In Assistive Technology

The Role of Teamwork in Technological Innovation

When I am contacted by meeting planners, corporations, and members of Associations about speaking at their events I am most often asked if I can speak about teamwork and team building. As a keynote speaker I can tell you that this is indeed a subject which seems to be on the minds of company executives, workers, and to some degree most of us. We all seem to value highly the idea of working together. During companywide and executive retreats often times there will be some sort of “team building exercise.” Management constantly talks to staff about “the Team.” Many books have been written on the subject.

Paraphrasing Patrick Lencioni’s observation from his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, if teamwork is so important and we all value it so much why is it so hard to achieve? Good question! We work together, oftentimes more than we realize, but we seem to not be able to work together. We rely on each other in so many ways throughout the day, but we seem not to recognize this fact. For example, our automobiles are built by teams.

When Henry Ford developed our modern conception of the assembly line his efforts typified TEAMWORK in action. Unfortunately, many company executives feel they do not have great team relationships or, at least, they feel many of their employees do not have the “right team spirit.” The term has become almost trivialized and cliché. Most of us have lost sight of the value and strength of the human team. We have forgotten how to make and keep great teams going.

It is not surprising that people ask me to speak about teamwork since teamwork means something very personal and extraordinary to me. I have understood the importance and value of teamwork from the time I received my first guide dog, Squire, when I was 14 years old. But life’s school taught me a dramatic lesson about teamwork, when successful teamwork essentially saved my life in 2001 when my fifth guide dog, Roselle, and I worked together to escape the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, leading others to safety moments before the tower collapsed.

Teams must be grown and nurtured. Although one individual usually is the team leader all team members must do their part. For me, the team worked dramatically well on 9-11. That story will always be a part of my life and I enjoy sharing it.

I have another amazing story of teamwork I would like to share with you. It is one most people don’t know about, but it is one that has changed the lives of millions of people around the world. It is a story that has been 35 years in the making and will continue to unfold, creating a lasting impact for years to come. It is the story of how Teamwork can be an essential ingredient for technological innovation

In 1974 a young inventor named Dr. Raymond Kurzweil developed a process which would allow a special camera to take a picture of a printed page and convert the information that it saw into either voice or recognizable text which could be displayed on a computer screen or stored in a computer file. What made Ray Kurzweil’s invention so unique and exciting was that his device successfully employed for the first time optical character recognition techniques to scan printed or proportionally spaced material such as that which is found in magazines and books.

Ray had an interest in helping blind people read printed information. With this in mind he contacted the National Federation of the Blind with his first idea for an application of his device to see if there might be an interest in helping him take his “reading machine” from a prototype concept to a real production model reading device for the blind. As it was described to me, Ray Kurzweil told leaders of the NFB when he first spoke with them that he had a machine that really would read books and magazines out loud to blind people.

Many would-be inventors have approached the NFB with claims that they had invented devices which could do everything from help blind people see again to help them “read” books without the so-called need for Braille. Ray’s claim was met with a fair degree of skepticism. Even so, there was something different about him. As a result, some leaders of the Federation traveled to the Kurzweil laboratories in Massachusetts to see this incredible sounding machine for themselves.

It is hard to imagine the surprise and thrill that these blind leaders felt when they arrived at Ray Kurzweil’s facility and placed magazines and books which they brought with them on the reading machine and actually heard the system read their own pages aloud to them. Never before had blind people been able to independently read printed information at normal reading speeds.

Almost immediately Dr. Kurzweil and his team, and Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, then president of the National Federation of the Blind, and a team of Federationists began to develop a plan to fund the Kurzweil Reading Machine project. By 1975 it had been decided that the NFB would purchase five prototype machines at a cost of $50,000 per machine and place these machines around the country in order to test them and to provide feedback to Ray Kurzweil about what features needed to be in a real first model of the Kurzweil Reading Machine.

I officially joined the project in 1976; working under James Gashel, the NFB’s Director of Governmental Affairs, I was hired to coordinate the day-to-day activities and efforts of the NFB-side of the project. My job was to take the five machines purchased by the Federation and place them around the country in locations where blind people would have access to them. I had to train users in each location, ensure that the machines operated correctly, collect user data, and feed that data back to Ray Kurzweil and the leadership of the NFB. For 18 months I traveled around the country living mostly in hotels and visiting the various sites where machines had been placed. At that time the Kurzweil Reading Machine weighed several hundred pounds and consisted of a very heavy scanner and an even heavier computer processor, each housed in their own cabinets. To provide some sort of portability the machines were each placed on a heavy-duty rolling cart.

A lot of teamwork was required all around to make the project a success. It is not often that an inventor allows prototype models to leave the laboratory much less be taken completely out of their control. Never-the-less, that is exactly what happened in the case of the Reading Machine. A team of blind people ran the NFB project, maintained the machines, wrote training curricula, trained other blind people how to use the machines, and scientifically collected data which, in early 1979 led to the first production model of the Kurzweil Reading Machine becoming available on the open market.

Over the years Dr. Ray Kurzweil has often praised the team effort created when he joined forces with the organized blind to make his invention a reality. As far as blind people were concerned, the early machines were problematic since they did not read as well as blind people would have really liked them to. Some of us understood that this technology would go through many stages of evolution before a high degree of reading accuracy was achieved. Never-the-less, even the early machines allowed many of us to read books that were previously unavailable to us. We could also read magazines, papers, and other printed material which allowed us to remain current with our times. A whole new world had opened for blind people.

The success of that early team was due to the commitment of all parties to work together even though the various members were scattered throughout the United States. Solid leadership and good motivation from the tem leaders helped keep us all on track.

Fast forward in time to the year 2001. One of Ray Kurzweil’s dreams has always been to make his machine a truly portable device. Ray often talked to me and others about his goal to create a truly portable pocket-sized reading machine which any blind person could use anywhere. In the years between 1979 and 2001, the Kurzweil Reading Machine indeed went through several evolutionary changes. It became smaller and less expensive. In the mid-1990s the software driving the machine was ported over to the Windows operating system so that it could be run on any PC. In addition, scanner drivers were developed so that many of the emerging, less expensive scanners could drive the optical character recognition software. By 2001 the software costs $995 and the rest of the machine consisted of a typical PC or laptop computer with sound card and a scanner which cost from $150-$300. These newer systems costs much less, but they were not really portable.

Throughout the life of this project, Ray Kurzweil kept an ongoing dialogue and relationship with the National Federation of the Blind. In 2001 he approached the Federation with the idea of making a portable reading machine system. By 2001, Ray was acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost futurist, inventors, and forward-looking thinkers. Part of his methodology was to study technology and essentially predict where it would be in five, 10, 20, or even 50 years. In talking with Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind in 2001, Ray proposed undertaking the development and production of a portable reading machine by 2006. Ray believed it would take that long for the technology of handheld computers to progress to the point where it could support the processing requirements and speed of optical character recognition and speech production.

In 2005, prototypes of what would be called the new “KNFB Reader” were put in the hands of blind people for testing. 100 machines were provided for testing and evaluation to create the feature set that would go into the production model.

In July of 2006, the KNFB Reader was officially introduced for sales to the blind of the world at the national convention of the National Federation of the Blind. Again, as Ray Kurzweil attested, it was the success of the entire team of his developers and blind people throughout the United States which made the portable reading machine a reality.

The machine consisted of a small, high-end digital camera attached to a high-end personal data assistant or PDA. The system sold for $3,295. Although the system wasn’t really pocket-sized, it was truly portable. I recall traveling to Japan and around the United States reading material I had never read before including such mundane things as literature in hotel rooms and restaurant menus. The machine fit into my laptop computer case along with my computer, Braille note taking device called a BrailleNote, and other items I routinely carried with me on my travels. Reading truly became an adventure and it was available wherever I went.

Ray and the team weren’t finished yet. By the beginning of 2008, a new company called KNFB Reading Technologies, a joint venture between the National Federation of the Blind and Korowai Technologies, Inc., had been formed. Its first task was to develop a second generation of the KNFB Reader called the KNFB Reader Mobile. This time, the hardware platform was a high-end cell phone, making the reader a truly portable, pocket-sized device.

As usual, a well-rounded team of beta testers was recruited to take prototypes out into the world and to test them everywhere they could. Later in 2008, the new KNFB Reader Mobile went on sale for $2,195. By the end of 2008, due to cell phone cost reductions and encouraging initial sales, the price of the reader dropped to $1,640. Now, for the first time in history, many blind people could afford the technology that would allow them to read most printed material in a truly independent manner.

Ray Kurzweil has a future vision for his “reading machine” to do even more than just read print. There is no doubt a great future for this device as it evolves, but we will have to wait for the technology to catch up to Ray’s ideas.

The dream and the idea began with Ray Kurzweil, a rare individual who possessed the technical expertise to create the machine itself which allows blind people to read printed material. There is not doubt, however, that the technology would not be where it is today if not for the teamwork created between the inventor and the thousands of blind people who have partnered with him to make the machine a reality. This teamwork, evidenced by the development, production and evolution of the Kurzweil reading machine technologies, is a true demonstration of how many people can work together for a common goal, transcending diverse backgrounds, diverse experiences and expectations to achieve a transformational result.

Companies desiring to increase the effective outcomes of teamwork in their own organizations could take lessons from the Kurzweil project. It took the leadership of only two people, Ray Kurzweil and Kenneth Jernigan, to get this incredible project off the ground, with the added leadership of Marc Maurer to keep the successful momentum going – OVER 34 YEARS! Every step of the way, team members across the country, both inside and outside of Ray’s company, remained focused on collaboration to achieve the ultimate unifying goal and end result. And the collaboration, passion and vision continue.

As I said in the title of this article this team is as good as it gets. The accomplishments have been and continue to be tremendous. Those of us privileged to be involved with this project, in my own case from its very earliest phase, hope to share this model of success, innovation and inspiration to help other teams striving to make the lives of others more rewarding and enriching. Where successful teams thrive, the future is a bright and hopeful place.

For more information about the new KNFB Reader, please visit:

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  • David Holroyd

    I am a Guide Dogs For The Blind puppy walker in England and am giving a talk on Guide Dogs to retired businessmen next Monday morning.
    Are you able to e/mail me a photo of Michael and Roselle so I can show it during my talk, please?

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