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How I built an audio book reader for my nearly blind grandfather (gist.github.com)
287 points by wkjagt on Aug 14, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 43 comments

My father is age 92, and in 2001 he lost his central vision to macular degeneration. He wrote long documents on his PC before, but afterward he never had much dedication to figuring out how to use a computer with assistive software for the blind (or more lately, smart phones in assistive mode). Thus we entered a years long search for usable CD and MP3 players. Most devices have tiny uniform buttons and depend on LCD indicators. The best we could find for a long time was a Sony S2 sport CD player that had a hand strap that kept the thumb positioned to work buttons without needing to look at the device.

But years ago he got the free (from the US government) digital talking book player[1][2]. This device is an excellent engineering and user interface solution for delivering audio material to blind users. The buttons are all large and report their functions by audio. There are all sorts of built in modes, including an extensive set of self-tests and diagnostics. Around the US, there is a service infrastructure so if there is any problem with the devices, the user just drops them off at a local library and takes a replacement.

These devices can play prerecorded DRMed audio books or MP3s delivered on USB cartridges or thumb drives. The Library of Congress maintains a large collection of downloadable books called BARD[3].




My grandmother was diagnosed with macular degeneration in the mid 90's. As time went on it became impossible for her to read books, which had previously been one of her favorite hobbies. Fortunately the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) was there to fill that gap. So for the past 15 years or so she's had a selection of books mailed to her on a regular basis. It's a fantastic program.

I was excited to see the new digital book player when it came out. Now that she has essentially lost her vision completely and also suffers from hearing loss she's found the new player to be easier to use and have better audio clarity. The fact that you can also download the books through the BARD service was great too since I could sit with her and read her descriptions of the books rather than just depending on the random selection that the NLS sends you.

Hello. I just want to say that you should reconsider iOS-based devices. I am very low vision and can use iOS perfectly well. It has both built in zooming and text-to-speech (VoiceOver). Many apps, including Audible.com, are very accessible and work well with VoiceOver. If you have an iOS device on hand, check out the Settings->General->Accessibility offering or look at this: https://www.apple.com/accessibility/ios/. You should also take a look at applevis.com.

You should also check with his local government to see what services are available for the blind and visually impaired. Even with no vision, one can live a happy life and still be an active member of society. All it takes is some help learning how to navigate the world.

I am totally blind and am a Voiceover user. From my experiences with talking to sited iOS users while Voiceover is a great feature and makes an iPhone completely accessible it is still not as intuitive as using an iPhone with site. I was motivated to learn Voiceover because I had been using computers for my entire life. Even with being motivated it took me several weeks to get proficient. If someone has limited to no computer experience and doesn't feel like they need to learn Voiceover then the learning curve is going to most likely be to hard for them to become proficient.

+1 for VoiceOver. I'm not visually challenged but I find that listening to books, articles and emails makes me understand them better. I use VoiceOver+Instapaper while driving and plough through articles quickly. I use VoiceOver control to tweet these articles without looking at my phone's touch screen. It's very effective. VoiceOver also works really well with iBooks and ePub books. The pages flip automatically and the reading speed can be adjusted on the fly to match your comprehension. VoiceOver is iOS's best hidden feature.

Great project! That can be really useful for rooms in retirement homes being equipped with such devices.

Regarding the voice controls on either Android or iOS I can only imagine how well that would work for my grandparents, speaking a German dialect, given that even my (way less dialect) German is a hassle with voice input on either those systems.

Whooooa, I have identical situation with my grandparents!

And I solved it by buying them CD - Boombox and modifying the buttons. That way they can switch CD's themselves and they can also buy them. But your project is awesome with the remote uploading.

Burning all those CD's is soooo timeconsuming, but it's worth it - my grandpa has a lot of fun with those books!

Similar situation here too, but my grandmother sees enough and is able to use a laptop when I prepare a playlist. Inspiring project though, maybe I should take things up a notch (instead of resorting to a hard-to-use laptop) and make something similar.

One issue is that almost all Dutch audio books are abbreviated versions and even of those there are very few available. My grandfather is picky and my grandmother read nearly everything available at the library. The Internet has a bit more than the local library, but still not a lot. I myself just listen to audio books in English, but that's not an option for them.

Simply a great project with an astonishing outcome. The thing you did great is "UX" - or, to be more precise, lack of ux. You made a device which is perfectly accessible by your grandfather, asking him to deal with "modern" devices like smartphones would have probably resulted in an epic fail. Great work.

I think the main reason for the success is that it's simple to use. All the hard technical work getting books and getting things fixed and updated are done by the grandsons. This is good because now the grandsons really have a reason to visit (OP doesn't even need to come up with a reason and I respect that, but in some other people's cases they simply need A REASON to do so).

It is a win-win situation.

Amazing story, great Product! You grandfather is giving you realtime feedback (ex: his request for a music player).

Most projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo don't even have a fully functioning product, whereas, you already have your product and your 1st customer, so why don't you take this product to the next level, and sell it to the wider audience of blind people?

You will have a tremendous impact on society doing good, and make a decent side-income at the same time.

I see it's already been mentioned here, but the best commercial version of this is called the Victor Reader Stream, made by Humanware. It has few buttons and simple enough navigation for non-technical people to use. Also relevant is NLS[0] and Bookshare[1]

[0] http://www.loc.gov/nls/ [1] https://www.bookshare.org/

In the US, the Library of Congress National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped provides a great deal of information explaining the services they provide for free as well as various commercial offerings available on their website: http://www.loc.gov/nls/reference/factsheets/readingdisabilit...

I'm curious why a simple CD player boombox wouldn't have been sufficient in this situation.

We have one with just four buttons (play/pause, stop, forward/next-track, rewind/prev-track) plus a volume knob. You can tell which button is which pretty easily based on their position.

It would be fairly easy to switch CDs and control the boombox without the use of sight.

I guess you could argue that by digitizing the CDs, it saves the person from having to change them out themselves ... but it also limits selection. (For instance, my local library has a wide assortment of CDs, but it would be a hassle if I had to rip each of them before I could listen to them.)


By the way, anybody who's interested in building stuff that's accessible to the blind, you might be interested in the work of T.V. Raman (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T._V._Raman), a Google engineer who himself is blind.

Check out this NYTimes article from a few years ago that tells a bit about his amazing story:


The main reason for not using CDs was that it would have been very likely for him to lose the position where he stopped listening.

It's a wonderful project. I'm sure you building it makes him a lot happier than if you had found something ready to buy.

Agreed. His happiness must be going through the roof. Bravo.

Using RFID-tagged physical objects to represent the audiobooks is an interesting twist. Why did you decide to do that rather than add "next book" and "previous book" buttons, and use text-to-speech (or even pre-recorded audio files) to tell him which book is currently selected? After all, your approach increases the amount of maintenance your brother has to do, and makes the whole assembly a lot bigger.

EDIT: I'm also curious about which products you looked at and why you rejected them. For example, did you look at any dedicated talking book players, such as the Victor Reader Stream or the BookSense?

That's a valid question. I wanted him to have physical, tangible books. A reader like the Victor Reader is, for someone who doesn't use technology, a mysterious box where the books are hidden behind buttons. I was afraid that this type of solution would discourage him. I may be wrong, but the impression I got from the existing products was they had a learning curve that my grandfather, at his age, wasn't willing to take. With his current reader, his books are actually book sized. He can have a pile of books he finished reading. There's something more "real" about it.

It doesn't actually require a lot more maintenance, except putting the titles on the "books". Other than that, we keep reusing the same cards.

I sat near a blind girl testing on the bus. She way playing that touch-keyboard like a violin and knew where every letter was touch. The phone was on low-volume audio and she knew what she typed.

One of the things I love about modern technology is how some of it can increase the life quality someone who has handicap. I really wish I knew how to hack hardware, I'd love to help myself. At least I'm the resident accessibility nazi at work!

OSX (and iOS) has great text to speech functionality with some quality voices. It is probably not of everybody, but for people who can use a laptop (or iPad) there is a lot of accessibility potential. I use the Ava speaker for reading long articles in the background while I do other things, and the voice is almost as good as a radio host.


I do the same thing! Pity it doesn't work exceptionally well with PDF files. It reads the headers/footers of each page sometimes making it very confusing. I hope it gets fixed at some point.

Awesome! The fact that he is requesting music is very interesting because you have made a device much more accessible than an iPod.

Listening to the music from their youth is shown anecdotally to have a HUGE impact on people with dementia and Alzheimer’s[1]. But often iPods are too much for these people to manage, maybe a simpler device (such as yours) could be used in this space?


Kudos to you for spending your time striving to help others in need. This project is amazing and also inspiring!

Great story and project, however one typo.

> I spoke to my grandmother today because it's here birthday,


Thanks, fixed it :-)

Hi all, there is also an open source solution available with Daisy-standards support. Check it out here http://www.kolibre.org/en/demo

A low-end ereader is $50 these days. They all have audio options.

I didn't want my grandfather to have to listen to an electronic voice. Listening to a well performed reading of a book is an experience that can't be matched by text to speech.

Kindle is rather high end and doesn't have any audio options - or am I missing something here? The last kindle that did was the Kindle Keyboard(Kindle 3) but even then it couldn't read all books.

I know the Kindle Fire has accessibility support and I hear it's actually quite good. I haven't personally used it though since the Kindle app on an iPhone is quite accessible.

A lovely story about making something truly useful.

  ...running Debian Wheezy
That's a strange choice given the existence of Raspbian.

I used Raspbian actually, which is a port of Wheezy.


Have you seen the Kibano DigiPlayer devices?


Wow, I hadn't seen them. I like that it uses a card per book. It makes each book a separate "entity". Plus they look really nice and easy to use. The FM transmitter is a great idea.

Wonderful idea. I had a similar thought for a particular set of books using a browser (in large mode) for controlling.


This is a great project. Love that you did this for your grandfather.

This story made me tear up. Awesome project for your grandfather!

Great job and great product.

Wonderful project!

Great project!

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