The opticon is a device that assists blind people with reading print documents. It was widely used in the 1980’S, but today has been largely replaced by OCR and other electronic reading aides. The unit itself consists of three main parts. The camera, the base unit, and the optional guide.
To use an opticon, the blind person would place all materials on a table or other flat surface. He or she would then place the camera on top of the piece of paper being read. Normally, the dominant hand is used to hold and manipulate the camera. The index finger of the other hand is then inserted into a small depression on the base unit. As the blind person slides the camera along the paper, signals are sent from the camera to 144 tiny pins under the finger. These pins then raise and form a tactual representation of the symbol under the camera. The darker the symbol, the higher the pins. Various controls on the base unit and camera allow the user to control the strength of the pins and the size of the displayed image. The purpose of the guide is to help the blind person move the camera in a straight line and insure the camera itself isn’t slanted in regards to the paper. More advanced opticon users may elect not to use the guide as it can be time consuming to set each page up.
As mentioned earlier, use of the opticon has been replaced with such technologies as OCR. However, many blind people still use an opticon, as it is more portable than a laptop and can be more accurate. With OCR, you are relying on a computer to guess the identification of the characters it sees. With the opticon, the individual themselves determines the identity of each character. With training, in theory, people can achieve reading speeds on the opticon similar to a sighted person reading the page with their eyes. In practice, this was rare, but I have seen it done. Many blind people are urging makers of adaptive technology to resume production of the opticon so it may take a place along side modern reading systems.