Finger Reader Development at MIT

From AFB’S Access WorldIn March 2015, the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT) announced that researchers in its Media Lab had developed a prototype of a reading device that is worn on the finger. Many people in the
accessibility community were very excited by this prospect. Unlike other
common OCR (optical character recognition) apps that first scan and then
process the page, the MIT device, dubed the Finger Reader, reads text in
real time.

The concept for the device was developed by Roy Shilkrot, an MIT graduate
student in Media Arts and Sciences. He and Media Lab postdoc Jochen Huber
are lead authors on a paper describing the FingerReader. Additional
co-authors were Pattie Maes, the Alexander W. Dreyfoos Professor in Media
Arts and Sciences at MIT; Suranga Nanayakkara, an assistant professor of
engineering product development at the Singapore University of Technology
and Design, who was a postdoc and later a visiting professor in Maes’ lab;
and Meng Ee Wong of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Dr. Huber
presented the paper in April at the Association for Computing Machinery
Computer-Human Interface conference.

Shilkrot graciously agreed to be interviewed for this article. He explained,
“I came up with the idea about two years ago. I thought it would be very
interesting to think about reading because I know accessing print material
is not a solved problem for people with a visual impairment. Because of the
tactile sensitivity of the finger and the directionality of the finger when
you point at something, it just made sense to think about reading and using
the finger.”

OCR programs such as Abbyy TextGrabber & Translator and Prizmo, Finger
Reader does not need to scan an entire page before it processes text. The
Finger Reader lets the user move around the page at will, voicing text
detected wherever the user points the device. This is especially useful when
looking for specific information or reading a menu. Shilkrot said, “We want
to create a reading experience that will be closer to that experienced by a
person without a visual impairment.”

A new paper about the Finger Reader will be published within the next few
months. Shilkrot said, “We’ll go further into why we think this product is
as good as or better than current solutions. What it does is sort of level
the field, in terms of reading, for people with and without a visual

Physical Description of the Finger Reader

Shilkrot describs the FingerReader as “rather small, sort of like an
oversized ring.” He said that the ring was about the height of one average
finger width and about half the distance from knuckle to knuckle. He added
that the FingerReader itself, without a cable, has not been weighed, but he
estimates it at about 50 grams (1.8 ounces) or less. The latest version is
more like an easily adjustable rubber strap than a hard ring.

How the Finger Reader Works

The device’s camera points down from where it is worn on the finger, but
does not touch the page. As the tip of the finger moves along the page, the
camera gets a wide view of the print. Tones play if the user’s finger
deviates from the current line.

Shilkrot and the research team developed a complex algorithm to convert what the camera sees into speech. According to Shilkrot, it usually takes less
than half a second to speak a word once it is detected.

As the wearer’s finger moves across the page, the camera uses the algorithm
to process what it is seeing. Shilkrot said, “The idea of what we’re trying
to do is that you can always trust the device to say the word that is in
front of your fingertip. The camera sits on the finger, but does not touch
the page. That’s how it gets such a wide view of what’s there. It tracks the
fingertip and it tracks the words on the page. It gives you audio cues to
feel where the print is and it tries to infer the next word to say.”

The FingerReader currently connects to an Android device such as a phone or
tablet. The developers are working on a wireless version. Shilkrot
explained, “The development process on Android is easier because it’s more
open. With iOS we still haven’t figured out if we can connect the device and
have the phone work with it. It has to do with some drivers and we don’t
have a definitive answer to that yet.”

Testing the Finger Reader

Shilkrot expressed his gratitude to members of the VIBUG (Visually Impaired
& Blind Users Group) who meet at MIT. This group was involved with
recruiting test subjects for the Finger Reader prototype. Shilkrot said that
most, if not all, testers were members of the group, adding, “In the name of
the team I would like to thank them.”

When the Finger Reader was first tested, researchers used both vibrations
and audio signals, separately and together, to help guide the user’s finger.
There were two motors on the device, one on the top and one on the bottom.
They tried three different methods: vibrations alone, tones alone, and the
two together. The researchers chose to use the audio method alone since
audio sensors are lighter and smaller than vibrating motors.

Shilkrot discussed further development of the Finger Reader. “There’s a lot
more to do on the software side and on the device side to correct things. We
don’t need to bother the user with these things. The user needs to be
reading naturally and the device will be doing the heavy lifting.”

Availability of the Finger Reader

The Finger Reader is still in the developmental stage. Shilkrot explains the
timeline thusly: “We are not a company with a lot of funding; we can’t hire
a bunch of engineers. We’re doing this in an academic route, [which] means
that we have limited funding, limited people, and limited time to work on
this. That’s why it will take longer than people might expect, but it’s
definitely taking steps to where it’s becoming more like a product.”

Shilkrot didn’t know how much the Finger Reader will cost since a final
version has not yet been developed. He did mention that a user who already
has an Android device will only need to purchase the Finger Reader to have
on-the-go reading capability.

The Future of the Finger Reader

According to Shilkrot, many people are skeptical about the Finger Reader. He
said, “We’ve got to keep in mind that we’re researching something that has
never been done before. We’re trying to come up with this new way of reading
and we’re still trying to figure out the best way to do it. If we keep
working on it, involving people with a visual impairment into our design
process and our developmental process, I think we can end up with something
that is good and useful.” He understands that people want to feel and try
the Finger Reader, but at present, more development and testing need to be done.