A product designed to make e-books accessible to the visually impaired may spell the death knell of popular e-book readers such as the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader. Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has long been interested in accessibility. That interest has now led his company to create Blio, software that allows users to read, or have read to them, e-books in full color, laid out exactly as the publisher originally intended, on regular computers or handheld devices.
Kurzweil believes that people will be less and less willing to carry uni-functional devices, and sees no reason why e-readers need to be on specialized devices. So his company, KNFB Reading Technology Inc., focused on improving the e-reading software rather than the hardware. For the visually impaired, Blio will read aloud, while highlighting each word as it is read.
Combine that ability with Blio’s faithful full-color reproduction of the layout and images from the original versions, and it becomes a natural for solving the back strain of medical students who might otherwise need to lug around detailed anatomy textbooks and for entertaining young children with picture books. (One blogger worried that her children will grow up speaking with electronic accents from having Blio-enabled devices read them their bedtime stories. Fortunately the naturalness of computer oration is improving, and there is a vast and increasing number of books available read by professional actors. Besides, what toddler would rather cuddle with a computer than mom or dad at bedtime?)
Blio goes beyond PDF technology with multimedia interactivity. Those anatomy students can not only see which bones connect to which others and hear how to pronounce the names of every little body part, they can be quizzed on their learning as they go. Users can also watch, for instance, a video of the hip replacement surgery that will help those bones work happily together again.
Even more exciting to those of us who flit among desktop, laptop, and handheld devices, Blio software synchronizes among all the devices on which it is installed so that you can always continue reading from where you left off, without having to remember your page from the previous device. Any marginal notes or highlights you made on one device will also appear when you open the document on another.
The only significant advantage e-book readers offer over this new approach is battery life. By displaying only black and white text with minimal functions running in the background, current e-book readers can last significantly longer between charges than most laptops or handhelds. It is not clear that this advantage will be sufficient to keep specialist e-book readers alive, particularly as charging technologies improve battery life.