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Tools and Technology: Optical Character Recognition (Scanners)

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      Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology was a tremendous leap in the ability of blind persons to quickly access printed materials. Most people have become familiar with or have used OCR technology when they have scanned paper documents into their computer. The development of OCR technology began in the mid-twentieth century. Iowa had an important role in the development and widespread use of OCR and scanner technology.


      The first Kurzweil Reading Machine was introduced at the Iowa Commission for the Blind in 1977. The unveiling was a national event covered by the national television news. Walter Cronkite's famous sign-off was given via the reading machine.

      Image #1: Photo of  Ray Kurzweil and Kenneth Jernigan, Demonstrating the Kurzweil Reading Machine, Director's Conference Room, Iowa Commission for the Blind, 1977. Photo from Box 6, folder 24 in the Iowa Blind History archive.

      Image #2: Page from the 1977 Iowa Commission for the Blind Annual Report. Photo of press conference on the introduction of the Kurzweil Reading Machine. A second photo shows a book titled "Hesse" on the glass plate of the machine. Caption reads: Probably the most important development in communications for the blind during the past 150 years, Braille was invented in 1825. The first field model of the Kurzweil reading machine was unveiled at the Iowa Commission for the Blind in January 1977. Nationwide the news media, the public, and the blind took note.

      Ordinary printed matter is placed face down on the glass plate. A tiny camera scans computer translates; and a voice comes out of the speaker, reading what is on the printed page. It will read up to 200 words per minute. The push of a button will make it spell words, punctuate, or go back a line. Not magic, but technology. This machine (the prices was $50,000) was provided without cost to the Iowa Commission for the Blind by the National Federation of the Blind. Ray Kurzweil, the inventor, predicts the price will drop to less the $5,000 per unit in the near future. With the lowered cost, and refinements made to the original models, there is the promise that the time will soon be at hand when the average blind person can read print books or the newspaper unassisted in his or her own home. This, indeed, is ACCOMPLISHMENT- and Iowa is leading the way.

      1977 1977 Iowa Commission for the Blind Annual report from Box 6, folder 24 in the Iowa Blind History archive.

      Learn more about this topic:

      The American Foundation for the Blind has oral histories from several innovators in assistive technology, including a Ray Kurzweil Oral History.

      Ray Kurzweil biography.