July 2008 Issue  Volume 9  Number 4


Rootbound Thinking in an Anemic Low Vision Industry

Jim Halliday

Caption: Jim Halliday

Sam Genensky first applied closed-circuit television (CCTV) technology for large-print reading in the late 1960s. Although the technology was somewhat crude by today's standards, the basic concept has not changed. Genensky's CCTV used a camera on a stand and a special lens to magnify text onto a television monitor. It was a simple way to create a much stronger magnifier than anything that existed through basic optics. There was no other technology that provided this level of magnification, and CCTVs soon became the accepted way for people with severe low vision to read.

Companies like Apollo Laser and Visualtek (later VTEK) took the seeds of Genensky's concept and planted them in a pot that we now call the CCTV industry (the "CCTV pot"). Early innovations included ergonomic ideas like x-y tables and space-saving ideas such as in-line units whose monitors were stacked on top of the cameras and x-y tables. Telesensory Systems (TSI) acquired Apollo Laser in 1984 and replaced vidicon cameras with digital cameras on its new CCTVs. Features like line markers and blinds were added to help address the difficulties associated with reading. Color monitors soon became available, as well as larger screens. In the late 1980s, companies like Optelec and HumanWare planted yet more seeds in the still-fertile CCTV pot. TSI tried to take over the market in 1990 by acquiring VTEK and creating Telesensory Corp. (TSC), but merely succeeded in dispersing its distribution among the new companies that were entering the market. Adding the ability to use CCTVs in conjunction with computers became commonplace. More recently, flat-screen technology has replaced bulky old monitors. Soon after HumanWare introduced the first handheld video magnifier, a rash of alternatives appeared on the market from nearly every other major CCTV company--and, indeed, a lot of companies were planting still more seeds in the same CCTV pot.

What was attracting all these new companies and, I might add, new investors, to this niche industry? These new companies and investors became fixated on the belief that the potential number of users of low vision technology is as many as 22 million in the industrialized world. This is an extremely tempting number for a niche market. Yet, most companies, both new and old, planted their seeds in the same old CCTV pot, rather than inventing new solutions to meet the needs of the broader low vision market. As more companies entered the market, the limited size of the CCTV pot became a factor but was generally ignored. Tieman, a Dutch company that had been making CCTVs in Europe since 1975, acquired Optelec in 1997. As more new companies entered the industry, prices started dropping and margins started shrinking. A huge red flag went up when the old stalwart industry leader, TSC, suddenly went out of business in March 2005. But even then, CCTVs remained the focus of the industry.

Limitations of CCTVs

Yes, CCTVs serve important low vision needs and will continue to do so, but they are essentially glorified magnifiers. They are good for spot reading and handwriting, but ineffectual for extended reading--the kind of reading that most people who are slowly losing their vision are used to and desire. This fact was prominently revealed in AFB's research, which found that typical CCTV users became so fatigued after only 15 minutes of reading that they had to stop and rest. Reading rates were also slow, and comprehension suffered from the constant interruptions that are associated with searching for the next line of text.

It is no wonder that eye care professionals are hesitant to recommend CCTVs for most patients with low vision. These patients expect to receive eyeglasses to help them read, not a huge contraption. They also expect a price somewhere in the neighborhood of eyeglasses--no more than $1,000. The potential number of persons with low vision who are driving the 22 million figure that is attracting new companies and investors to the industry includes the growing number of elderly people with macular degeneration. However, these elderly people are not sighted one day and low vision the next. Depending on the individual, macular degeneration may take years before it is severe enough for an eye care professional to think that a CCTV is appropriate. However, many of the patients have lost touch with their eye care professionals long before their vision has deteriorated to that level. During that time, they have used the recommended handheld magnifiers and have slowly become spot readers out of necessity, but they have lost their choice of reading for pleasure. Unfortunately, the acquisition of a CCTV merely expands the number of materials one can spot read, but it does not restore the ability to read for extended periods.

An Innovative Product

In 2000, HumanWare started work on the concept that people with low vision actually want to read rather than only spot read. The resulting development was myReader. Although it did not achieve all the original goals that were specified in terms of price or options, myReader redefined low vision technology. While it provided basic CCTV functionality for spot reading and handwriting, it changed the way users read. By taking a picture of the reading material and reprocessing the text, it gave users a variety of ways to read without the distraction of an x-y table or the visual fatigue of letters blurring backward across the screen. People who were never able to use a CCTV because of motion sickness were suddenly able to read again. Comprehension significantly improved, as did reading speeds, and, what is most important, users were able to read for hours instead of minutes. Smaller print options made it logical for people with slowly deteriorating vision to start using myReader far sooner than they would consider using a CCTV. myReader increased the reading speed of students and business professionals and restored pleasure reading to elderly people. So why hasn't myReader technology replaced CCTVs?

myReader2 with a book on its viewing table displaying the text in yellow letters on a blue background.

Caption: myReader2 displaying text in high-contrast colors.

The answer is twofold. First, the CCTV pot has been around for so long that many eye care professionals and even some distributors have come to accept spot reading as actual reading. Although it has a CCTV mode for spot reading and handwriting, myReader is light years ahead of a CCTV in terms of reading. Even though it folds up and is easy to carry, when it's set up it looks like a CCTV. Second, the $4,000-$5,000 price tag seems outrageous for a CCTV, which it is--if myReader was a CCTV. However, comparing a CCTV to myReader is like comparing a bicycle to a car. Most of us get tired after a few minutes of riding a bike uphill, but a car lets you drive comfortably all day long, although it costs a lot more than a bike.

Despite myReader's superiority as a reading device, it does not meet all the basic expectations of people with low vision, such as the ability to read where they want to read--in an easy chair, in bed, or on a bus. Handheld CCTVs have tried to address this desire, but these are still only spot-reading devices. People with low vision want a solution that is as available (and cheap) as eyeglasses. It is probably unrealistic to believe that the fulfillment of these desires is achievable in the next few years, but there are some positive signs. The fact that myReader exists is a huge first step. The more that people with low vision embrace myReader technology, the more they realize how important "real" reading is to them. Products like the K-NFB Reader show that optical character recognition is possible in an extremely portable package--a cell phone with a digital camera. Although the K-NFB reader does not produce large print, it is important to realize that the use of speech technology can augment the acquisition of information as one's vision deteriorates. Other technologies are under development that will create new and better solutions. We are still struggling with the challenge of a car for the price of a bike, but who knows? There is more computing power in a Smartphone these days than there was in a room full of technology not too many years ago.

These advances in mainstream technology will help us to break out of the CCTV pot and start looking at broader opportunities for this increasingly anemic industry. We will not see changes overnight, however. Until the prices of myReader-type products come down to the level of CCTVs, we will continue to see new CCTVs enter the market. We may also see companies consolidate to increase their sales volumes and reduce their costs. Meanwhile, myReader is a great first step that more people are discovering, and the fact that myReader seeds are planted in a whole new pot will invite others to break out of the rootbound mentality of CCTVs and embrace the idea of reading again.

AccessWorld invites responses from both CCTV users and people in the industry. How do you see the current state of the CCTV industry? How should it change? E-mail us at accessworld@afb.net with your thoughts.

Related Articles

Take Me to myReader: An Evaluation of HumanWare by Lee Huffman
myReader Take Two: The Continuing Story of an Autoreader by Lee Huffman

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