Braille Monitor                                    June 2018

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KNFB Reader V3.0 Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

by Joel Zimba

Joel ZimbaFrom the Editor: Joel Zimba has been the person primarily responsible for providing answers to callers about the KNFB Reader, and his work has also allowed him to be very involved in the direction of the product and its testing. A new version is in the offing, and here is what Joel has to say about it:

My favorite iPhone model was the iPhone 5. I sold mine quite some time ago for a respectable sum, which I used for an upgrade. I recall it feeling great in my hand. Now clothing is changing to meet the demands of our larger devices, and there is not a beveled edge to be seen.

My iPhone 5 was the first device on which I ran KNFB Reader, when it was first released in 2014. I bought the app the day it landed in the App Store and spent hours that evening learning how to take a decent picture. I remember sorting out piles of Christmas packages left by UPS in the main entry to my Charles Village row home, which has been converted into six flats. I had very little furniture at the time, so I got lots of practice kneeling on my floor to recognize pictures. It is still my preferred method; I don’t show that trick during demonstrations.

KNFB Reader ran quite well on an iPhone 5. It worked even better on an iPhone 6S and then an 8. All this time, the app itself changed very little. The operating system on which it was first designed did. In fact, it changed dramatically, so much so that some of the fundamental technology used to keep the app running has gone away. We saw this eventuality coming back in 2016 and started planning.

Software design is not really like building a bridge or baking a cake or playing music or making love or gardening. It is building something far more imaginary. It is unfortunately like using cobwebs to hold soap bubbles against their will in a thunderstorm orchestrated by demented imps. Keep in mind that everyone helping in the process is using semaphore and smoke signals to communicate. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be fun.

The above description does not make any of the actual challenges in bringing about the latest iteration of KNFB Reader obvious. The messy details would ruin your breakfast, but suffice it to say that no part could be easily changed without a profound and unforeseen catastrophe appearing where least expected. In that sense, it is much like all of the aforementioned analogous activities from which I strive to distance myself. There was nothing to do but write down the lessons learned and start over.

That, gentle reader, is what we have done. If you already have the update, as I am sure many of you do, you will see that KNFB Reader has departed from the familiar linear or path-based method of taking a picture and recognizing text. We have transitioned to a more discrete appearance which reflects the modular design hidden within. The separate tabs of the interface group similar features together—the thinking, of course, being that camera functions really are not anything like document management. Hence each aspect of KNFB Reader can grow and change well into the future.

Once a less interdependent framework exists, any number of more powerful features and improvements can be added. This is where an engineer might forget to keep the actual working of things dead simple. Complexity is the hobgoblin when software evolves. You will also note that, while the look may have changed, the core functionality of KNFB Reader remains the same. Taking a picture will still quickly and accurately read a document. In many significant ways, this product remains unmatched.

Remember that an app is one size fits all. This is the lesson of three years of tech support phone calls and email messages. It is no exaggeration to say that KNFB Reader is used by those from ages seven to ninety-seven. I have worked with students, from those who need a multisensory model of reading books to those wanting to read printed books in Braille. We make this possible through a rich and highly customizable feature set. If I were to turn off all of the nonvisual accessibility features of KNFB Reader, like the Field of View Report option and the Tilt Guidance tool, and then activate a cropping and aligning tool which helps to create an excellent rendering of the original document on which a highlight can move along with the text being read aloud, you might think it was an entirely new app, especially when the recognized document goes into full-screen mode, making all of the controls slip out of sight for a more focused reading experience.

Those of us in the National Federation of the Blind were determined to expand the power of KNFB Reader beyond our long-standing user base of the blind. Our vision is of a tool which meets the needs of those with reading needs not necessarily determined by level of vision. Still, our app would have to be fully accessible, reflecting our belief that universal design benefits everyone. And that is the challenge we presented to our development partners, Sensotec NV.

Sensotec has considerable experience developing products for those with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. They understand this similar, not-quite-parallel group. Our needs often intersect in that text converted into machine readable form can be represented in ways which benefit both groups. Yet, the actual requirements at times seemed antagonistic to our goal of a more universally usable app. And so the horse-trading, the gnashing of teeth, and late nights began. At times it seemed as though we were moving further from our goal. There was even bloodshed: a paper cut from a testing document. And in the end, we had an app.

This is not to say that KNFB Reader has moved on from its roots. If anything, we have worked to make sure that all that you could do before is now even easier. Reading documents from the cloud for instance is now as simple as moving to the Files tab and browsing the entire structure of your GoogleDrive, OneDrive, or DropBox account. This is largely possible because this technology has matured since KNFB Reader was launched. Even the way documents are stored in your device has changed. As mobile devices have moved closer to their desktop cousins, the features we expect, like nested folders and endless combinations of file types, have become possible. You will see this reflected in KNFB Reader.

Now is not the time for lengthy descriptions of how to use every changed or added feature of KNFB Reader. There will be articles, podcasts, hate mail, and even YouTube videos comparing and contrasting every change. All the above contributed to my current understanding of what our customers wanted. Please do not think all your needs will be met. The second most famous quote of P. T. Barnum, “Always leave them wanting more,” applies to software design as much as it does to Braille Monitor articles.

I close by saying I am proud of KNFB Reader 3.0. Everyone who contributed to the project is proud. All of you should be proud of your participation as well, whether through using the app or through building the movement that sparked an idea over forty years ago culminating in this powerful tool for independence we know today.

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