A digital library system lets the visually impaired listen to books or read webpages at their leisure Hong Kong's blind citizens will soon be able to enjoy books and webpages being read to them over the telephone, thanks to a new system developed by software company KanHan Technologies and the Hong Kong Society for the Blind. The system, called the digital voice library system for visually impaired persons, allows for the reading of recorded material such as talking books, Braille books and internet webpages. Lawrence Mo, chief executive of KanHan, said his company had been working on the project for almost four years. 'We started in 2000 and it took about two years to create something useful. We managed to get the phone version running by the end of last year. We then started to talk to the Society for the Blind,' he said. 'They can now use the telephone to access any website. The system will convert the printed page to voice.' The system is capable of handling Cantonese, Putonghua and English. 'You can listen to a part of a book and go back and listen to the rest. Or you can leave a marker and come back at a later time,' Mr Mo said. KanHan has also worked with the Hong Kong Blind Union on online technologies for the blind. The firm's HanWeb server can translate Chinese webpages and PDF files to a Cantonese Braille version. Fred Leung, director of the rehabilitation division of the Hong Kong Society for the Blind, said the society had invested significant time in the library project. 'We started talking about the project in 2001. We applied for a business improvement grant from the Social Welfare Department and we got $1.38 million. This allowed us to get the project started,' Mr Leung said. The project combines the society's understanding of what the blind need with KanHan's experience with online translation. 'KanHan had the technology and we told them what we wanted. They were able to deliver it. We worked out the functionalities we wanted,' he said. Mr Leung said that the system was far more flexible than simply listening to a book being read over the phone. 'For example, when you listen to an article or book for leisure, you do not necessarily have to finish the whole thing, or even read every word. You may want to skip some bits. 'If you are listening on the telephone, how can this be achieved? What we did was to use the keypad so that you could press, say, the number six, and 'the reader' will jump ahead one paragraph. Pressing the number four will take you back a paragraph. 'Suppose we want to increase the speed. We have a key for that too. The point is to give the listener an experience that resembles a normal reading experience,' he said. Mr Mo said he thought it was the first system of its kind in the world. 'I believe this is the first system of its kind in the world that supports English, Cantonese and Putonghua,' he said. The technology works on a HanPhone Server developed by KanHan. It uses a number of technologies including a Microsoft Windows-based server as well as Java and a simple markup language called HanPhoneXML. Mr Leung said there were some questions concerning intellectual property that should be looked after. 'There are some copyright issues about putting some books on our system,' he said. 'I would urge the publishers of these books and writings not to worry about it too much. Our system is a controlled one, and only registered people have access to it. We believe making publications accessible to the visually impaired is a good thing,' he said. The company is also due to launch a football voice portal over the weekend, in partnership with Chinese football daily Goal Evening Post. 'We are launching a football portal that will provide time-critical information,' said Mr Leung. The portal will enable users to access reports over the telephone or by SMS. The site is aimed at the global Chinese speaking community, but particularly the legions of soccer fans in southern China. 'Football betting is a huge market in Hong Kong and southern China,' Mr Leung said.