MIT photo

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are some 11.2 million people in the United States who suffer from some form of vision impairment. Those impairments mean tasks like reading text are difficult, if not entirely daunting, for nearly three percent of the population.

But now a research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a device which can be worn on a user's finger to read text aloud for people whose vision is impaired, and it promises to be a real breakthrough. The prototype was produced with 3D printing technology.

Called FingerReader, the device is essentially a large ring made to fit comfortably on the user's finger. It's equipped with a tiny camera which is used to scan text, and that data is then read aloud by a synthesized voice. It's a quick way for users to translate text in books or other reading material, and it does the trick on the fly.

Pattie Maes

Pattie Maes, the MIT professor who leads the Fluid Interfaces research group responsible for creating the prototype, says the project is a leap forward when compared to similar technologies. Maes, who holds bachelor's and PhD degrees in computer science from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, is an expert in human-computer interaction and artificial intelligence whose 2009 TED talk is among the most watched such talks in history.

"It's like reading with the tip of your finger and it's a lot more flexible," Maes said. "It's a lot more immediate than any solution that they have right now."

It works like this: the user points a finger at the text, then a software package tracks finger movement to identify individual words to process the information for audio output. The FingerReader also includes vibration motors which can notify the user when their finger begins to track away from the text.

Roy Shilkrot

Roy Shilkrot, a grad student and one of the development team working on the FingerReader at the MIT Media Lab, says he believes the FingerReader will eventually reach a marketable form, but as yet, he's not sure how much the devices might cost. While there are currently optical character recognition devices on the market, very few of them are capable of reading aloud in real time. He says the critical differences are that the FingerReader gives real time feedback on the progression of the scan and that the device maintains the "connection of the finger to the medium, by instrumenting a well-practiced gesture of using the index finger to trace written text."

The FingerReader is the result of three years work in coding the software, various design experiments and collecting feedback from beta test users with visual impairments. He adds that, while he doesn't see the device as a replacement for Braille,  he does believe the MIT device will let users have complete access to the enormous number of books and texts not currently available in Braille.

FingerReader can read books, magazines, newspapers and even computer screens, but it doesn't function when used with the devices that have touch screens like phones.