Notetaker: talking computer for the blind

24 December 2010

Two researchers at South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have developed a portable talking computer that “speaks” four South African languages – with more still to come – for use by blind people.

The “Notetaker for the Blind” was developed by Willem van der Walt, working with Gerhard van den Berg, as part of the National Accessibility Programme, a five-year initiative led by the CSIR’s Meraka Institute to develop information and communications technology resources for people with disabilities.

According to the CSIR, the Notetaker was designed “to empower blind users in South Africa, from young children at school to university students and older people, through a single device tailored to general use such as text documents and unit conversions.

“Blind users are therefore able to get a three-in-one to take the place of a special scientific calculator, hardware and a DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) player.”

Uniquely South African innovation

Van der Walt is proud of the way in which the Notetaker has taken shape as a uniquely South African innovation.

The computer’s calculator has been designed for future expansion to serve as a financial calculator suited to South African requirements. It has also been built as cheaply as possible, using readily available off-the-shelf components, so that it can be supported locally.

The Notetaker has a keyboard for input and a voice synthesiser for output. By using open source software, it has been easier to localise the notetaker, giving users the option to set it to any one of four South African languages: English, Afrikaans, Sesotho sa Leboa (or Sepedi) and isiZulu.

Van der Walt, who is a member of the CSIR’s human language technologies research group, is working on integrating text-to-speech resources for other South African languages into the Notetaker.

eSpeak for Afrikaans and Sepedi

It was Van der Walt who, with the help of colleagues and local and international collaborators, developed eSpeak for Afrikaans and Sepedi.

eSpeak, a compact open source software speech synthesiser for English and other languages, uses a different synthesis method from other open-source text-to-speech engines and produces clear articulation.

More recently, Van der Walt ported eSpeak on Symbian, the operating system used by certain mobile phones, which has made the localisation of voices possible in the mobile domain.

Anyone interested in discussing the Notetaker’s technical details with a view to taking the product to market can Van der Walt on wvdwalt@csir.co.za or Hina Patel of the CSIR Meraka Institute on hpatel@csir.co.za.

SAinfo reporter

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