Read with your fingers

Post date: 
Thursday, 12 March 2015

Hannah Flynn reports on a new device worn on your finger that reads back text and highlights other devices to look out for.

Being able to read any text, anywhere in real time, was the aim of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, which has been developing the FingerReader
The device is a ring worn on the index finger of the user that contains a small camera, a microchip and a speaker that reads back text to the wearer, meaning they can read text around them – for example, on a business card, a menu in a restaurant or a sign.  
Currently in development, the reader is used tethered to a device and can be attached to your iPhone or tablet, but the vision is to make it wireless. There are vibration motors inside the device that vibrate to help the user point in the right place to access the text, as well as an audio feedback mechanism. 

Natural user interface

The Fluid Interfaces Team, part of the MIT Media Lab team behind the device, is focused on developing more natural user interfaces, explains Dr Jochen Huber, who is working on the FingerReader. 
“That means we develop devices that are a natural extension of people and their behaviours,” he explains. “Wearing a camera on the finger makes for a natural interface as people naturally point at things around them.”
Work started on the FingerReader after the team investigated the needs of people with visual impairment by attending university user groups for blind and partially sighted people at MIT and Singapore University of Technology and Design, as the FingerReader is a joint project between the two institutions.

Overcoming challenges 

“One of the challenges we realised blind and partially sighted people faced was with mobile text reading, so we looked at how they access text. Yes, they can access text with a smart phone, but how do they know where to point it, and how do you establish a relationship between what you want to read and what you are holding in your hand?” Huber says.
“We designed different rings and different feedback mechanisms. We developed a sound that the user hears when they reach the end of the line, although the user can choose auditory or haptic [vibrating] feedback depending on what they prefer.”
The design process lasted more than a year and involved speaking to people in the groups and trying out different designs on them, says Huber. The needs of the individuals in the groups varied, with some partially sighted participants and some blind participants. 
The product is still in development and there are issues that need to be resolved, Huber adds – for instance, potentially making the device wireless, increasing the range of font sizes the camera can deal with (it currently works best with 11-12 point font) and enabling the device to be used with a touch screen. However, there are many benefits to the device that allow users to access some texts that cannot be accessed using other devices. 
“The FingerReader is mainly used for analogue text. We had a study where someone bought along his own books that are old and unavailable in braille, and have not been digitised before. He managed to read them with the FingerReader,” Huber explains.

And there's more innovations...

Tactile Watch

The Bradley Time Piece was nominated for the Design Museum Design of the Year 2014. The watch is described as a “time piece” and has a tactile clock face and ball bearing that moves around the clock face to allow people to tell the time without audio.

Braille e-book

A Braille e-book has been designed by a team of independent researchers and is currently in the concept phase.

Braille mobile phone 

London-based OwnFone offer a basic mobile phone with customised braille buttons, starting from £60. 

Sonar “smart” cane

The Smartcane is an electronic device that fits onto the handle of a white cane. It uses sonar signals to detect objects from knee to head height, overcoming the restriction of smart canes that often cannot be used to detect objects above knee height. 
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