily while its downward-facing camera is shooting text for translation into audio and giant text. It also has raised buttons that are easy to find via touch.

I’ve been testing the Intel Reader with books, newspapers, magazines, bank statements, menus and even cereal boxes. My results were decidedly mixed. In some cases, especially with books and certain magazine articles, it worked pretty well, often almost perfectly. In others, it did a poor job. I also found that it takes a lot of practice to learn how to aim the Reader’s camera properly.

However, an important caveat is in order. I have full, normal vision and no learning disabilities, so I can’t put myself in the place of someone who is unable to read paper documents, or who struggles to do so. For them, the limitations I found in this product might easily pale when compared with its liberating benefits. More information is at reader.intel.com.

When it worked as promised, the Intel Reader was a delight. It would start reading the text to me in under a minute, while displaying the words on the 4.3-inch screen in an easily adjusted font size that could allow as little as one word to fill the display. I also could switch to a view of the photo of the whole page, and zoom in to focus on a portion of the text. It holds multiple texts and has an easy interface with large menus that the machine can read to you.

But the Reader is relatively big and expensive. It costs a whopping $1,500 and is available from only a limited number of retailers who specialize in products for special-needs consumers. By contrast, the competing cellphone product, called the KNFB mobile reader, is much smaller because it uses a standard Nokia (NOK) mobile phone. It can be purchased through Amazon.com (AMZN), also for $1,500.


The Intel Reader

The Intel Reader is a special-purpose computer that weighs 1.4 pounds and is dominated by the roomy horizontal screen, with control buttons to the right and below. Along the bottom edge is a five-megapixel camera with flash.

The Reader’s second-most-prominent feature is a large, bright-blue “shoot” button, which occupies all of the diagonally cut upper right hand corner. You press this easy-to-find button twice to take a picture of the text that the Reader will then convert.

Both the text on the screen and the speed of the audio reading can be adjusted with prominent, raised buttons. Other buttons begin and end playback, and navigate through the menus.

The Reader uses the same Intel Atom processor found on netbook computers, and can hold 600 processed pages that you can transfer to and from a PC or Mac. It also can convert your processed pages into audio files for playback on a portable audio player.

The Reader can capture two book pages at a time. Intel also sells a $400 stand to make book conversion faster and easier.

In my tests, my biggest problem was aiming correctly. The Reader automatically corrects the curvature and orientation of pages. But in many of the items I captured, the first and last few words were either garbled or skipped. The company admits there is a learning curve to the Reader, and I did get better with time.

The Reader did a great job with pages from the new Ken Auletta book, “Googled,” and a fair job with pages from the first Harry Potter book. To my surprise, it didn’t stumble so much with the made-up words in the latter book, but with common ones like “magic.” In the book about Google (GOOG), the reader’s robotic voice kept pronouncing MySpace as “mizzpizz.” And it often pronounced the word “I” as “one.”

The device was excellent at reading a menu from a local bakery, even down to the tiny type, but it utterly failed to make sense of a simple summary statement from my bank, or the front of a box of Cheerios.

Newspapers were a particular challenge. The Reader frequently picked up fragments of adjoining articles or picture captions, or got completely flummoxed. In one case, it got permanently stuck trying to process an article. Intel says that was a rare bug it will fix.

On balance, I’d recommend the Reader, provider the user understands its limitations and is willing to tackle the learning curve.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at

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