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Re-learning How to Read

Re-learning How to Read

I wonder if you saw the title of this post and stopped by, expecting me to reveal hints and clever tips for reading between the lines of books you've read many times over the years and have the feeling that there is yet more waiting if you only knew how to unlock their secrets. You'd be wrong. I'm going to talk, fairly literally, about re-learning how to read.

I've loved books and reading all my life. Since losing my sight 9 years ago I've learned to embrace audiobooks as well as reading electronic copies of books in Word, PDF and plain text formats using screen reading software on my computer — it’s not the same as being able to hold a book in your hands while you disappear into it, but if it’s all you’ve got then it is 99 percent as good.

One of the curious effects of this is that, in most of those 9 years, I've listened at a rather frightening speed; I can get through 2 books, cover to cover, each week without breaking sweat. I tune the speed of what I'm reading to be appropriate to how much information I want out of the material. For newspapers and magazines I read at one of the faster settings — though I know many blind people who listen at speeds that I cannot cope with — and for books, particularly poetry, I slow it back down to only a couple of notches above what an audiobook would be recorded at.

Sometimes there are books that I would love to read. There are occasions where I wish I could go to a library and root through ancient (or out-of-print and never likely to be available in electronic formats) texts. This week the ability to do such things became possible.

Four months ago I heard on a blind forum about a pair of glasses that would allow blind and visually impaired readers to see. They are made by a company called OrCam. The glasses are a pair of very ordinary plastic frames — which of course you can swap for a funky designer pair if you are so inclined — and on the right hand arm of the frame is a small camera and speaker. Attached to the camera is a cable that runs down to a small control unit which has buttons for power on/off/standby; volume up/down; and a trigger button. That is it, all that is needed for sight.

As you'll see in the photo below I am wearing the OrCam glasses and you'll notice the camera at the front of the right arm, with a lead running down from the camera to the control unit which is on a belt clip which I've attached to my left hand pocket. I don't know if you can see it, but the little speaker unit sits just by my ear lobe.

photo of Giles L. Turnbull wearing a pair of OrCam MyEye glasses with the lead from the frame running down to the control unit which is mounted onto a belt clip.

At the moment there are two versions of the OrCam glasses, a basic version called MyReader, which does text to speech only, and a more expensive version called the MyEye which adds face recognition and product recognition features. I will describe the operation of the basic text to speech model first and then continue with the additional features of the MyEye.


When turned on and with the glasses being worn as you would wear any regular pair of specs you start by looking towards something that you would like to read. That could be something you are holding in your hand, say a page of a book or the wrapper of a bar of chocolate, or something larger like a list of coffees and prices on the wall behind the counter at Costa or Starbucks, and then you can use two methods of activating the glasses.

Method 1: point. The glasses recognise the pointing gesture as an indication that you would like them to read any text in their field of view. If you are holding something in your hand then naturally that object is going to be at arm's length, though it does not need to be at your maximum reach. If you are looking at the aforementioned Costa coffee list then you will probably be five foot away from the text, but as long as it is in your line of sight then the glasses will usually manage the text, so you point at the list and then move your hand away and wait for the glasses to start reading.

Method 2:Use the Trigger. Using the control unit's trigger button you look towards the coffee list and then press the trigger button.

What happens with both methods is that the camera immediately takes a photograph and attempts to read any text aloud for you. It is a very similar mechanism to optical character recognition (OCR) that can scan an image file on the computer and turn any text into an editable document such as a Word doc or a spreadsheet. As with OCR it is only generally simple, non-cursive, fonts that will work, so ornate fonts, calligraphy and hand writing rarely yield sensible results (in one of the national newspapers I read on a Saturday, in the magazine section a font is used which, when the printed copy is run (by the official conversion people) through an OCR program, to turn it into an electronic text format, the OCR cannot handle the letter i when it follows the letter f, so words like film and figure and finest and confidential appear as flm, fgure, fnest and confdential, and you'd be amazed at how frequently that fi pairing crops up in words).

It is possible to navigate while the text is being read aloud, so you can skip forward or backward — the control unit jums forward or back to the next / previous punctuation mark. If you haven't captured the whole of the text you want to read the glasses may tell you that there seems to be more text, but if they don't but you can tell there must be something further then you can raise or lower your eye line and repeat the photographing process.

Naturally the ease with which you manage this process depends a little on whether you have any sight or zero sight. If, like me, you have zero or very minimal sight, then it may take a few attempts to get a successful result, more so if you are standing away from the text rather than holding it in your hand. At this point I should add that the OrCam is not only for the blind and visually impaired — people with dyslexia, for example, may find the text to speech better than trying to read the text with their eyes.


The MyEye model adds face and product recognition, both of which work pretty much the same way so I'll only tell you about the face recognition here. When you store a face then any time that person walks into your field of view the OrCam will let you know by telling you their name or, if it hasn't made a successful ID, "one person is in view" or two people (or more). Again you use the trigger or the gestures to initiate the recognition process and the OrCam takes two photographs and if it has enough detail then it will ask you to name the person; if it does not have enough detail (maybe the lighting is not sufficiently bright) then it will let you know that face recognition was not possible.

Significance for My Writing

When I took my poem to creative writing group this week I learned a couple of things that I would do differently next time. The easiest mistake to make is forgetting how fast is a bit fast for regular sighted folk. I will slow the rate down a couple of notches next time, though I didn't have it set overly fast.

The second matter wasn't a mistake, just a symptom of how any mechanical system reads text aloud. In poetry you usually have short lines, often with line breaks without any end of line punctuation. As far as a screen reader or a pair of OrCam glasses is concerned that is all the same line of text and it will read it as if you had written it like a single sentence of prose. So the listener, myself included, loses the poetic nature and structure of the words. So if I am going to use the glasses to read out my poems then I will punctuate each line so that it ends with either a full stop, comma, question mark or exclamation mark, as appropriate. I haven't yet tried out the different effects of each mark in detail, but I know the screen reading software on my laptop pauses longer for a full stop than a semicolon and shortest for a comma; dashes - and — (dash and m-dash) do not pause at all; one quick test run I did suggests that there is little, if any, difference between a full stop at the end of a line or a comma, in which case I would punctuate a poem for the glasses ending every line with a full stop.

In theory the glasses could be used with the reading volume set so low that only I could hear it and then I could listen to a line and then read it myself. I have a rubbish memory, for both my poems or those of more famous poets, so this would be incredibly helpful if I want to read more than half a dozen poems at an event. Unfortunately this is not likely to prove a satisfactory result. Listening to the OrCam read a line then me repeating that line then the OrCam reading the next line followed by me reading the line just has too much pausing while I wait for the OrCam to finish reading its part. It would be possible to only punctuate every two or three lines, which would sit nicely in my memory for me to repeat, but then there would be an even longer pause while the OrCam read the next 3 lines. So either the OrCam reads the entire poem for the audience to listen to (external speakers can be connected) or I learn to memorise more poems and read them without any assistance ... unless I ramp the reading speed up to silly-fast level, barely slow enough to understand what has just been said, which would serve as the desired memory aid but with a minimal length of pause between me reading one line and then the next.

I remember back to my high school days where the teacher would hand out something to read in silence after which you would be asked questions about what you had read. At most of the creative writing and poetry workshops I've been to the tutor has read any material, or asked for a participant to do the honours. Being able to have the ability to read a printout if needed will be a big help for me, and it also means I can take the paperwork away with me and read it for myself any time I like.

Bells and Whistles

No technological device would be complete without a few bells and whistles. The OrCam has a fancy feature that allows it to read the time off the watch on your wrist. You hold your wrist in front of the lens, as if you're reading the time with your eyes, and the glasses tell you the time, and if you hold your wrist in that position for a couple of seconds then it will add the date too. Of course it's not really reading the hands on your analogue watch or the digits on your digital one, it just recognises the gesture and speaks the time according to its internal clock, which you set and adjust as and when necessary. I find it pretty cool when I hold up my wrist devoid of watch and anybody standing near enough hears it reading the time and I just leave them to believe that's the same superpower that makes me a poet ;)

In a Nutshell

these are not cheap but I decided that they would be a massive help for me in both my writing life and my daily life. I'm 5 days in to my 30 day money back return period, and I don't see ('scuse the pun) any reason I will be returning them :)

#Reading #Glasses #TextToSpeech #Poetry #OrCam #blindness

Published inblindnesseducationPoetry

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