IF YOU ASK BLIND PEOPLE what they wish they could do on their own, it's: (a) read a book and (b) drive a car. That's what Jim Fruchterman found when he started Arkenstone Inc., a not-for-profit Silicon Valley company. Its initial product, An Open Book, took care of the first request by adapting optical character recognition (OCR) technology from Fruchterman's former employer, Calera Recognition Systems Inc., since merged with Caere Corp. The $4,000 product--consisting of a PC, a scanner, OCR software, and a Digital Equipment Corp. speech synthesizer--can "read" anything from today's paper to a lengthy novel. Since 1992, Arkenstone has sold 10,000 machines in 40 countries.
Now, Arkenstone is working on the second request. No, it hasn't quite conquered driving. But with the Atlas Speaks and Strider packages, a blind person can achieve new independence while navigating on foot. The package uses a notebook PC and global-positioning system (GPS) receiver that can give bearings using signals from a string of satellites. At the heart of the system are special electronic maps of the entire U.S., developed by Etak Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif., that are stored in the portable PC. As the user walks, data from the GPS receiver are constantly matched with the digital map data to pinpoint the user's location. A speech synthesizer keeps users updated on where they are and how to reach the destination. The whole package, which fits in a backpack, starts at around $2,000--not counting the 486-class notebook computer.