November 2006 Issue  Volume 7  Number 6


Legends and Pioneers of Blindness Assistive Technology, Part 3

This is the third in a series of articles on the history of blindness assistive technology, gathered from interviews with 25 of the giants who created that history. In Parts 1 and 2 (in the July and September 2006 issues of AccessWorld), I described the conceptualization of the project, the methods I used to select the interviewees, and the nature of the oral history process. I then summarized the interviews that I had conducted for this project. In this article, I present a short historical tour of the technologies that were the precursors of modern blindness assistive technologies and place the legends and pioneers whom I interviewed in the context of that history. I also include some of their comments from the interviews.

A Brief Time in History

Except for the first use of a tree branch to fashion a crude cane and the fashioning of the first optical aids about a millennium ago, almost everything there is to report about the history of blindness assistive technology has taken place in the past 200 years. Moreover, the development of electronically based technologies for people who are blind or have low vision began only 50 years ago, finally being put on the market in the 1970s.

Arguably, the first "technology" that was developed for people with low vision was the magnifying lens, and the first technology that was developed for people who are blind was braille. According to the Inspiration Line Trivia and Facts web site <>, the first eyeglasses (about A.D. 1000) took the form of handheld lenses. Head-borne eyeglasses were probably invented by an Italian monk, scientist, or craftsman about 1285, and when Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1456, which made printed books accessible to more people, the evolution of eyeglasses was fully launched. Today, sophisticated lens-manufacturing techniques and modern optometry have combined to produce a wide variety of differently shaped lenses to correct errors of refraction or to redirect light in ways that help the human eye better apprehend the visual world.

It was not always this way. When Sam Genensky, inventor of the closed-circuit television (CCTV; also known as a video magnifier), was a boy in the 1940s, he had a powerful pair of binoculars adapted, so he could use his one good eye to look down the left side to read books and down the right side to see the chalkboard. Genensky eventually earned a doctorate in mathematics. At that time, William Feinblum had not yet developed the first low-vision lenses.

According to the Television History web site <>, the period 1946-1949 saw an explosion in the purchase of television sets by the general public, but it was the following decade that witnessed the birth of color television, the remote control, and interesting uses of the transistor. It was during this time that the technology that was used in the first CCTV-video magnifiers reached maturity. In the late 1950s, John De Witt, founder of the De Witt and Associates assistive technology company, saw a prototype developed at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), but its quality was poor. As he put it in an interview with me, "It was this rather grainy, not high-contrast, print on the television screen, a black print on a somewhat flickery white background . . . sort of distorted at the same time. But that was real early stuff." Ten years later, Genensky, working for the RAND Corporation, developed the first marketable CCTV. Genensky, in a letter to me on October 9, 2006, explained, "What was done by AFB was the design and testing of a projection magnifier that did not involve the use of television equipment (i.e., a TV camera and a TV monitor). The projection magnifier was similar to a microfiche reading device."

Since then, we have seen the development of small and large television sets, movement away from old-style cathode ray tubes to plasma and high-definition screens, and revolutions in cameras leading up to today's modern imaging technologies, such as that in HumanWare's myReader device, which, as Russell Smith described it to me, is "a system that will capture the entire page in one shot, will analyze the page to recognize where columns and pictures are, and will reformat the text so it fits across the width of the screen. You can read down the screen, and you can have the text rolling vertically as it does on a teleprompter."

The Tactile Revolution

According to the history of braille provided on the Enabling Technologies web site <>, Valentin Haüy founded the first school for students who were blind in France in spring 1784. In 1819, when 10-year-old Louis Braille became its youngest student, the school had 130 pupils and 14 books hand-embossed with natural lettering. It is likely that the paucity of accessible educational materials, together with a tactile code introduced to him by an artilleryman, Charles Barbier de la Serre, inspired Braille to invent the system that bears his name. In October 1824, Braille unveiled his code. He had found 63 ways to arrange a 6-dot cell, a remarkable improvement on the 12-dot cell code that had failed to work for the French army in its attempt to develop a night-reading method for its troops.

Meanwhile, in 1808, the first typewriter, the piston board, was invented for an Italian countess who was blind, so she could write legibly for sighted readers, but it was not until the 1870s that typewriters were widely disseminated. In between, movable blocks were used to print braille books. Although the technique was tedious, it was not too different from the way print books were produced (hence, the term "braille press" used by organizations that produce braille, such as National Braille Press). In the 1890s, an interpoint technique was developed to save paper by allowing braille to be printed on both sides of a page.

According to the January 2005 issue of InTouch, the e-newsletter from Optelec USA's Blindness Products Division, the Perkins Brailler was invented in 1941 by David Abraham, a skilled craftsman who was employed by the Perkins School for the Blind. In 1969, the first prototype braille display was developed by Argonne National Laboratory, the first embosser for regular braille pages was developed at MIT (by George Dalrimple), and the Braille Authority of North America was established. Joe Sullivan, of Duxbury Systems, described the first embossers produced by the Mitre Corporation in concert with MIT: "They had previously done what you might say were Teletype-like things. They would put braille into a strip tape (an adapted Teletype). The Braille Emboss was the first thing that I know of . . . that did a page of braille."

In the 1970s, the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) and then Duxbury Systems began to produce high-volume computer-based braille embossing. In 1992, the Mountbatten Brailler was introduced as a revolutionary alternative to the mechanical input of the Perkins Brailler, and with the increasing power of desktop computers and piezo-electric cells (tactile braille cells made of materials that respond to electric current by changing their dimensions, developed by Oleg Tretiakov and Franz Tieman), braille-display processors began to permeate the market.

Today, the most expensive part of braille-display processors is the braille cell. In expounding on his own failed attempts to make a cheaper braille cell, Deane Blazie listed the following: displaying braille using an electrical stimulus instead of an actual physical bump, using inverted bubbles like bubble wrap, and using a pneumatic display that used air pressure to push up BBs. Most promising are polymers that can spring up or down when a voltage is placed across them, eliminating the need for electromechanical reeds that must be completely reliable over billions of movements.

Let's Hear It

According to the Helsinki University history of speech synthesis <>, the first mechanical attempts to synthesize speech took place in 1779, when a Russian professor (Christian Kratzenstein) explained the physiological differences among the basic vowel sounds and produced the sounds artificially by constructing acoustic resonators that were similar to the human vocal tract. Kratzenstein activated the resonators with vibrating reeds that were similar to those in musical instruments. The development of electrical sound-producing devices began in the 1920s and 1930s. Since its earliest days, Bell Labs had been concerned with the properties and analysis of human speech. In 1936, H.W. Dudley developed the voice coder (or "voder"), the world's first electronic speech synthesizer. The voder required an operator with a keyboard and foot pedals to supply "prosody"--the pitch, timing, and intensity of speech that gives it the intonation that makes it understandable (see the web site <>). Just a year earlier, the first Talking Book disc recordings had been made. The technology now existed both to record and to synthesize sound reliably. Many modern electronic synthesizers use the basic design pattern of the voder.

According to Dennis Klatt's "History of Speech Synthesis" (see <>), the period 1959-85 was characterized by the development of segmental synthesis by rule, improvements in segment and sentence prosody, and the development of automatic text-to-speech conversion. Ron Morford used protocols developed by Bell Labs to produce the chips that eventually went into the VERT (Voice Emulation in Real Time). However, getting the first prototype to talk was a major challenge. As Morford put it, "One of the happiest moments of my life was about 11:30 at night; the thing would speak for about five seconds and stop. I was just so frustrated. There was an error in my program, and I fixed it. When I started it again, it just talked and talked and talked. And I just started to jump up and down. I was so excited. I finally got this thing to talk."

Today, we take high-quality text-to-speech conversion for granted. Voice quality, variety, and control are driven by software and high-capacity speech boards. For a sample of what early speech synthesis sounded like, go to Klatt's history web site <>.

Reading Machines for People Who Are Blind

In his doctoral dissertation, J. Scott Hauger outlined the history of the reading machine (see <>). In 1943, Vannevar Bush established a federal government program to develop sensory aids for people who are blind. From 1943 to 1947, RCA worked under the auspices of the Office of Scientific Research and Development to develop working prototypes of the A2 Reader and a unique letter-recognition device. At the same time, Haskins Laboratories initiated research on the informational content of articulated speech that later provided a basis for computer-driven speech synthesizers. Haskins, Battelle, and Mauch Laboratories worked with the Veterans Administration in a three-pronged program, but ultimately failed to develop a reading machine. Harvey Lauer worked with the Battelle reader and attempted to influence Hans Mauch, a noted bioengineer who in his early career worked to design a jet engine, but Mauch, one of several scientists and engineers who were brought to the United States from Germany after World War II, was stubborn and would not make the improvements that Lauer suggested. As Lauer noted, "Mauch was building the first working, talking, reading machine that could read fairly accurately. You could read a couple of type styles with it (not every kind), but you could read certain ones in 1971. And it was about 8K, and it was in a Braille Writer case."

In 1968, Jim Bliss and John Linvill obtained funds from the newly created Bureau of Education for the Handicapped to produce the Optacon, a reading machine that converted print into a scrolling tactile output, and, in 1971, established Telesensory Systems. Over 12,000 Optacons were sold by 1990.

In 1975, Raymond Kurzweil sought help from the National Federation of the Blind to develop a synthetic speech-based reading machine. He drew on the knowledge of readers who were blind, his expertise in pattern recognition, and a speech synthesizer that operated on the principles established at Haskins Laboratories to develop a software-centered reading machine. As he stated, "We invented the first optical character recognition (OCR) system that could recognize any type font and could deal with printing errors, like touching letters, broken letters, and third-generation photocopies. And we had a number of applications in mind, including the blind reading problem. On a plane trip, I sat next to a blind gentleman who was articulating how blindness was just an inconvenience. He represented his company. He flew all over the world. . . . But then he said actually there was one problem, one handicap, associated with visual impairment that it would be good if there was a solution for: the ability to access ordinary printed material because recorded books and braille were available only for a small fraction of books. . . . Business memos and so on were not available [in braille]."

As many will recall, the first reading machines cost tens of thousands of dollars. Thanks to powerful microprocessors and mass-market software contained in today's personal computers, these OCR systems now cost less than $1,000. Kurzweil explained this price reduction in terms of Moore's law: "Just about every aspect of information technology is doubling in capability every year, in price performance, and in speed. Take a number of different measures. The number of base pairs of DNA resequencing doubles every year. The cost of sequencing a base pair of DNA comes down by half every year. The spatial and temporal resolution of brain scanning doubles, in terms of three-dimensional volume, every year. The bandwidth of telecommunication, measured many different ways, doubles every year. The number of nodes on the Internet doubles every year. The price performance of computers . . . doubles every year. But Moore's law is only one of many examples, and almost every measure, if it has anything to do with information, doubles every year in many different fields: biology, communication, reverse engineering of the brain, and certainly electronics. And that's a really profound phenomenon."

Coming Next

The modern blindness assistive technology industry evolved in lockstep with mainstream computers and software. To gain a fuller understanding of the context in which blindness technologies were developed, the forces faced by the legends and pioneers in creating and marketing blindness assistive technologies, and how this niche industry has coexisted with mainstream industry, it is necessary to tour the history of these industries and to learn what the legends and pioneers have to say about the future of blindness assistive technology. These topics will be covered in the fourth article in this series.

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