Bit of a pearler

Graeme Turner
If you are a person with a vision impairment it can be hard to keep up with the latest books, read bills or other documents. Machines that read books aloud have been available for many years. I now use a product called Pearl. It allows you to take a photo of a page of words that is then quickly read aloud by a computer. If you don't like using computers, the SARA reading machine is easy to use. You place a book on a scanner and press one button. It starts reading the words aloud straight away.
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Graeme Turner on 09/11/2012
Books standing on a bookshelf.

New technology increases reading options.

Many people take reading books for granted, even if their primary aim is to avoid them altogether. But for people with a vision impairment, reading can be a world that's difficult to access. Many beloved books are not available in an audio version. There is often a considerable lag time before new titles are read by narrators. How can I get my hands on Robert Jordan's 13th book in the fantasy series The Wheel of Time? What is another way of keeping up with this material?

Machines that read text out aloud have been with us since the 1970s. These days we can use off-the-shelf programmes linked up with a scanner and screen reading software for a fraction of the cost of the original devices. I've enjoyed such capacity to scan and read books but still find the process of using the scanner quite slow.


Into this market of products has entered Pearl from Freedom Scientific, distributed in Australia by Quantum Technology.

A book, or other material, is placed on a platform beneath a digital camera mounted on a stand. The whole device is plugged into a PC with a USB cable. The camera snaps an image of the entire page at once. No longer do you need to wait for the scanning head to move its way down the page.

Naturally, this greatly speeds up book reading. You can scan 20 pages a minute, a big increase on being able to process four pages under the old scanners.

The device zips up into its own neat carrying case and is quite portable. In order to run this smart little camera, you do need to have loaded Open Book scanning and reading software loaded on your computer which is a programme designed for use for people with a vision impairment.

The Pearl unit features a tactile guide to help you position your book correctly. The image can be read out loud with a choice of synthesised voices. You can change the rate of reading and even have the equipment spell out those tricky words.

Those with low vision haven't been forgotten. You can alter the magnification and type of lettering, change contrast and adjust colours on letters and background. There is even a spotlight that lights up the words as you read them which some find useful in focusing on the text. You can also transfer the scanned document into another application such as Microsoft Word and edit it from there.


If you're not comfortable with handling computers the Scanning and Reading Appliance (SARA), also from Freedom Scientific, is perhaps as easy as opening a book. If you simply press the scan button the page image is quickly captured and the device begins to read in your chosen voice.

For those who prefer reading Braille the machine can be attached to a display of raised dots that can be continually updated.

Like older equipment, devices like SARA and Pearl can read bills and other documents although we are not in the world yet of handwriting being easily deciphered. Anyone who knows doctors' signatures will understand what I mean.

I'm so excited about the possibilities of this technology I'm tempted to race off and read the The Wheel of Time books right now. Maybe I could tackle Xavier Herbert's Poor Fellow My Country which boasts a mere 1500 pages.

Wish me luck.

Quantum Technology

Vision Australia

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