ZoomReader takes reading to the next level

Erich Manser uses the Zoom Reader on his desktop computer.

Erich Manser is seen using the ZoomText on his desktop computer. He uses ZoomReader magnifier on his mobile device.

For this, I wanted to take some time to dig-in a bit to Ai Squared’s ZoomReader application for iOS devices, which I personally use on my iPhone 4S. Full disclosure, Ai Squared is a sponsor of mine (www.erichmanser.com) and I’m proud to represent a company focused on making technology accessible for the visually-impaired out on the race course.

Nonetheless, my primary goal is to provide an objective review that includes candid, honest feedback on what I consider to be strengths or weaknesses from my experience using the application. As a low-vision user, I do a fair amount of research online prior to purchasing any new assistive technology and I know how much I rely on the shared experiences and opinions of others in that search. I would be doing this community a disservice if I lost objectivity.

What is ZoomReader by Ai Squared?

ZoomReader is a mobile application for iOS devices. This app, in conjunction with the device’s built-in camera, allows users to take a picture of any object containing text. The app itself can be customized in appearance and performance to make features more accessible to users. ZoomReader offers increased independence for users in activities such as going grocery shopping and reading prescription bottles. ZoomReader can be used with iPhone 4, 4S, 5, iPad (with retina display), iPad mini and iPod Touch (5th generation).

What I love

First off, I love that ZoomReader even exists, and that Ai Squared put the time, thought and resources in to developing this mobile application specifically designed to make daily life easier for visually-impaired people. Apps like ZoomReader expand upon the wonderful innovations that Apple made in smartphone accessibility, making these phones equally indispensable to visually-impaired as well as sighted users – leveling the playing field.

Another thing I love is that I can use ZoomReader’s slide-zoom feature as a “quick reference” magnifier on the fly.  Inside the app, the slide-zoom is located on the far left of your screen, from top to bottom. It features a slide button which the user can point and drag up, producing the greatest magnification, or down. Because I normally use my iPhone’s accessible reverse contrast (white-on-black) feature, using the slide-zoom in tandem with this allows for a quick and easy way to reference business cards, printed addresses, phone numbers or other small bits of information on the go.

What I like

In general, I really like the functionality of the application. They have adopted a “simple is better” philosophy, which I personally feel improves accessibility in general. The layout and operation of the app is clean and intuitive. As a low-vision user, I was able to explore the various features with relative ease. When you open the app, there are simply five buttons, beyond the slide-zoom mentioned above. The additional buttons allow the user to snap the pictures, control lighting when taking pictures, adjust text-sizes or coloring, access personal photos stored on the device and tweak other settings. Options within the other settings include “Voice Recognition,” which allows the user to take a picture by simply saying “Click” or “Take Picture”, and “Automatic Speech after OCR” which enables the app to immediately begin reading the text once it’s been captured. You can also control the rate-of-speech, though faster begins to sound like “The Alvin and the Chipmunks” cartoon. The pleasant, default male voice is “Tom”, but there are options to purchase other voices. Finally there is a link for help and support if needed.

Suggested Improvements

The biggest challenge I have had in learning and using ZoomReader has been in capturing “clean images.” This is a requirement in order for the text to be accurately read back. The instructions for image-capture suggest placing your object on a flat surface with ample lighting and snapping the picture with a steady hand from about 12-inches away. An available feature can announce whether your object is in landscape or portrait orientation. Variability in any of these elements can result in all or part of the image being garbled, and the audio readout being gibberish.

Ai Squared does sell 12-inch stands to increase stability and minimize these instances, though I have come up with a little trick that seems to help as well. Noticing that my forearms are each about a foot long, I rest my elbows on the table holding the iPhone across the top, creating a sort of stabilized “stand.” Placing the object-to-be-photographed between my elbows, I aim the camera down to capture the image. This has greatly improved my success for capturing clean, usable images.

I can honestly say I have been a happy ZoomReader user for just about a year. As a low-vision user who has not been able to optimize a full-featured smartphone until pretty recently, ZoomReader has truly enhanced this relatively new experience for me. The app is simple, straight-forward and easy to navigate. It isn’t “ZoomText for your smartphone”, but it’s also not intended to be. It is what it is, and it’s great at what it does – making daily life easier for visually-impaired users.

This post was written by Erich Manser. Erich is a longtime supporter of MABVI and a runner on Team With A Vision for the Boston Marathon. Click here to see his interview with Dorothy Krysiuk of WCVB Channel 5 Boston about his training process for the race.