By Michael Barber

The Wilson™ Digital Voice Recorder is one of the smallest and simplest digital recording devices I’ve seen.  Measuring just 2 inches by 3 inches by 0.5 inches, it will easily fit in your hand, your purse, your pocket, or anywhere else you care to put it.  It also comes with a belt clip, which allows it to be conveniently attached to a belt or purse.

Hold the Wilson™ recorder in your hand facing you with the speaker grill at the top.  Just below the speaker grill, there are three easy-to-feel buttons.  From left to right they are: Record, Play/Pause, and Delete.

On the front of the unit, at the top right-hand corner, is a light which will flash when you’re recording.

As you’re facing the unit, there is a slide switch on the left side of the recorder.  When this switch is in the up position, you can record up to eight hours of information.  When the switch is in the down position, you can record up to four hours.

On the right side of the recorder is a USB port to connect the recorder to a computer for transferring files.

On the back side of the unit is a large belt clip.  When this clip is open, you will find the door where the two AAA batteries can be inserted.

To record a message, simply press the Record Button, listen for the short tone, and release it.  You can now record your message.  To stop recording, simply tap the Play/Pause Button, the middle of the three buttons, and you’ll hear two short tones.  You can play your message by pressing the Play/Pause Button.  If you record more than one message, the recorder will play the newest message first followed by the oldest to the newest messages.  Keep in mind that you must press the Play/Pause Button to play each message.

To delete a message, you first press the Play/Pause button to start message playback.  While the message is playing, press the Delete Button (the button furthest to the right) twice, and the message is deleted; you will hear two short tones.

If you record a message with the SP/LP switch in the up position, the quality of the message is somewhat distorted but still understandable.  Further, there is no volume control on this unit; the volume is set to a fairly high level. There is also no headphone jack on the unit, which would have afforded privacy.  The final observation I have is that you cannot pause the playback of a message; it is sometimes important to be able to pause a message and be able to continue where you stopped.

It is my understanding that newer units will be coming out soon which will have the volume control as well as six and 12-hour recording times rather than the current four and eight-hour times.

The Wilson™ Digital Voice Recorder is being sold through the Aids and Devices store of the Iowa Department for the Blind for $20.95.  However, when the newer units become available, the price may or may not remain the same.

This is an excellent unit for someone who does not want or need a more complex recording device.  If all you want to do is record messages and play them later, you don’t care about all the bells and whistles available on other units, and you want something very economical, this is the unit for you.  However, I must repeat that not being able to pause a message during playback is a definite drawback for this unit.

 

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Olympus Digital Recorders Still Accessible to the Blind

By Curtis Chong

Contributing Writer

About a month ago, I purchased the Olympus DM-620 digital voice recorder in my ongoing quest to acquire the latest and greatest in nonvisually-accessible digital recorders.  The Olympus DM-620 digital recorder is the latest in a line of Olympus digital recorders with voice guidance that makes most of the recorder’s settings and features nonvisually accessible.  Other Olympus models that can be purchased with voice guidance are the Olympus DM-420, DM-520, DM-2, and DM-4.

With the voice guided prompts, most of the recorder’s features are nonvisually accessible.  It is still not possible to set the date and time without sighted help, and information about how much memory and/or recording time you have available is still not spoken, but the important settings can be adjusted with the help of voice guided prompts.

I needed a little bit of sighted help to install the batteries and to identify some of the buttons.  However, after only a few minutes, I was able to operate the DM-620 and change settings on my own.

Pressing the Menu buttons starts the voice guidance which allows many recorder settings to be changed.  The first thing that you will probably want to change is the speed of the voice prompts which, by default, are set to speak fairly slowly.  Another setting that you might want to change is the format of the recording files.  I prefer to use the MP3 format at 128KBPS.

The Olympus DM-620 provides five folders that can be used to hold audio recordings.  They are labeled “Folder A,” “Folder B,” and so on.  Each folder can hold up to 200 files (i.e., recordings).

I have found with some digital recorders that it is often a bit tricky to know which folder you are using.  What I have done to overcome this problem is to record an audio file in each of the five folders stating the name of the folder.  For example, in Folder A, I record a file which says “Folder A”.  Then, I lock the file so that it cannot be erased accidentally.  Files can be easily locked and unlocked through the menus, and all of this is accessible with voice guided prompts.

There is an electronic version of the User’s Guide for the Olympus DM-620, available as a PDF document: DM-620 Detailed Instructions (English)

While much of this is readable with screen access technology, the file is formatted for visual presentation, and some of the information consists of unlabeled graphics.  Nevertheless, I found that with some effort, some useful information can be extracted from the PDF document.

All of the Olympus digital recorders I have used over the years have the ability to pause during recording and playback.  This means that you can stop the recorder at any time to avoid recording any unwanted information or pause while listening to long recordings.  Unfortunately, there seems to be no ability that I am aware of in the Olympus digital recorders with voice guidance to insert or add to recordings after they have been stopped.

All in all, I believe that the Olympus DM-620 is a very useful digital recorder, and it is reasonably accessible to the nonvisual user.

I was able to purchase this recorder on Amazon.com for about $126.  But you are more likely to find the Olympus DM-620 being sold for around $150.

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Hefty Battery Pack For iPhone

By Karen Keninger

Contributing Writer

I just finished a seven-day biking and camping trip.  I wanted to bring my Apple iPhone along to take pictures, take notes, and stay in touch as needed.  But the battery on my iPhone would last for only one day.

My solution was a New Trent iCruiser IMP1000 11000mAh External Battery Pack and Charger battery pack. According to the specifications, this battery pack would hold enough charge to recharge my iPhone six times–perfect for this trip.  At a cost of around $80 through Amazon.com, it seemed worth the investment since I could also use it for future camping trips or travels overseas.

The battery pack has an on switch with a LED indicator but no audible cues. The iPhone, fortunately, announces when it begins charging, so it’s easy to tell the battery is working. The battery shuts itself off when the phone is fully charged, so there is no need to worry about whether it’s on or off. The only way to tell when the battery runs out of charge, however, seems to be to plug the iPhone into it and see whether it works. Mine did run out because I charged another device on it, and I was left one day without iPhone usage as a result. A full battery recharge takes several hours. It comes with a couple of additional adapters and will work with anything that you can recharge in a USB port as well. It weighs about a pound and packs easily.

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Technologies For Nonvisual Access To Paper Currency

By Curtis Chong
Contributing Writer

During recent months, more affordable and usable technologies have become available to enable a blind person to identify paper currency without having to rely upon the assistance of someone who can see.  While folding different denominations in different ways continues to be an excellent way for a blind person to manage paper currency nonvisually, there are those times when it is extremely helpful to be able to identify individual bills–particularly when someone has just handed you a stack of bills without telling you what each one of them was.

The iBill from Orbit Research, for $99, offers a reasonable solution to this problem–particularly, if a person does not have an Apple iPhone.  However, for the growing number of blind people who have adopted the iPhone as their mobile phone of choice, I know about two options: EyeNote™, developed by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch family of devices and Money Reader, developed by LookTel Products.  EyeNote is provided through the Apple iTunes Store at no charge, and Money Reader costs $1.99.

The iBill was the first currency identifier that I used on a regular basis, and it worked very well for me.  The only problem I experienced with the iBill was that it was sometimes difficult to insert older bills into the scanning slot.  But it was always accurate and responsive, giving me a reading within two seconds.  Also, I appreciated that I could operate the iBill using a single AAA battery that I could purchase from just about anywhere.

Enter the iPhone.  Once I made the financial investment to get one ($200 for me), I did a side-by-side comparison of the LookTel Money Reader and the EyeNote™ apps.  What I found was that the LookTel Money Reader worked flawlessly every time I used it, giving me a reading almost instantaneously.  On the other hand, the EyeNote™ app failed more times than it succeeded.  Free isn’t necessarily better.

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EyeNote Currency Identifier for the iPhone: Free but inefficient

By Tai Blas
Contributing Writer

Recently, the Bureau of Printing and Engraving released the EyeNote iPhone application. This app is designed to identify currency for blind users. This is a free application. I decided to test the app to see how accurately it could identify currency.

First, I used the app store on my iPhone to search for EyeNote. I downloaded and installed it in less than three minutes using the AT&T 3G network. Once installed, I double tapped on the app and immediately heard instructions on its use. This message was quite lengthy and, unfortunately, there was no good way to repeat only a portion of the instructions. If I wanted to hear part of the message, I had to listen to the entire thing again, attempting to memorize or write down all of the instructions at once. I was directed: “Tap to begin. After beep, steady the note six to eight inches in front of the camera.”

I am assuming that the back-facing camera is preferred for this function, although this was not stated. After focusing the note, the next step is to tap once. You should hear the camera shutter click while the money is being recognized. I double tapped to begin, and the iPhone beeped and vibrated in my hand. I tapped again and heard the camera shutter indicating that a picture of the bill had been taken.

The app then stated “error, reposition,” in halted and unclear speech. I had to repeat this process four times before the bill was recognized. This was a rather time-consuming process when compared with use of the iBill stand-alone device ($99) or the Money Reader iPhone app by LookTel ($1.99).

Watch a video on the comparison between the Money Reader app and the EyeNote app.

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How I crossed over to the ‘Dark Side’ (I mean iPhone)

By Curtis Chong
Contributing Writer 

In the summer of 2009, almost two years ago, Apple announced that its iPhone (a smart phone operated primarily through a touch screen) would be equipped with the VoiceOver program, software designed to allow the iPhone to be operated without sight.  While many of my blind friends and colleagues began switching to the iPhone with more than a little enthusiasm, I refused to be converted.  I was content to “limp along” with my accessible Nokia phone.

Curtis Chong uploads music to his iPhone.

Curtis Chong uploads music to his iPhone.

I heard about the many “apps” that a person could install and run on the iPhone–apps that could play your favorite music, apps that could help you to find an empty table at a nearby restaurant, apps that would let you watch movie trailers, apps that would tell you how to travel to a specific address, and apps that were nothing more than interesting and time-wasting games.  

I reasoned I really didn’t want to have to use the iTunes program on my Windows computer, which I understood to be a requirement for anything dealing with the iPhone.

Then, early this year, I heard a two-part podcast demonstrating how easy the iTunes program was to operate with my JAWS for Windows screen-reading software.  This did a lot to eliminate my anxiety about using the iTunes program.  Also, someone demonstrated for me that with an app called the Money Reader, it was a snap to identify paper currency with the iPhone. 

So, in late March, I took the plunge and upgraded to the iPhone.

Before taking the plunge, however, I spent $18 and purchased a book from the National Braille Press called Getting Started with the iPhone: An Introduction for Blind Users.  This book, co-authored by two experienced blind iPhone users, provided me with a lot of extremely useful information–so much so, in fact, that my conversion to the iPhone was not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. 

I also took the plunge and spent some money to purchase J-Tunes, a set of JAWS scripts, which makes the iTunes program much simpler to use in the Windows environment (I was compelled to take this latter step because Apple released a newer version of iTunes that did not work as well with JAWS as the earlier version).

All in all, it took me about a week to feel truly comfortable with the iPhone.  Today, I use the iPhone almost as efficiently as I used my old Nokia phone.  The one thing that I still have a little trouble doing is interacting with the voicemail systems I use at work and at home.  However, this inefficiency is more than made up by the few but wonderful apps I am using today. 

Unlike many iPhone users, I do not plan to purchase or acquire hundreds of apps.  Instead, I will be content to buy or acquire only those apps in which I am really interested–apps such as the Money Reader or the Pandora Radio app.

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Web Page Reading: Have It Your Way

By Michael Barber
Contributing Writer

Burger King is not the only company who lets you “have it your way.”  When it comes to the automatic reading of a web page when it’s loaded, Freedom Scientific gives you a choice. 

You may not want JAWS for Windows to automatically read a page after it loads.  You can make this change very simply in the JAWS Verbosity Dialog Box. 

Follow these steps:

  1. While in Internet Explorer, press the JAWS Key and tap the letter V to enter the JAWS Verbosity Dialog Box.  JAWS announces, “Adjust JAWS Options Dialog.”

2.  Press the letter D.  JAWS will say, “Document Automatically Reads on.”

3.  Press the spacebar once.  JAWS announces, “Document reads automatically off.”

4.  Press the Enter key to accept this change and close this dialog box.

If you press the F5 key to refresh the page, JAWS will eventually give you the summary of the page, but will not read automatically.

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Accessible Cell Phone Seminar

Today we are in Council Bluffs, Iowa, at the public library on Willow Street to help blind/visually impaired learn about accessibility and their cell phones.

The seminar is an opportunity for people to get hands-on experience and tutorials using accessibility software on several models of cell phones and smart phones.

We are live tweeting from the seminar at #iowablindphones. We also have a handbook that details the topics covered in the seminar that you can access in HTML or in PDF.

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CSUN: A recap from the week in San Diego

By Curtis Chong
Contributing Writer

From March 15-19, I attended the 26th annual CSUN International Technology & People with Disabilities Conference held in San Diego.  During the conference, I attended a number of formal sessions, visited with a few companies in the exhibit hall and engaged in discussions with companies working on access technology for the blind. 

Sessions:

Comparing Notetakers and Mainstream Alternatives 
This session was devoted to a comparison of refreshable Braille personal digital assistants (generally referred to as Braille notetakers) designed specifically for the blind with emerging nonvisually-accessible devices from Apple (e.g., the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch) paired with a growing number of Bluetooth refreshable Braille displays.  Braille Notetakers designed for the blind are extremely costly (approximately $6,000),  while devices from Apple with VoiceOver built-in coupled with smaller refreshable Braille displays can cost less than $2,500.  There is a strong temptation to use this latter class of technology to reduce costs when state and federal budgets are under increasing pressure. 

The presenter concluded that there will always be a need for specialized devices for the blind.  However, as the Apple technology matures, the number of uses to which it can be put will doubtless increase as more experience is gained with this emerging technology.  Although I am not yet prepared to adopt the Apple solution as a replacement for the traditional refreshable Braille notetakers that IDB purchases on behalf of its clients, I am keeping this technology on my radar screen for the future. 

An LED/LCD Display Reader For Visually Impaired Users
This session was supposed to discuss an algorithm developed at Smith-Kettlewell for reading aloud LED/LCD displays for visually impaired users using a webcam or cellphone camera.  What was actually discussed was the work that has been done so far by researchers at Smith-Kettlewell to extract digital information (digits 0-9) from a display in varying lighting conditions.  Apparently, there is a lot of work that needs to be done before you can even see the digits with software, and this is where most of the analysis and work has been done so far. 

In the long term, according to the presenter, a better solution would be to take advantage of the growing networking of home appliances.  Nevertheless, Smith-Kettlewell hopes to release something in the near term as an open source application. 

Mobile Devices: What’s What for Implementing Screen Readers and other TTS Solutions
This session was a panel discussion.  Members of the panel included representatives from cell phone manufacturers such as Samsung , Microsoft, and Nokia; a representative from the American Foundation for the Blind, a representative from Nuance (distributor of a variety of speech synthesis engines and the Talks screen reader for cell phones), and the Director of Accessibility for America Online.  A representative from Research in Motion (RIM), makers of the Blackberry, also participated. 

Nonvisual access to mobile devices is now in flux.  Some companies have made tremendous progress while others have only begun to make plans to support access to future products.  As the cell phone accessibility landscape continues to change (and fairly quickly at that), consumers have many more choices to make and alternatives to investigate. 

Federal Communications Commission Hearing on the 21st Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act (CCVA) of 2010
I spent a short time at this public hearing to get a sense of the FCC’s intentions in this area.  The Communications & Video Accessibility Act is being hailed as the most significant piece of accessibility legislation since the Americans with Disabilities Act.  This was signed into law by President Obama in October, 2010.  From everything I could glean at this hearing, the FCC has decided to implement a very aggressive schedule in terms of developing and promulgating regulations to implement this law.  In terms of access to mobile phones and similar devices, it used to be that industry did not have to make things accessible unless accessibility was “readily achievable.”  Under the new law, accessibility is required unless it is “not achievable.” 

Everyone believes this to be a significant improvement, but only time will tell whether any real improvements actually make it into the hands of blind consumers, who have been waiting for years to achieve meaningful and widespread access to the plethora of products that continue to be developed. 

Assistive Technology Applications Certificate Program
On a whim I decided to attend this 30-minute session, describing the assistive technology certificate program operated by California State University at Northridge.  I had assumed that this certificate program was not one that would benefit persons whose specialty was access technology for the blind, but I wanted to be absolutely sure.  The presenter emphasized that this is neither a credentialing nor a certification program.  Participants are issued a certificate of completion by California State University’s College of Extended Learning after completing 100 hours of instruction, most of which is online and part of which is conducted in live in-person sessions.  Students who complete the program continue to have access to all of the online information they were provided when they sign up for the course.  There is about four hours of information provided on nonvisual access technology.

The Current State of Accessibility among the Top On-line Retail Sites
This session discussed and compared the usability and accessibility of the websites of the top 50 retailers selling products online.  Jim Thatcher (a well-known expert and consultant in the area of accessibility) and Donald Evans from Deque (pronounced Dee Cue) Systems, a developer and distributor of Web accessibility checking software, conducted a study to see if retail sites had improved two years after the successful settlement between Target and the National Federation of the Blind.  According to the presenters none of the top 50 online retailers obtained a passing score.  However, there was a wide distribution of scores–from extremely bad to not that bad. 

Interestingly enough, Target achieved the best score (not surprising in light of the recent settlement).  Staples was ranked third best; and this is also not surprising because Staples recently entered into structured negotiations with accessibility advocates to improve its website.  Amazon ranked among the top 10 online retailers.

The biggest accessibility problem seems to lie in the area of forms construction–that is, fields that are not properly labeled.  The second biggest problem has to do with spacer images, which are labeled but provide a good deal of nonvisual clutter for the person using screen access technology. 

Retailers ranked among the worst included Peapod (an online grocery delivery site), Barnes & Noble, Best Buy and Avon.

Exhibits
There was a variety of interesting exhibits on display at CSUN this year. 

Code Factory demonstrated a talking television tuner program that can be used to watch digital television on a personal computer.  The program can also be set up to record specific programs–either audio or video and audio.

Bookshare displayed its soon-to-be-released reading app for the iPad, which it proposes to sell for $19.95.  What made the ap interesting to me was that it will read Bookshare books using a speech synthesis engine (Acapela) that is a bit easier to listen to than the Nuance Vocalizer.

Handy Tech demonstrated a 40-cell refreshable Braille display using something called Active Tactile Control or ATC.  As your hands reach the end of the line, the display scrolls automatically to the next segment of text.  Also, your reading patterns are stored in a log which can then be analyzed.  Handy Tech is touting this technology as a way to improve Braille instruction.  However, the 40-cell display I saw at CSUN costs nearly $7,000.  It is difficult to imagine how Braille instruction programs can justify the cost without a lot more promotion and marketing from Handy Tech.

GW Micro demonstrated a CCTV (called Read Aloud) which could run selected enlarged text through an optical character recognition program and speak the results.  There is one model with a 32-inch screen which costs nearly $7,000 where all of the controls talk to you.  The $3,000 model has a smaller screen (22-26 inches), no talking controls, but does speak highlighted text.  Only time will tell whether the Read Aloud system will supplant the existing CCTV market.

Braille embosser manufacturers are finding ways for their embossers to do more than to produce simple Braille text.  View Plus and American Thermoform demonstrated Braille embossers that produce Braille and print on the same page–sometimes in color.  Enabling Technologies demonstrated a $5,000 embosser, called the Phoenix which produces both Braille text and Braille graphics in a single pass.

I stopped by a booth staffed by someone from the U.S. Bureau of Engraving.  Tactile bills are definitely in our future.  Passersby were urged to touch bills with different types of tactile markings on them, and for doing so, everyone was given a bag of shredded money.  I learned that we will indeed have tactile bills and that what the government proposes to do is to have raised print on one corner and a series of tactually-discernible bumps on another corner, placed in such a way as to provide balance for the bills when they are run through a money scanning machine.  What I was told that this new design will not require the scanners to be redesigned–only to be reprogrammed.  This is supposed to be a less expensive procedure.  I was also told that for people with severe neuropathy, the government proposes to provide them with a coupon which would entitle them to a free bill reader, such as the iBill. 

Informative Meetings and Discussions
Levelstar, developer of the Icon, has announced a successor product: the Orion.  The Orion is planned to be a cell phone, book reader, media player and note-taker, all in one device; and it is designed to run under Google’s Android operating system.  I met privately with representatives of Levelstar to discuss the Orion and to hear a sample of some new speech (Ivona) that the company is planning to use in the finished product.  Levelstar is working with the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) on the final design of Orion; APH will sell Orion, and some people will be able to pay for Orion using Quota funds.

I met with the person who heads up the accessibility effort in Apple’s Education group.  The purpose of my meeting was to discuss the long term accessibility of applications that are developed for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, all of which are now accessible to the blind because of Apple’s VoiceOver program.  However, there are some applications that are not accessible to VoiceOver users because some of the controls are not properly labeled.  I wanted to understand whether application developers were required to incorporate any accessibility features into their software or whether they were merely encouraged to do the right thing.  I learned from the Apple representative that interest in accessibility has grown dramatically since the beginning of VoiceOver, some five years ago.  In the early days, perhaps 25 people would show up at an accessibility session during a developer conference.  Today, it is routine for several hundred developers to attend sessions on accessibility.  However, there are no requirements as such to include accessibility features into every application.  There are those who would say that this posture on the part of Apple needs to be changed. 

I spent some time with Caroline Ragot, Managing Director of Code Factory in Spain.  Code Factory has recently released Mobile Accessibility, a program for Android cell phones.  Right now, Mobile Accessibility users must receive technical support directly from Code Factory in Spain, but it is possible that technical support could be provided by an American company if a viable business model can be developed.  Ms. Ragot told me that Code Factory prefers to develop innovative products to make mobile devices accessible to the blind and that in an ideal world. support would be provided by a third party.  Nevertheless, Android appears on a lot of phones sold by a lot of cell phone providers, and because of Mobile Accessibility, the blind now have access to more cell phones across more networks than ever before. 

I spent some time with a representative from Adobe, the company which is responsible for (among other things) the portable document format (PDF), the Adobe Reader, and Flash in its various incarnations.  While Adobe has made tremendous progress to improve nonvisual access to PDF documents and flash presentations, it is ultimately the author’s responsibility to follow Adobe’s accessibility guidelines to ensure that any given document or presentation is accessible to the person reading or viewing it.  Also, Adobe makes a lot of other software (e.g., Adobe Connect and Adobe Audition) which has not yet achieved the same level of accessibility as it Adobe Reader program.  The person with whom I spoke indicated that Adobe is indeed aware that it still has a long way to go.  Unfortunately, I also got the distinct impression that while accessibility advocates within the company understand precisely what needs to be done, the rest of the company has not made a firm and unequivocal corporate-wide commitment to ensuring that all of the programs developed by Adobe are as accessible as they can be. 

I met with Eric Damery, a senior executive with Freedom Scientific, makers of JAWS for Windows.  Mr. Damery wanted to tell me that: (1) JAWS support for the Google Chrome browser was imminent; and (2) it is highly likely that Microsoft is working to develop a vastly improved screen reader to be included in its Windows 8 operating system.  Eric was very proud of the former and very concerned about the latter, saying that it would not do the industry any good for Microsoft to produce a screen reader that would kill the market.  He also informed me that in Internet Explorer 9, soon to be released, font smoothing for screen enlargement programs will not be possible; this should be of great concern to users with low vision, he said.

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At CSUN: Zoom Reader app on its way

By Michael Barber
Contributing Writer

I am attending the 26th annual International Conference on Disabilities, sponsored by California State University at Northridge.  One of the exciting things to do at these conferences is to wander through the exhibit hall and catch up on the latest and greatest innovations in assistive technology.

Today, I visited the AI Squared booth and learned that very soon, you will be able to buy the Zoom Reader app from the Apple App Store for either the iPhone or iPod Touch.  AI Squared is the company which sells Zoomtext Magnifier and Zoomtext Mag/Reader, the Zoomtext Keyboard, and Zoomtext Express.  

Among other things, Zoom Reader will allow you to magnify the screen to 4x, set color enhancements, etc.  But the feature that attracted me is the ability to scan and read a document.  You will be able to take a picture and read right away or you can save the image and do the optical character recognition (OCR) later. 

According to the folks at AI Squared, the app has been submitted to Apple and should be available for download within a week.  I believe the purchase  price will be $19.95.

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