Engineer reworks the Kindle for his disabled sister

January 17, 2012 8:24:44 PM PST
Most people choose a tablet computer based on what it can do, but the man you're about to meet is not most people. He decided it was more important to make the device he chose work the way he wanted it to.

If Glenn Johnson's bedroom in Santa Cruz looks more like a miniature radio shack, there's a good reason. He's spent hundreds of hours there building a surprise gift for his sister Amberly who suffers from cerebral palsy.

"She loves to read, so just holding a book on her wheel chair turning pages is difficult," he said.

He wanted to give Amberly the gift of reading back by using the popular Kindle reader, but since the disease had devastated the motor control in her hands, even a tablet was difficult to use.

"Device like the kindle is great for reading, but requires a certain amount of dexterity to use," he said.

So Johnson set out to build an oversized control panel, with large buttons that Amberly could navigate. That turned out to be the easy part. Marrying it to the Kindle's miniaturized circuitry to months more work for the electrical engineering graduate.

"So I circumvented it, and through lengthy trial and error process, figured out how their keyboard works and mimicked it," he explained.

He says the final step involved cracking the Kindle's software and adding extra code to make the controller work. But six months after he started, Johnson was finally able to bring the device he calls the "Franken-Kindle" to his sister. It was a moment he captured on home video. After a few minutes of trial and error, Amberly was turning the pages of a virtual book.

Using his sister's feedback, Johnson is now working on streamlining the design. He says his ultimate goal is a device that could help not only Amberly, but other disabled readers as well.

Johnson says the initial project cost him about $300 in parts, but he believes a commercial version could be made quite inexpensively.