Fred’s Head from APH, a Blindness Blog

Fred’s Head, offered by the American Printing House for the Blind, contains tips, techniques, tutorials, in-depth articles, and resources for and by blind or visually impaired people. Our blog is named after the legendary Fred Gissoni, renowned for answering a seemingly infinite variety of questions on every aspect of blindness.

(See the end of this page for subscribing via email, RSS, browsing articles by subject, blog archive, APH resources, writing for Fred's Head, and disclaimers.)


Thursday, April 28, 2016

Throwback Thursday: OCR the Old-Fashioned Way!

Our object this week may not look like much, a couple of large putty colored plastic and aluminum boxes.  You’d need a suitcase to carry them around, but today their equivalent fits in your pocket.  This is a Kurzweil Personal Reader by Xerox from about 1988.  The box on the left is an optical scanner.  It worked much like a modern flatbed scanner.  You raised the lid, laid your reading material down on the glass plate, and scanned your material one page at a time.  The box on the right was stuffed with electronics that took the scan and converted it into synthesized speech.  In essence, the Personal Reader worked like a photocopy machine, but instead of printing a copy of a page, it read the page out loud.  (Incidentally, the machine used Digital Equipment Corporation's DECtalk, a speech synthesizer and text-to-speech technology developed in the early 1980s, based largely on the work of Dennis Klatt at MIT.)  With the Personal Reader, almost anything that was in print could be read by a blind or visually impaired reader, and at their convenience.  No more waiting for a volunteer reader to record a book, or for it to be translated into braille.

Raymond Kurzweil, a pioneering futurist interested in pattern recognition and artificial intelligence, founded Kurzweil Computer Products in the early 1970s to develop reading machines for people with vision loss.  He was the first to develop practical optical character recognition for blind readers.  His first desktop models came out in 1978 at a cost of $19,400, a price affordable only for libraries and institutions.  Xerox bought the company in 1980, renaming it Xerox Imaging Systems.  Under that name, Kurzweil developed several different generations of his original machine.  The Reading Edge, introduced in 1992, was the first stand-alone and "almost portable" version.  At less than $6,000, it was the first reader that might be possibly affordable for the average blind consumer.

If you have a cell phone in your pocket, and the right app, you can scan a sign or your mail or just about anything, and your phone can read it to you in seconds.  It’s not always perfect, but it works, and the technology in that little box can be traced back to the technology in these big boxes.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What was amazing about the KPR Reading Edge was that it was running on a 286 processor. It also read the scan in real-time instead of waiting until the whole page had been processed. The little handheld camera was pretty cool too. I picked one of these up about 10 years ago and held onto it as long as I could. Had to let it go eventually, but it was still in perfect working order.

Subscribe to receive posts via email

* indicates required

Browse Articles by Subject

Follow us on Twitter


Write for us

Your input and support in the evolution of Fred's Head are invaluable! Contact us about contributing original writing or for suggestions for updating existing articles. Email us at


The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) makes every attempt to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the data contained in the Fred's Head articles; however, APH makes no warranty, guarantee, or promise, expressed or implied, concerning the content or accuracy of the information provided in Fred's Head. APH does not endorse any technique, product, device, service, organization, or other information presented in Fred's Head, other than products and services directly offered by APH.

The products produced by the American Printing House for the Blind are instructional/teaching materials and are intended to be used by trained professionals, parents, and other adults with children who are blind and visually impaired. These materials are not intended as toys for use by children in unstructured play or in an unsupervised environment.

The information and techniques contained in Fred's Head are provided without legal consideration (free-of-charge) and are not warranted by APH to be safe or effective. All users of this service assume the risk of any injury or damage that may result from the use of the information provided.

Information in Fred's Head is not intended as a substitute for professional advice or treatment. Consult your physician before utilizing information regarding your health that may be presented on this site. Consult other professionals as appropriate for legal, financial, and related advice.

Fred's Head articles may contain links to other websites. APH is not responsible for the content of these sites.

Fred's Head articles created by APH staff are (C) copyright American Printing House for the Blind, Inc. You must request permission from APH to reprint these articles. Email to request permission.

Any submissions to Fred's Head should be free of copyright restrictions and should be the intellectual property of the submitter. By submitting information to Fred's Head, you are granting APH permission to publish this information.

Fair Use Notice: This website may contain copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright holder(s). This site is operated on the assumption that using this information constitutes 'fair use' of said copyrighted material as provided for in Section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law.

Opinions appearing in Fred's Head records are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Printing House for the Blind.