Still Scanning after All These Years: A Profile of Kurzweil Educational Systems
In libraries and rehabilitation centers in the late 1970s, rumors would sometimes surface about the new and almost unbelievable Kurzweil Reading Machine. The size of a washing machine and more expensive than a home in the suburbs, this remarkable invention by Ray Kurzweil sounded like science fiction to many. A blind person could put a printed page on the glass and slowly, very slowly, the machine would interpret and read the page aloud. Accuracy was not stellar, but the machine could actually read! Of course, the machines were so expensive that only libraries and other institutions could purchase them.
Only 25 years after Ray Kurzweil’s fantastic breakthrough, the company that bears his name and benefits from his insights as technical consultant and chairman emeritus is going strong. Today, Kurzweil Educational Systems is selling reading solutions at a fraction of the cost (and size) of that 1976 piece of furniture. The products sold today by Kurzweil Educational Systems have come a considerable distance in technological evolution, and the company itself has undergone perhaps as many changes. Sales were up 30% in 2002, and enhancements to Kurzweil’s two chief products are being delivered at an impressive pace.
A Company of Its Own
The company that began as Kurzweil Computer Products has changed names and ownership over 2½ decades. In 1980, it was purchased by Xerox and renamed Xerox Imaging Systems (XIS). Under that banner, Kurzweil developed up to five generations of the original Kurzweil Reading Machine, priced at about $22,000 in the early 1980s. Also in the 1980s, the Kurzweil PC/KPR product was launched. This product comprised a flat- bed scanner, a dedicated DECtalk synthesizer board, and DOS-based software that allowed the user to “read” with an already existing computer. In 1992, the Reading Edge, a stand-alone and almost-portable reading machine was launched. At less than $6,000, a Kurzweil reading machine was finally falling into the range of possibilities for many consumers who were visually impaired.
Figure 1 The Reading Edge.
When Xerox began decreasing the size of its XIS division, Ray Kurzweil, Aaron Kleiner, Michael Sokol, and Jerry Elkind took steps to form a new company. (They were soon joined by veteran engineer, Stephen Baum, and now vice president of sales, Forrest Dobbs.) In January 1996, Kurzweil Educational Systems was born, and later that year, first one and then the other of Kurzweil’s now-flagship products were released.
In 1998, the company was purchased by Lernout & Hauspie (L&H) Speech Products, foreshadowing a change that could have been devastating. Under the umbrella of L&H, the Kurzweil division was languishing. “It became clear that L&H would not be pushing Kurzweil products forward,” says Cindy Johnson, Kurzweil’s vice president of marketing. “We were selling products despite the lack of investment by L&H, but it became clear that the company would have to buy itself back.”
Many from the Kurzweil team joined forces to buy the company back. With the help of additional investors— including Ray Kurzweil and many of the company’s 75 resellers throughout United States and Canada—the mission was accomplished. Meanwhile, L&H was attracting media attention for scandals of embezzlement, fraud, and bankruptcy, indicating that the foresight of the Kurzweil group could not have been more serendipitous. It took more than a year to complete the transaction, but by November 2001, Kurzweil Educational Systems was its own company once again—and thriving. “We’re not quite an employee-owned company,” Johnson explains, “but we’re very close to that.”
The Many Faces of Reading
Although the product has changed dramatically in size, appearance, capability, and configuration, Kurzweil has been doing pretty much the same thing all along: developing computer products that provide access to the printed word to those who have problems reading standard print. With the formation of Kurzweil Educational Systems in 1996, that mission flourished and expanded. “The first version of Kurzweil 1000 was probably the first reading program to ship with its own software speech, FlexTalk,” recalls Baum, the chief technology officer who has been at the center of developing most of the company’s products since the mid-1980s. “It also had a great OCR engine, ExperVision, which brought really great accuracy.”
In October 1996, at the Closing the Gap conference in Minnesota, Kurzweil unveiled the Kurzweil 3000, a product targeted to those who struggle with print for reasons other than vision. People with learning disabilities have embraced this technology, which assists with reading, writing, and learning.
Figure 2 The Kurzweil 3000 at Landmark College.
Johnson estimates that more than half the company’s current sales are generated by the Kurzweil 3000. Speaking text while highlighting it, offering a variety of fonts and contrasts, and providing students with built-in aids for making notes, reviewing material, taking tests, and more, the Kurzweil 3000 is now popular with students in the fourth grade and up, as well as among graduate students and professionals. At Landmark College in Putney, Vermont—the nation’s only accredited college exclusively for high-potential students with learning disabilities—it is now routine to equip every incoming freshman with the Kurzweil 3000 on his or her laptop computer.
The company’s two products—the Kurzweil 1000 (for users who are visually impaired) and the Kurzweil 3000 (for users with learning disabilities)—coexist harmoniously, sometimes converging, sometimes parallel, and sometimes borrowing from one another. The staff of 30 (about half of whom are engineers) includes some people who focus exclusively on the Kurzweil 1000, some who work only on the Kurzweil 3000, and a few who work on both products. In version 7.0 of the Kurzweil 1000, for example, which was released in summer 2002, one of the new features to generate particular excitement was the e-book feature. With this efficient addition, users can go online directly from Kurzweil 1000 in search of electronic books. The program searches three large repositories of electronic books and then downloads the desired title, which can then be opened and read in the Kurzweil program. While many enhancements to the product have come directly from customers’ suggestions, Baum admits that this outstanding addition was actually rooted in a few engineers’ constant obsession with tweaking of the software.
“We were really impressed with File Ferret,” a piece of shareware the engineers had discovered, he recalls. “It was a really cool piece of software that could go out on the web for you, find whatever you were looking for, and download it.” The e-book search was the task they ultimately assigned to this fascinating little program. “We really liked the idea of avoiding a browser,” Baum says in regard to streamlining the process.
John Mattioli, a lead engineer with the company who is also a user of the Kurzweil 1000, agrees. “I thought at first that the e-book feature was nice for new users,” he says, “but I personally was happy surfing the web, going to Bookshare.org or other sites, and finding what I needed.” Then one day, he was in a hurry and used Kurzweil’s e-book feature to download some reading for a trip. “I’ll probably never do it any other way now,” he says. “It took four or five steps down to two. You can go online, download the book, and transfer the file to a portable device—all from one location.”
It is not surprising, then, that the e-book feature is now being added to the Kurzweil 3000 as well. Still, premier features in one Kurzweil product are not always desirable in the other. As Baum points out, the two populations of customers have distinctly different preferences and needs. “When we were with L&H, we developed a high-quality speech called RealSpeak,” Baum cites as example, “but it was really a much bigger deal for people with learning disabilities than for blind users. It is really natural speech, but slow; blind users tend to prefer accuracy and fast responsiveness and are more interested in getting the information than in speech quality.”
Honey, I Shrunk the Reading Machine!
Since 1976, Kurzweil’s product for reading has been reduced from the size of a washing machine to software that can be installed on any laptop. The price has dropped from approximately $100,000 (not actually for sale at that point) to about $1,000. Capabilities, however, have grown just as dramatically in the other direction. Today, the Kurzweil 1000’s speed and accuracy are many times higher than that of the original cumbersome appliance and, perhaps more significant, the product not only reads with astonishing accuracy, but performs a multitude of other tasks as well. Version 7 of Kurzweil 1000 offers such additional features as a photocopy application, a fax application, and the ability to edit and manipulate files and e-mail portions directly from the Kurzweil program itself; the program can also open files in virtually any popular format and can go online to fetch electronic books and then translate them (or any other file) into Grade 2 braille. “The best thing that’s happening,” Mattioli sums it up, “is probably the integration of functions, the crossover stuff, having multiple features all in one place.” No one at Kurzweil is saying what is on the drawing board for the next updates, but asked for a blue-sky rendition of what would make the product even better, Mattioli comes back quickly with a great idea. “Everybody knows that scanning is a drag,” he says. “We do it all the time because we have to—but it would be great if there were a way to get around it.”
Scanning a book without having to turn all those pages? The idea sounds like science fiction, but then, so did the first washing machine-sized invention of the man whose name is on the products that thousands of people now depend on and love.
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