By Jon Fortt
November 10, 2009

When Ben Foss’s father in law was dying of liver cancer months ago, friends suggested Foss read “How We Die” to help the family with the grieving process. Foss has dyslexia, and finding an audio version of the book or scanning it into a computer typically would be an ordeal. But in this case he was able to plow through it at 250 words per minute.

Foss did it with an early version of the Intel (INTC) Reader, a $1,500 device he dreamed up along with colleagues in Intel’s Digital Health Group. The device launches today as the first consumer product from the five-year-old group. And though its name seems to place it in the same category as trendy ebook readers from Amazon (AMZN), Sony (SNE) and Barnes & Noble (BKS), this reader is profoundly different.

This is not another thin tablet that displays text; instead it’s more like a chunky digital camera that instantly captures the words on a printed page and pronounces them aloud. That makes it little more than a curio for mainstream gadget lovers, but a potential godsend for those who struggle to read standard text because of learning disabilities or vision problems.

The reader also poses a real risk for the world’s largest chipmaker. Most of its previous forays into the electronics world have ended badly. Intel generally has thrived when it has focused on its core business of providing computing brains, to others and foundered when it has tried to design and market its own finished products.

But as demand for traditional PCs has slowed, Intel has resolved again to target non-traditional areas for growth. In healthcare technology, executives believe they have found a niche where they can build innovative products that medical professionals and consumers will pay a premium to use. The Intel Reader is poised to provide a high-profile test of that strategy – and it delivers a strong first impression.

Perhaps that’s because for Foss, the reader is far more than just another project – it’s part of his life’s work. The 36-year-old’s learning disability has driven him to work for decades on more convenient ways to get information off the page and into his head. “They say necessity is the mother of invention, but it’s not,” Foss says. “Frustration is.”

 

Foss lived as a frustrated reader for years. In high school, his mother read aloud to him to help him process the information in assignments. In law school, he scanned book pages onto his laptop and had text-to-speech software play them back to him as he rode a bike to class. Now technology has advanced enough that, along with a team of Intel designers, engineers and software architects, he was able to squeeze a scanner and a digital reader into a device about the size of a paperback novel.

On the outside, the Intel Reader doesn’t look like breakthrough technology. Next to an iPhone, it looks like a museum piece – maybe a mid-90’s digital camera prototype. But unlike Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone, Intel’s reader isn’t designed for the mass market. The finished product is the result of untold hours of tweaking; Foss carved the first prototype from a Styrofoam beer cooler more than two years ago.

Inside there’s some impressive technology, including an Intel Atom processor and a Linux-based operating system. Simple menus on a high-contrast screen cater to low-vision users. A thick battery guarantees 4 hours of unplugged use and 30 hours of standby time. A 5-megapixel camera on the bottom of the reader captures images of pages; optical recognition software converts the images into digital text. Text-to-speech software creates an audio file that users can transfer to another device or play aloud on the reader at an adjustable pace.

The slow setting goes below 120 words per minute. The fast setting blazes along at 250 words per minute – a less frustrating pace for speed listeners like Foss.

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