Flemish company develops app that helps the blind read


A West Flemish company has developed a text-to-speech app for blind users that has won both prizes and enthusiastic international approval

A drastic app makeover

The West Flemish company Sensotec is on a roll. When the company launched its KNFB Reader last September for users with visual impairments and dyslexia, the app was quickly embraced by many users across different countries. Just a month later, the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the UK, for instance, chose it as its app of the month, while AppleVis.com, the online community for blind and partially sighted Apple users, awarded it its annual Golden Apple for best accessibility app for iOS devices. The company also placed second in the AppleVis.com Developer of the Year competition.

The KNFB Reader app takes pictures of texts and then reads that text aloud. It can be downloaded to smartphones, iPods and tablets.

It’s no coincidence that many international users and associations rapidly became convinced of the usefulness of the app. Based in Jabbeke, Sensotec closely collaborated with the National Federation of the Blind in the US and the tech company K-NFB Reading Technology for this project. The K in the company name is for Kurzweil; the company was founded by technology pioneer Ray Kurzweil, now director of engineering at internet giant Google.

KNFB Reader was originally created by K-NFB Reading Technology. This older version only worked on Nokia devices and was less powerful and user-friendly than the new one developed by Sensotec. 

Text to speech

“We completely updated the previous version,” says Sensotec CEO Falk Beerten. “At the same time, we managed to reduce the price of the app significantly.”

While the previous version cost about €1,500, Sensotec was able to push the price down to €100 using more modern technologies.

We hope to bring an Android version on the market by April

- Sensotec CEO Falk Beerten

An important feature of the new app is user assistance to better position the device’s camera in front of text. This is achieved through a vibration system and spoken messages that provide instructions to, for instance, move the device a little to the left or right.

Once the app has taken the photo, it reads the text out loud just a few seconds later using text-to-speech technology. In the previous version developed by K-NFB Reading Technology, the process of converting the text into speech took much longer.

All manner of text can be read out loud this way. The app can, for instance, help visually impaired people to read letters, invoices, newspaper articles, menus and food labels. Sensotec technology also automatically identifies the text format and can, for instance, assess that the text is formatted in columns. Users can even read long, complex files like a PowerPoint presentation.

The app is currently available in 12 languages, including English, Dutch, French, Spanish, Polish and Turkish. “We are also preparing Chinese and Russian versions,” says Beerten.

The next step for Sensotec will be to develop features that enable the app to automatically recognise what language a text is written in and to even translate the text into other languages.

To install the app, users need an Apple device, such as an iPhone or iPad. “Most visually impaired people opt for Apple devices because they have the exceptionally good VoiceOver technology, which makes them more accessible,” explains Beerten. “By the end of April, however, we hope to bring an Android version to the market.”

A lunchbox-size device

This is not Sensotec’s first breakthrough. Back in 1986, when the company was launched as a research spin-off of the Royal Medical Pedagogical Institute Spermalie in Bruges, Sensotec premiered a pioneering device called Braildec.

Braildec, which decoded braille and converted it into writing, was used to mainstream blind children in primary education until the end of the 1990s. It was mostly used in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Norway.

“The Braildec was about the size of a lunchbox, a big difference compared to the mobile applications of today,” says Beerten.

Though it still focuses on accessibility software and hardware for the visually impaired, Sensotec has also devoted increasingly more attention to the difficulties faced by people with dyslexia. “Dyslexia is also known as ‘word blindness’,” says Beerten, “so many applications to assist the visually impaired are also to the benefit of people with dyslexia.”

The West Flemish company has, for instance, developed a software programme called WoDy. Designed specifically for dyslexics, the software functions as a word predictor that corrects texts and provides support through speech technology. The software can even adjust to users’ personal profiles – their typical mistakes and lexical preferences.

“We are also more and more aware of the possibilities that our technology offers to elderly people who don’t suffer from a disability but whose eyesight worsens gradually,” says Beerten. “As the ageing of our population progresses, our solutions will be useful to a growing number of people.”

Photo courtesy Sensotec