A US inventor claims to have developed a handheld device for the blind that can read almost any printed material.

Developed by Ray Kurzweil, a US Patent Office National Inventors Hall of Famer, The Blind Reader allows the visually impaired to photograph a printed page and hear the text read back by a synthetic voice.

Kurzweil did develop such a reading machine way back in 1981, but it was the size of a washing machine and cost about 50,000 dollars.

"The thing that is really different about this one is that it is portable," said John ParA, public relations director for the National Federation of the Blind, which helped fund the reader and sought feedback from users about its design.

Kurzweil said that new handheld device is just like a personal data assistant and has a digital camera and character-recognition software capable of text-to-speech conversion.

James Gashel, executive director for strategic initiatives at the National Federation of the Blind, said that at a mere 3,495 dollars, the Blind Reader is pretty cheap compared to other technologies available to the blind.

"Braille displays that make it possible for blind people to look at text out of computers are usually priced at 10,000 to 15,000," Discovery News quoted him as saying.

Gashel, who is himself blind, uses a Blackberry-like personal digital assistant specially designed for the visually impaired, which costs him around 6,000 dollars.

Kurzweil said that to use the Blind Reader, a visually impaired person has to hold the device about 18 inches over the printed material and push the start button. After taking the picture, the device starts processing the information, and in about 30 to 40 seconds, reads the page.

The user can listen to the words through a set of earbuds, a Bluetooth headset, or a set of speakers.

The portable has 64 megabytes of internal memory and can store thousands of printed pages on a provided compact flash card, or users can transfer the files to their computers or to Braille devices.