Decoder rings surfaced in 1935 as a novelty to captivate listeners of Little Orphan Annie, who would use the disk to unlock messages hidden inside numerical sequences broadcast during the radio show (such as “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine (NESN:VX)”). Now researchers at MIT are taking a modern spin on decoder rings by creating a contraption that converts a line of text to spoken word.
Dubbed the FingerReader, the device reads aloud as a digit moves across a sentence.s] Still in the development phase, it resembles a large, hollowed-out tooth with a tiny webcam perched on top. It is designed primarily for the blind—of 1.3 million legally blind people in the U.S., only 10 percent can read Braille—although its investors think it can also help dyslexic children learn to read.
The FingerReader is connected to a computer via a black cord. The ring’s webcam takes pictures of a group of words and then funnels the images into a companion app on a computer, which then reads the text out loud. The FingerReader will take a minute to get through 20 words to 30 words, a slow pace for consumers accustomed to scanners that read 100 words or more per minute. Scanners, however, are not the kind of gear one hauls around.
“People are learning to put optical character recognition into smaller and smaller devices. … [They] are genuinely interested in making products we can use,” says Antonio Guimaraes, who has retinitis pigmentosa that has rendered him blind. Guimaraes has tested the FingerReader and says he’s excited by the prospect of owning a portable device with the same capabilities as a scanner.
The biggest hurdle for the MIT developers is making the ring more user-friendly. “Within 30 seconds of using the device, you’ll probably be more frustrated than successful,” admits Roy Shilkrot, a Ph.D. student working on the project. The ring is capable of telling an individual if their finger has trailed away from the line or if they’ve reached the end of a sentence, but it does not deliver this information in the most efficient way, he adds.
Guimaraes, who used the device to read a small book of poems, agrees that the FingerReader is not ready for prime time. “As far as the user experience is concerned now, it’s difficult to use,” he says. In its current form, he does not believe the device would sell very quickly on the market. He adds that he would not purchase it for more than $100 or $200 because it is not as user-friendly as other devices.
Though the FingerReader weighs just 50 grams or so (the equivalent of 20 U.S. pennies), it’s not all that portable because it requires a computer to charge and function. Shilkrot says he hopes that the device can someday work wirelessly with a smartphone or tablet—but this would require him to build a separate charging station.
Shilkrot and four student colleagues are working on the project as part of their postdoctoral research at MIT. Instead of commercializing the product themselves, Shilkrot and company are considering open-sourcing the project so others can continue to improve the technology or re-purpose it for different uses.
It is unclear how much the FingerReader would cost if it were to hit the market. Shilkrot says most scanners fetch about $1,000 while mobile apps designed for people with vision impairment are priced as low as $10. “Our solution will be to try to navigate within these two caps,” he says. “It’ll probably be more than a few tens of dollars, but we are definitely going to be under $1,000.”