Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What I think About the Intel Reader

Yesterday marked the release of a product which, according to Intel, would revolutionize the way the blind and others with reading disabilities accessed printed materials. During those few fleeting moments between hearing of the announcement and reading the actual press release, I had high hopes that a mainstream company would demonstrate its dedication to accessibility and innovation at an affordable price. And with backing from companies and organizations such as Humanware, Lighthouse International and the Council for Exceptional Children, I felt certain that the device I was going to read about would be very impressive indeed.

The Intel Reader, a device about the size of a paperback and weighing approximately 1 pound, is equipped with a camera and text-to-speech allowing print documents such as newspapers, menus, and signs to be converted in to a readable form by the blind and others with print disabilities. With the addition of a capturing station, sold separately, the device can be used to scan and convert more lengthy materials such as textbooks and novels. It can also read existing etexts in Daisy format as well as play standard MP3 and Wav files. This feature set reads quite a bit like other mainstream and custom-built solutions on the market. In fact, the only jaw-dropping aspect of this product is its price. The device itself can be had for a mere $1499, and you’ll pay an extra $399 for the privilege of using the capturing station.

After the initial shock, I and many others in the blind community began looking more closely at the information available about the device, just to ensure that we hadn’t overlooked anything truly awe-inspiring. After all, for its price, there had to be something which set the device apart from existing solutions such as the KNFB Reader for performing OCR on documents on the go, the forthcoming free e-reader from Kurzweil to read existing Daisy documents, off-the-shelf solutions like a PC, scanner, and ABBYY FineReader for more involved projects like scanning textbooks, or even the $259 Amazon Kindle, which isn’t currently accessible but could be made so with a little effort and encouragement from the community.

As we learned more about the Intel Reader, there was plenty to make this device unique. First, while most portable scanning solutions like the KNFB reader for mobile phones or a scanner/Netbook combo are equipped with wi-fi access, the Intel Reader can’t make that claim. In this article from VentureBeat it is stated that wi-fi is absent from the product because web-connected devices aren’t allowed in some classrooms. Far be it from us to suggest including wi-fi and leaving it up to school IT professionals to handle whether or not to grant wi-fi access, as they must do for all other wi-fi-equipped mainstream devices.

In addition to having no wi-fi capabilities, the device is also unable to handle HTML content natively. Rather, a user must first convert the HtML document to plain text before it can be read. This doesn’t bode well for a device whose major goal is purportedly to take the hassle out of reading for the blind and print-disabled.

Given that this device appears to boast no significant features setting it apart in a positive way from existing solutions, we must ask why the device was created in the first place. Ben Foss, the Intel representative spear-heading the project, has a lot to say on this. Foss states in a press conference: “A metaphor for this are the ramps that make buildings wheelchair accessible. This reader is like a ramp.” Unfortunately, this particular metaphor is far from apt. While wheelchair ramps are an example of smart universal design principles in action because they’re just as useful to a walking mother with a stroller as they are to a person in a wheelchair, the Intel reader has been manufactured and marketed exclusively for the blind and print-disabled without a thought for universal design. Foss goes on to acknowledge that the price is not cheap, but guess what, folks? It’s ok. You see, the device contains several custom components. Never mind that the essential components are a 5-megapixel camera, flash memory, and Intel’s own low-cost Atom processor which can all be had for under $250 as parts. Are you questioning the price yet? No, don’t do that. Intel can explain. Braille reading devices can cost upwards of $10000, so $1500 is really easy to swallow in comparison to that, isn’t it? Never mind that comparing Braille displays and text-to-speech readers makes little sense.

In essence, Intel is unapologetically asking us to accept this device’s hefty price tag for no other reason than that it was designed specifically for the blind. Are we going to accept being blatantly charged a premium because of our blindness, especially by a company who claims to have a philanthropic bent? Remember Intel’s Classmate PC, whose aim was to provide a low-cost and rugged netbook to students, especially those in developing countries? How can we take initiatives like that seriously when with this device Intel clearly shows it isn’t interested in providing low-cost solutions to the blind students in its own back yard?

Still, Intel didn’t create this device in a vacuum. “Intel has done its homework on the device,”, says Dorrie Rush, who serves as the marketing director for Lighthouse International. This signifies that Intel received input from blind and print-disabled individuals as it designed the product. So why is it that no one from these groups questioned Intel’s decision to reinvent the wheel, and in a completely lackluster way at that. Why did no one from these groups encourage Intel to combine existing components to create an innovative and affordable product that could be beneficial to all?

No matter how stunning a product Intel created, it still needed the backing of influential groups within the blind community in order to be taken seriously. For Humanware, who is among the companies distributing the product, partnering with one of the most lucrative and well-known mainstream companies was a huge accomplishment. Did Humanware leverage this relationship to educate Intel so that at least one mainstream company would design its products with accessibility in mind from the ground up? No! It did not! Humanware thanked Intel for producing yet another overpriced, sub par blind ghetto product, and jumped on the chance to convince millions of blind and print-disabled people that they need look no further than this bulky and expensive device to further their independence. When a mainstream company like Intel employs such tactics it is shameful. But from Humanware, a company who should by all rights have the interests of blind consumers at heart, these actions are nothing less than despicable.

Because of Intel’s status and high visibility, its new product rated mentions in mainstream publications as well as those which are more blindness-oriented. In this somewhat flippant article from Engadget, the authors posit that a device like the Intel reader could be created for under $500, and I suspect they’re right. But the interesting reading isn’t so much the article itself, but the comments. One post says in part: “Sure, you could build something that did something similar for less money, but would you then be able to give it to a nearly blind person to use all day, everyday? Completely implausible for $500.” This same poster goes on to say: “besides, the target audience for this device is disabled -- it should be paid for by 3rd parties because it meets the requirements to be classed as an aide for the disabled.”

And there you have it -- everything that we despise about this product’s existence all wrapped up in a smug, condescending little package and tied with a bow. Essentially, this poster believes that nothing which wasn’t created specifically for the blind could possibly work well in a day-to-day situation. Not only that, but there are apparently an abundance of tax dollars to go around for purchasing overpriced devices. And luckily, the blind person need not ever make a decision as a consumer since there’s a benevolent 3rd-party agency to take care of such things, rendering the process of making choices for oneself unnecessary.

So, are we, as a community, going to let this stand? Are we going to throw our support behind Intel, who spent countless hours and research funds to offer us a third-rate product which is priced out of our reach? Are we going to put our hard-earned money in the pockets of Humanware, who squandered their one chance to truly shape the direction of accessibility in mainstream technology in favor of making a quick profit? Do we want to continue accepting the pronouncement that blind ghetto products are not only necessary, but worthy of our everlasting gratitude? Or are we going to tear down those ghetto walls and demand our rightful place as the smart and savvy consumers that we are!

And before you say that you’re only one consumer, that your voice will never be heard, I will tell you that you’re wrong. You can make a choice to be educated about what you buy before you make a decision. And once you embrace the power to choose, you’ll want to share that power., and you won’t want to stop with just one person. You’ll tell every blind person you know to stop and think before choosing a product which has no claim to fame other than being designed for the blind. You’ll tell the blindness agencies and school systems who already struggle with tight budgets to stop and investigate before accepting the party line and purchasing something which does half as much at twice the price. And to those companies who are banking on your willingness to accept anything less than the best just because it’s been given the stamp of accessibility, the sound of your wallet slamming shut an the realization that you are actually “a consumer” with a functional brain and an opinion will convey your point quite eloquently indeed!

24 comments:

Mike said...

You have some valid points there. Obviously, this device is overpriced, and this is probably due to the partnerships involved. However, isn't a lot of AT overpriced? And these companies do just fine because agencies and school districts pick up the tab. We can't stop this device from being somewhat successful. Since the only alternative device that includes this functionality--point a camera at a sign and have it read--is packaged in a cell phone, which costs more overall due to the combination of phone, screen reader, and overpriced KNFB software. Why would a school district want to buy all that for say, a 9th or 10th grader? It will be a big hit for school districts I'm sure, and for those who are out of the loop when it comes to AT.

martinfc said...

Fantastic! Exactly what I was thinking and eloquently put no less. I'd also like to bring to the attention that the only innovative piece of hardware on this device is the 5 megapixel camera. Everything else is a few generations behind.

Justin Kauflin said...

I completely agree with the author. The state of the market for accessible technology is rediculous right now. If companies are just going to create a flagrantly overpriced device and expect 3rd party rehab programs to pay for it, this absolutely has to change. This is an absurd and extremely condescending message being sent to countless compatent blind consumers. Wouldn't it be in the government's best interest to lower its expenses that are excessive and unnecessary by having companies create devices that are reasonably priced? If this e-reader were priced at a realistic price, the 3rd party rehab folks wouldn't have to flip such an exorbatant bill for such a product. Aren't economic times bad these days? 1500 bucks for a reader? Sheesh.
It would be nice of folks could take a little hint from the model that Apple is following with its devices. It's not that hard to incorporate accessibility into mainstream devices, and I'm pretty sure it does not cost 1000 dollars more just to do that...
I am sorely disappointed with the announcement for this new reader, and sincerely hope that Intell will at least have a little more consideration for those it produces its products for...

John said...

Mr. Calvo,
I find your argument especially compelling about how much our voices matter. And, best of all, it appears we, as blind people, are not alone. judging by the comments on the engadget article, even some members of the mainstream are wondering if this product is a ripoff. Just look at the first comment to see what I mean. Multiple people have asked why this was so expensive. Others have pointed out that devices already exist at cheaper price points to do this, and still others have mentioned universal access of apple devices. I'm sure some of these posters know blind individuals, but I highly doubt everybody expressing concern over this devices lackluster feature set does. If the mainstream is asking themselves whether this device is a scam, we can combine our voices with theirs, and make quite a powerful impression on those trying to market this laughable quote on quote innovation to us. It's been said elsewhere, but I think we're starting to reach a point of increased awareness of our wants and needs in the general public, and to remain silent now would be a travesty.

John said...

Mr. Calvo,
I find your argument especially compelling about how much our voices matter. And, best of all, it appears we, as blind people, are not alone. judging by the comments on the engadget article, even some members of the mainstream are wondering if this product is a ripoff. Just look at the first comment to see what I mean. Multiple people have asked why this was so expensive. Others have pointed out that devices already exist at cheaper price points to do this, and still others have mentioned universal access of apple devices. I'm sure some of these posters know blind individuals, but I highly doubt everybody expressing concern over this devices lackluster feature set does. If the mainstream is asking themselves whether this device is a scam, we can combine our voices with theirs, and make quite a powerful impression on those trying to market this laughable quote on quote innovation to us. It's been said elsewhere, but I think we're starting to reach a point of increased awareness of our wants and needs in the general public, and to remain silent now would be a travesty.

Anonymous said...

Great Article. After all , only the clash of ideas, strategies and resulting competition between real products may uplift us, the blind and visually impaired users . Besides, as rather long-standing user of the OCR technology, I had better to reserve my judgement on that new entry untill seing or making myself a good comparison of the OCR recognition capacity of the Intel reader with that of the KNFB Reader on the latest phone. And what about the Eye pal solutions, boasting a lot of unique features like support for foreign languages, automatic scan of many page documents and magnification etc. From the first sight, I feel that the Intell reader with its dockstation may be more suitable for scanning books while more compact KNFB solution may better care for the multitude of smaller daily documents on the fly, menus, bills, letters etc. So, more competition is great, and Mike is correct: we have to choose and to make our choices heard and respected.

Jake said...

Mike, you've said exactly what I thought when I read the announcement yesterday especially after I looked into the hardware in this thing and found out that it's less than what comes in your average netbook save for the camera. I'm glad I've been an aware blind consumer for years. I don't own, nor will I own, any blindness devices such as notetakers or these readers. What I do have instead is an Apple Macintosh and an iPhone 3GS, neither of which cost me a penny more than it would've cost a sighted person. In fact, it seems that Apple is one of the few companies who truly grasp what accessibility can and should mean. I even have OCR functionality on my iPhone via the camera and an OCR application, so who needs KNFB or Intel Reader?
I can't stop others from buying this, but my vote has already been cast and was so long before this announcement.
I fear the only way this ridiculous situation will stop, however, is when the government stops paying for this stuff. Individual consumers aren't the target market of Humanware and their ilk, it's the agencies they target. They're not stupid, they know full well who pays for their products and so long as they see the money they could care less what we individuals think. Anyone who's involved with these agencies (I refuse to be) please make your voice heard. That's the only way we'll get these companies to listen is to take away their willing buyers.

Anonymous said...

I know a lot of school districts are trying hard just to have enough money to keep the buildings intact, pay teacher and teacher aide salaries and replace regular print books, that I doubt they would have the money for this reader. Plus, there are soldiers being injured in the war who have all their limbs, but may have a tramatic brain injury and maybe even be blind. The Veteran's Adminstration (VA) may pay $10,000 for an artificial leg or arm, but it will improve the troops quality of life. They will not want to pay that exhorbitant of price for a reader when there are other choices.

There are soldiers who are going back to school or some other training so they can be gainfully employed. The VA does supply books and materials to them, but it is within reason.

I have friends who try to keep up with IT, but even they have a limit to what they will spend if Apple or some other vendor has the same or better than this reader for a better price. For the price of $1500 and no wifi capability in order to download ebooks is outrageous to me. There is no way this machine can keep up for a student or business man.

Daniel Shelley said...

Hi, Mike,
I am not going to buy one. But I do wonder how high quality the speech is. High intelligibility of speech should be a consideration and should be included in a device like this. I am frankly tired of using technologies that are lots of years behind current developments because the producers didn't have the forsight to include newer technologies. Yes, I want my products sturdy and reliable, but also highly functional and flexible if possible. You have pointed out some limitations which will keep this product from being applied in certain ways, like quickly uploading scanned text.

Alena said...

I appreciate this post and all of the comments. I too was disappointed when I found out the specs of this new reader and it's price. Great, just another device that I can't afford. As someone who has worked for an AT company I can tell you flat out that they often don't think they're selling to us the consumer, but to sighted run agencies like the government and schools. Every person with a disability has a right to own the products that will enhance their independence, and they should have the right to purchase them, but that won't happen until more companies mainstream their product lines. If you only make something for the blind, then of course it has to cost a lot of money because your customer base is so small, but if you make it for everyone and include accessibility then the cost goes down. I realize that some things may never be mainstreamed, like braille, but in this case intel has failed us.

Pat said...

Then there is the new BrailleNote. It doesn’t even come close to a revolutionary product. It’s just redressing of their existing product at a whopping price of $6,195. That’s right $6,195. This is a clear abuse of the laws committed by companies who say they have the Blind’s best interest at heart. Trust me the only things these companies have at heart are their own wallet. You show me how it needs to cost that much for R&D? It’s too bad that more Access Technology companies can’t follow Serotek’s example. Maybe as blind people we should start complaining to our state law makers and we should let them know what this equipment costs... Maybe because the government pays for the majority of this technology it should be more tightly regulated to prevent the gross abuses that go on in this industry. Tell your friends to go Mac, tell them to go SA Mobile, tell them to say no to their rehab department and take responsibility for themselves.

Anonymous said...

As someone who played with this reader long before the announcement was made, I have to say I was not impressed. The only voice you get is Samantha, and the device was not easy to configure. Stay away from this product!

Jes Smith said...

As someone who played with this reader long before the announcement was made, I have to say I was not impressed. The only voice you get is Samantha, and the device was not easy to configure. Stay away from this product!

lonejedi said...

I'll stick with my KNFB Reader Mobile, thanks. Yes, the KNFB Reader Mobile cost me a pretty penny when I got it, but that was mostly due to the fact that I bought it before the significant price drop they had last year. In any case, I can do a hell of a lot more with my KNFB Reader Mobile than I can with that device and I'm happier for it. Sorry HW and Intel, not impressive whatsoever. Thanks Mike for pointing out the obvious to more obtuse folks.

Respectfully,
Jedi

- Glen - said...

It is thanks to the message of universal design principles being applied to consumer goods that this article and resultant comments are even possible. Things have just begun, there is still a long way to go to change everyone's (including blind people's) prospective. Up with universal design. Down with limiting over priced disability specific gadgets. Be careful however, we must educate and insist that that people who need and use devices are informed and insist on alternatives even when funded devices are involved. I encourage everyone to redistribute the article and comments here, and apply the principles sited toward every prospective technical purchase. We also need increased competition. Companies like Apple should not expect blind consumers to snap up their over priced devices simply because they were the first to hear and understand the universal design principle. Give us choice not only between disability and mainstream suppliers, but also between mainstream suppliers. Go forth and educate!!

Mike Calvo said...

Great comments Glen but I would differ with you on one point. Apple's prices are not inflated just because we are blind. Apple, for the most part, provides quality products and if the market doesn't like them or the price Apple charges for them, then the market doesn't buy them. The prices are the same if you use the accessibility features or not. The iPod Shuffle is a great example of this. While it is accessible, I wouldn't buy one because it doesn't fit my needs.

Even Google is finally stepping up to the plate and providing universal access in it's latest OS. And guess what? It's free! Wow! So much choice!

So, in closing, I am excited to see that the mainstream is starting to get it and I hope we are all doing our part to beat the drums of Universal Design!

Thanks for your support!

klugpro said...

Hey Mike! I agree with you in regards to your comments about the cost of a Intel Reader. I’m getting aggravated with the "Blind Tax" that is placed on new technology. Especially, when companies release these products without the portable storage standards (Example: An Optelec Fairview without an SD card slot). Speaking of new technology, I saw a new product at Best Buy last Tuesday. It is the Acer AspireRevo Nettop with Intel® Atom Processor. It’s a netbook without a screen and keyboard. It looks like an external hard drive on a plastic base. It has a network port, but no wi-fi build in. It comes with 1 GB of RAM, 160 GB hard drive, and Windows XP home edition service pack 3. The price: $199.00. It does have a 4 in 1 media card slot. Just imagine plugging in a System Access USB stick into it. Think about affordable assistive technology in comparison to these new “blind tax” products.

Anonymous said...

Can I get a AMen? I am tired of this over-priced stuff also and I am glad to hear from like-minded people. I think in the long run if we keep telling our truth, the market will react and the prices will come down. By the way, what is the best OCR solution? I will be pursuing a graduate degree soon and will have to make some purchases soon..

Khalid said...

I too was disappointed to find out that a mainstream company like Intel is creating a device without taking into consideration universal design. If this device is only exclusive for the VI community, and made by Intel, we should expect an impressive device which the Intel Reader is definitely not. For a OCR hardware solution, and for scanning bulky books, I would go for the Eye-pal and not the Intel Reader. Does anyone know which OCR engine the Intel Reader use?

Steve Griffiths said...

I'm interested in the comment from Jake about an OCR application for the iPhone - which one do you use?

Caneprints said...

As someone who loves my Victor Reader so much, I am really saddened by Humanware's latest activities. One thing that strikes me, however, is the change in attitude I am seeing from the blind community. A few years back, I posted a message to a blindness list expressing my dismay at the high price of blindness-specific products. You would not believe the hate mail I received from other blind people saying basically that I was just ungrateful and a complainer. It is heartening to see now that people are starting to come around and see the light. I think that with these tough economic times, state agencies and school districts will start to see the light too. One of the problems here is that oftentimes, the people doing the purchasing are not really tech savvy and will grab onto any slick advertisement without really seeing through it. We need to reward companies like Apple and fight the blindness tax with everything we have!

Anonymous said...

Okay. Let's get one thing straight right now, I looked at this announcement, and I am to put it nicely not empressed. ANd let's not forget what humanware released the next day, the braille note Apex. Witch by the way, costs 6000 dollars. Now, I'd rather have the KNFB reader than this worthless atempt at an accessbile device, and as far as universal devices, Intel and microsoft need to take a page out of apples book. Apple has made there ipods, there computers, and there phones accessible. Not just accessible to us, but to people with other disabled people. A little pricy? Yes, but universally designed? Yes. I'm not stupid enought to let humanware get my money for something like the Intelreader, and I'm not letting them get my money for the apex. Mr. Calvo, I agree fully with you, and am not going to let my friends fall for this.

Anonymous said...

I also would like to hear what app Jake is using on his iPhone for OCR.

Lisa for ebooks download said...

Seems like we always need to catch up with the latest technology. But I must admit, the Intel Reader is something worth checking out. I give the company credit for being able to reach out to the blind community. Good thinking!