Not long ago, James Gashel was on Capitol Hill, waiting for a meeting to start, when he realized that he needed some numbers from a chart he was carrying.
That was a problem. Gashel is blind, and so was his companion. And the chart was not in Braille. Gashel was reaching for his cell phone to call someone at his office to retrieve the numbers, when his colleague stopped him.
"Why don't you try the reader?" he asked.
Gashel, an executive at the National Federation for the Blind in Baltimore, was carrying the world's first hand-held reading machine for the blind - just developed by NFB in collaboration with Kurzweil Technologies Inc. of Wellesley, Mass.
Combining a 5-megapixel digital camera with a personal digital assistant, or PDA, the 13-ounce Kurzweil-NFB Reader converts digital images of text into synthesized speech.
Gashel pulled out his reader, snapped a picture of the chart, "and within a minute I had the numbers I wanted," he said. And he didn't have to bother anyone else to get them.
Now in final field tests before its release for sale by Kurzweil this summer, the device was officially unveiled last week at ceremonies at NFB headquarters in South Baltimore.
Thanks to the new reader, Gashel and 75 other blind product testers across the country are sorting through their own mail, reading restaurant menus, identifying packages in the freezer by the labels and discovering many other tasks they can now do without assistance.
It's liberating, Gashel said. "You start to think about your capabilities differently."
In addition to many of the nation's 1.3 million blind people, he also predicts a demand from older people with failing eyesight, and young people with dyslexia or learning disabilities.
The NFB's collaboration with Kurzweil began more than 30 years ago, when founder Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer of character recognition and text-to-speech devices, came to the federation's offices, then in Washington.
He had developed the first Kurzweil Reading Machine. The size of an office copier, it could scan a document and read it in a synthetic human voice.
"That was very revolutionary," Gashel said. Until then, blind people were pretty much limited to live readers, or the limited number of publications available on tape or records, or transcribed into Braille.
The Kurzweil reader was big and expensive - $50,000 each, Gashel said. It couldn't read photocopied matter and it had problems with pages crowded with pictures.
But it was clearly a breakthrough. So the NFB bought six, and began working with Kurzweil to improve them. "This was the first time an inventor of a product had ever come directly to us," seeking input from the blind in the development of an "access" machine, Gashel said.
Eventually, Kurzweil began to sell improved versions to schools, libraries and rehabilitation agencies. But even though prices fell over the years, the reader remained too costly for individuals.
Just as importantly, "There was always a need for something portable," Gashel said.
By the mid-1990s, the advent of desktop computers and scanners enabled Kurzweil to develop a PC-based reader - the Kurzweil 1000. Character-recognition software was improving, too. And laptops made the hardware required smaller.
But one problem remained: "You would have to have a scanner - it would be quite a bit of paraphernalia to carry about," Gashel said.
Digital photography provided the needed breakthrough; that, and the miniaturization of computer power in the PDA - the hand-held computer that millions use to organize their lives.
The Kurzweil-NFB Reader, which is expected to cost less than $3,000, marries a small, 5-megapixel Canon camera to an ASUS A730 PDA. They are wired together and held by a vinyl case about 6 inches by 3 inches by 2 1/2 inches. It's all operated with just nine buttons, with voice prompts from a small speaker or through earphones.
Holding the device about 16 inches above a sheet of paper lying on a table, Gashel lines up the shot. He is guided by a sort of audio viewfinder: "Right, bottom edges are visible ... two degrees counterclockwise relative to page."
The camera speaks in an oddly Eastern European male voice, but it's one that's familiar and comfortable for people who use electronic readers.
Gashel pushes a button and the shutter clicks. A few seconds later, the device is reading the release aloud, flawlessly.
Tests on a business card and an ATM receipt are rougher. The device misses some lines of type, and mistakes some characters for others. But it does better on a second try, "learning" as it goes along.
Had it been his own ATM slip, Gashel said, "I would have known what I withdrew, and I'd know most of the information, even if it didn't hit it right."
Many times, he said, "you're not going for perfect; you're going for `What is this?'"