Throwback Thursday: OCR the Old-Fashioned Way!

Our object this week may not look like much, a couple oflarge putty colored plastic and aluminum boxes. You’d need a suitcase tocarry them around, but today their equivalent fits in your pocket. Thisis a Kurzweil Personal Reader by Xerox from about 1988. The box on theleft is an optical scanner. It worked much like a modern flatbedscanner. You raised the lid, laid your reading material down on the glassplate, and scanned your material one page at a time. The box on the rightwas stuffed with electronics that took the scan and converted it intosynthesized speech. In essence, the Personal Reader worked like aphotocopy machine, but instead of printing a copy of a page, it read the pageout loud. (Incidentally, the machine used Digital Equipment Corporation’sDECtalk, a speech synthesizer and text-to-speech technology developed in theearly 1980s, based largely on the work of Dennis Klatt at MIT.) With the Personal Reader, almost anything that was in print could be read by ablind or visually impaired reader, and at their convenience. No morewaiting for a volunteer reader to record a book, or for it to be translatedinto braille.
RaymondKurzweil, a pioneering futurist interested in pattern recognition andartificial intelligence, founded Kurzweil Computer Products in the early 1970sto develop reading machines for people with vision loss. He was the firstto develop practical opticalcharacter recognition for blind readers. His first desktop modelscame out in 1978 at a cost of $19,400, a price affordable only for librariesand institutions. Xerox bought the company in 1980, renaming it XeroxImaging Systems. Under that name, Kurzweil developed several differentgenerations of his original machine. The Reading Edge, introduced in1992, was the first stand-alone and “almost portable” version. At less than $6,000, it was the first reader that might be possibly affordablefor the average blind consumer.
If you have a cell phone in your pocket, and the right app,you can scan a sign or your mail or just about anything, and your phone canread it to you in seconds. It’s not always perfect, but it works, and thetechnology in that little box can be traced back to the technology in these bigboxes.

Stan Greenwood
A humble human, who is always found working on something or drinking coffee. A perfect introvert who talks barely anything but shares a lot through his blog posts at FredForum.

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