Speech Luminaries: Answering the Call

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Until his death on April 14 at age 47, Torsten Brand was a man on a mission: to make cell phones accessible to everyone, especially the visually impaired. He was part of the duo behind the creation of ProTalk and ProTalk 32, which were among the first screen readers for Windows 3.11 and Windows NT.

In 2002 he founded Brand and Groeber Communications, a firm credited with the creation of the world’s first stable, functional mobile screen reader for select Nokia devices. It also developed TALKS screen-reading technology to enable text-to-speech on Nokia Series 60 devices. 

TALKS was an immediate success, and in 2004 Brand’s company was acquired by ScanSoft, which merged with Nuance Communications a year later. Brand remained at Nuance as the lead product manager for mobile applications, and was responsible for the fifth version of the TALKS screen reader supporting fifth-edition Symbian-based mobile phones and designed specifically for today’s preferred touchscreen devices. 

TALKS 5.0, released in March, converts displayed text on the handset into highly intelligible speech for the blind and visually impaired. New in this latest version of the product is an exploration mode that allows users to slide their fingers across the screens to hear menus, applications, widgets, text, and more via Nuance’s text-to-speech capabilities. The software also allows for use of a virtual keypad and lets users navigate menu and application options by hand using the volume keys located on the sides of their devices.

Brand’s brainchild lets the blind take full advantage of the many features, including contact lists, caller ID, text messaging, and the Web, on the popular Series 60 smartphones. “Through his efforts, Torsten improved the lives of tens of thousands of blind people throughout the world,” says colleague Rachael Lyon. “Blind since birth, Torsten dedicated his life to innovating technologies for the visually impaired.”

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