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Kurzweil Machine

The revolutionary Kurzweil machine has a history entwined with our own

The revolutionary Kurzweil machine has a history entwined with our own

The Kurzweil was invented in 1976 by Ray Kurzweil, an American computer scientist.  A machine designed to enable blind people to read text such as books and magazines, the Kurzweil scanned text, digitally inputted the information and converted it into speech.

In 1966, Blind Veterans UK organised the 'International Conference on Sensory Aids for the Blind.' Our chairman at the time Sir Ian Fraser opened this conference in London. Speaking about the reading opportunities available to the blind he said "Braille, talking books and radio provide access to a great deal of the world's literature. But even so, it is only a tithe of what is available to other folks. Therefore, the idea has been in our mind, for a very long time, to make the printed word talk."  Fraser emphasised that a reading aid which would allow independent reading of the printed page would be an enormous contribution to the welfare of the blind.

Prior to the Kurzweil was the Optophone, a device which scanned text and used light to generate tones to demonstrate different letters. A blind woman named Mary Jameson was heavily involved with the testing of this machine; however she only attained a reading speed of one word a minute due to the difficult nature of its operation. Only a few machines were made and while later users achieved speeds of 60 words per minute, the Optophone could not be easily used by everyone.

Due to the limitations of the Optophone, in 1980 Blind Veterans UK entered into a project in collaboration with the RNIB to evaluate the new Kurzweil machine. The machine's abilities and some shortcomings were tested widely by a varying selection of blind people, including Mary Jameson. Also among the participants in this test was our current president, Ray Hazan (pictured above.)

The Kurzweil was revolutionary because it wasn't only a text to speech machine but also print to speech, so there was no limit to what the machine could read. After scanning the text line by line, the words are then inputted as digital information. In order to turn the words into speech, the computer sifts through 1,000 rules of pronunciation, 2,000 exceptions to the rule and 1,000 words with unusual pronunciations. The word then needed to be placed in the context of the sentence in order to determine some degree of inflection and stress.  

The success of the Kurzweil machine marked a significant turning point in the development of sensory aids for the blind