The newly developed KNFB Reader app is helping blind people by reading out printed materials captured by an iPhone’s camera.

The $99 app relies on new pattern recognition and image-processing technology developed by K-NFB Reading Technology and Belgian based Sensotec, and is the result of a four-decades-long relationship between the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and Ray Kurzweil, a well-known artificial-intelligence scientist and senior Google employee.

During a demonstration of the app at the NFB annual convention in June, Kurzweil said it can replace a “sighted adviser”. The app is set to enable a new level of engagement for blind people in everyday life, from “reading” menus in restaurants to browsing hand-outs in a classroom.

The app is already giving blind people greater independence, with one user, Gordon Luke, reportedly tweeting he was able to use the app to read his polling card for the Scottish Referendum.

The app is currently available on the App Store and is set to be available for Android in the coming months. In a recent interview with Reuters, Kurzweil said he may also explore a version of the app for Google Glass; a postage stamp-sized computer screen that attaches to eyeglass frames and is capable of taking photos, recording video and playing sound. “Google Glass makes sense because you direct the camera with your head,” said Kurzweil.

Kurzweil first started working on “reading machines” in the early 1970s after speaking to a blind person on an aeroplane who voiced frustrations with the lack of optical-recognition technology on the market.

A few years later, “Kurzweil burst into the NFB’s offices in Washington, DC, and said he had invented a reading machine,” recalled Jim Gashel, a former NFB employee who currently heads business development at KNFB Reader. “It was phenomenal.”

Kurzweil’s first reading machine was the size of a washing machine and cost $50,000. The technology has drastically improved over the past few decades − the new smartphone app can recognise and translate print between different languages and scan PowerPoint slides up to 7.6m away − but it was not available on a mainstream mobile device until now. Previously, it cost more than $1,000 to use the software with a Nokia cell phone and a camera.

Executive Director of the non-profit Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Bryan Bashin, said the KNFB app shows the positive and profound impact that technology can have. “There are innumerable times in life that I’ll have a bit of print and there will be nobody around who can help me out, and I’ll just want to know something as simple as ‘Is this packet decaf or caffeinated coffee?” said Bashin. “The ability to do this easily with something that fits in your pocket, at lightning speed, will certainly be a game-changer.”

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