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For the Blind, a Device That Obeys Spoken Commands and Speaks Back

June 20, 1989 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Robert Argyropoulos talked to a machine Tuesday and the machine talked back, telling the 22-year-old engineering student the time, reading newspaper articles aloud and dialing a phone number.

Its developers say the machine, though still primitive, is the most promising aid for the blind since the introduction of Braille 160 years ago..

The Personal Companion, unveiled at a news conference, was created for the 6.5 million Americans who cannot see well enough to read or are so handicapped they can’t turn a page or punch a keyboard.

The machine has the appearance of a computer, but without a keyboard. It is programmed to respond to the voice of its user.

Transceptor Technologies Inc., an Ann Arbor, Mich., company founded in 1986 by people with backgrounds in medicine, visual rehabilitation, telecommunications, computer design and education, developed the Personal Companion.

Argyropoulos, a 22-year-old computer buff, designed the softwear, working 20 hours to 80 hours a week while a student at the University of Michigan.

He said he wanted to build a machine ″not for the superstar blind person but one that your grandmother could use without knowing anything about computers.″

Argyropoulos said 20 minutes of training by the machine, which gives instructions by voice, are all that’s needed to get started.

Company president Bernard F. McCrory said the machine costs $6,500 to $6,800. The higher priced model comes with a screen for the visually impaired on which the type can be made several inches high.

McCrory said the machine could be leased by those who can’t afford to buy one.

Carroll Jackson, director of the Greater Detroit Society for the Blind and a consultant to the company, called the development ″analogous to the introduction of Braille″ by blind Frenchman Louis Braille in 1829.

Jackson, who is legally blind, compared its potential impact to the introduction of curb cuts that enable people in wheelchairs to use sidewalks.

In the voice demonstration, Argyropoulos had the machine do mathematical computations, record a checkbook transaction - but not actually write the check - tell what was in his appointment ledger and turn on the radio and the lights.

At his command, the device called information to get and record a phone number and then dialed the number.

By arrangement with the Gannett Co., a condensed version of USA Today is made available each day over a telephone line. The machine’s synthetic, mechanical sounding voice lists the sections of the newspaper, recites the headlines and reads abbreviated versions of stories selected by the user.

Ultimately, McCrory said, far more information will be available from computer data banks and the machine will play compact discs, each capable of reading aloud up to 50 books.

Company founder Mark Blumenkranz, an ophthalmologist and surgeon at the Kresge Eye Institute in Detroit, said an engineer who lost his sight in a hunting accident five years ago consequently lost his business.

The engineer has been testing the machine and ″feels he will be able to go back into business for himself,″ Blumenkranz said.