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ZoomReader app gives your eyes a hand

By Mark Baard
April 11, 2011

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Assistive technology
I’ve always needed glasses. But when my optometrist gently told me it was time for bifocals, well, that’s when my midlife crisis started.

In my mid-40s I find myself drawn to assistive technologies that don’t draw too much attention to one’s weakening eyes and ears, such as the new “invisible’’ hearing aid from Starkey Laboratories Inc. (www.starkey.com), which hides inside the ear canal.

I was delighted to read (with help from my bifocals) about an app that turns the iPhone into a stealthy assistive device, enlarging the type on packages and pill bottles that we tell ourselves is getting smaller over the years.

I can use the app, ZoomReader, to magnify the text on a menu while my dinner companion thinks I am checking text messages. (Yes, I realize this means appearing to be rude to protect one’s pride.)

ZoomReader’s developer, Ai Squared of Manchester, Vt., says the app is the first to integrate live video, 4X magnification, Optical Character Recognition (OCR), and text-to-speech technology.

When you first download ZoomReader, it will speak to you in English. Through the app, you can purchase synthesized audio voices in three other languages, according to Ai Squared.

ZoomReader’s OCR text-to-speech features are probably not what you want to be using at a restaurant. But the magnifier sure beats switching out your eyewear.

This is not Ai Squared’s first assistive technology. The company also sells hand-held video magnifiers, a keyboard with large letters, and other devices for the visually impaired.

ZoomReader’s onscreen interface should not require much squinting. It has large buttons and works with the iPhone’s VoiceOver speech commands function. (A voice tells you the function of each ZoomReader button you tap.) The app also recognizes voice commands.

At $19.99, ZoomReader is not among the cheapest apps.

Headphones

Wicked Helix buds promise to stay put

As a frequent hiker and occasional runner, I can tell you it’s hard keeping any pair of earbuds in place, even those designed for kinetic activity — like my lightweight JVC buds, which have loops that go behind the ears.

Based on sound quality alone, the best earbuds I have encountered are the SITi from Munitio. But Munitio’s heavy, metallic buds fall out of my ears, even when I am sitting at my desk. And my JVC earbuds, as light as they are, do a crummy job of blocking out ambient noise.

I do have high hopes for Wicked Helix noise-canceling earbuds (wickedheadphones.com), which also have loops that hold the speakers in your ears. They are brightly colored, with oranges and pinks and yellows arranged in funny patterns, which might not be your cup of tea.

But the tip of the earbuds’ 3-foot cord is gold-plated and thus anticorrosive.

Wicked Helix earbuds sell at electronics stores for about $15.