Introduction: Reading Aid for the Partially Sighted

My dear mother (in her 80s) was diagnosed a few years ago with Macular Degeneration which, in short, causes "loss of central vision (which) can make it hard to recognize faces, drive, read, or perform other activities of daily life".

As she was getting bored listening to the radio all day and not being able to read practically anything herself unless it was written in large (1"/2.5cm) letters, I had the idea of making her a "reading aid" with the use of a USB "Borehole Camera" I had found on eBay and my Acer Netbook which is practically unused for anything these days..

Some of you will be able to see from the photos how it's made and won't need any more description but just to make this a complete 'able, I'll add some details and some notes about the dimensions.

Please let me have your comments, questions and suggestions about how it could be improved. Also suggestions for alternative uses, such as "filming maggots crawling around a petri dish" are welcome!

Thank you for reading!

Step 1: You Will Need:

The materials for this aren't really critical, I made it from stuff in the junk box. Anything will do but the camera arm is best made from plywood as it has to be split down the middle to hold the camera.

Also the size of the base board has been "calculated" to accommodate a full A4 sheet of paper and still be able to read right to the bottom of the page (I say "calculated" because the board I used was exactly the right size!).

Baseboard: 40cm square MDF (my scrap material was 39cm square!).

Top platform: 20 x 40cm MDF (to suit the size of the laptop/monitor you will be using).

Camera support: 9 x 35cm 7-ply plywood.

Back supports: 2 pieces 9 x 10cm 7-ply plywood.

Nut & bolt to tighten the camera clamp (preferably a wing-nut to make hand tightening easier). M4 or M5 would be suitable; length to suit the thickness of the camera support.

General woodworking tools: Jigsaw, tenon saw, drill and countersink bit to suit screws used.

Wood glue or "no more nails" adhesive.

Sandpaper to smooth off the rough edges (I used 60 grit).

Screws to suit - I used 50mm x 4mm wood screws to fix the main parts together and shorter ones for the cable clamp.

Camera: Mini USB Borescope Camera from eBay

Step 2: ​First Let's Explain the Critical Dimensions:

A sheet of A4 paper is 210 x 297mm; that's roughly 21 x 30cm. If you don't need to accommodate anything that big, change the dimensions to suit.

I have placed the camera so that it can see the bottom edge of the sheet; that meant mounting it 3cm in from the end of the arm which was 30cm long (excluding the screwed support which was 5cm). The plywood in my scrap box was 9cm wide so that seemed ideal, BUT, as the camera's focus distance is around 5cm, this means that anything thicker than a few sheets of paper is out of focus. Putting a thick book under the camera means that the camera has to be moved up and my version doesn't have enough adjustment to get the focus right.

For this reason, I suggest making the camera support from wider material, maybe 12cm, and if necessary putting a scrap of wood under the paper if it it out of focus. I'm sure you get the point...

The top platform was dimensioned to suit my Netbook. There are many alternatives for displaying the camera output. You could use a larger monitor and connect it directly to the camera if you buy a camera with video output. You could use a full-size laptop in which case it would be a good idea to make the platform overhang the back of the base so that the laptop doesn't obscure the "reading area". If you are thinking to do this, be careful about the weight of the laptop causing the whole thing to tip backwards!

Step 3: Marking and Cutting...

I marked the shape of the camera arm by drawing along the back of a handsaw which I found to have a nice angle for the arm! Of course you can mark it how you like but it's good engineering practice to have a gentle slope rather than a square corner.

The main arm was 35cm long, the two support pieces 10cm. Again this is not critical, as long as you leave enough space for the fixing screws!

I made all cuts with a jigsaw but it would be better to use a tenon saw for the straight cuts and the jigsaw for the curved arm. Smooth off rough edges with sandpaper after cutting.

Step 4: Assembly...

When marking out the base and top platform take some time and care to make sure the screws land in the middle of each piece of wood. Drill and countersink the holes to suit.

As you can see from the photos I've fixed the support pieces about 5cm in from the edge of the baseplate. This not only strengthens the whole thing but also allows the camera's cable to be stored out of the way at the back. It also makes the "back stop" to keep A4 paper straight when it's placed right at the back.

After drilling I placed the screws through the holes to mark the plywood and check that the holes are in the correct place. Before screwing it together I applied some "No More Nails" to the edge of each piece (wood glue would be better I think!).

After screwing the pieces together clean off the excess glue with a rag (or finger!).

Step 5: Finishing Touches...

The camera which I used had a 3m long cable which had to be "lost" somewhere. The best solution was to wind it up and "hide" it behind one of the supports.

Fix a scrap piece of plywood in the middle of one of the support pieces. A short length of wooden beading was fixed to this using a suitable screw. If you leave the screw loose (and cut the beading just shorter than the gap between the other boards!) it can be turned to get the cable out.

When using the reading aid, you can adjust the brightness of the camera LEDs bu turning the knob on the USB adaptor.

Step 6: Choice of Software...

I realised that I have forgotten to explain how to get the picture from the camera to the screen!

I am using a program called AMCAP, which came with the camera on a mini-CD (the About screen reveals it's a Microsoft program).

I tried a few different programs from the internet, but none of them had a true "full screen" mode which would maximise useable screen area. (If anyone has any suggestions, please leave a comment.)

Also it's sometimes difficult to get "3rd party" programs to recognise USB devices, so using the program which came with the camera is probably the easiest path to follow.

After installing the program (just copy it from the CD to somewhere suitable on the hard disk), run it and make the following settings:

Devices menu: "SMI"

Options menu: "Preview"

After it was working OK, I created a shortcut on the desktop by "copying" the file and right clicking on the desktop and selecting "create shortcut here". The original program icon was practically meaningless so I changed the icon by right clicking, selecting "change icon" and finding a suitable icon among Windows standard icons.

Step 7: Possible Refinements...

I'm sure many of you will have better ideas than these but here are a few suggestions for starters:

  1. If the reading device is to be used by an old person "on their own", it would be a good idea to fix the netbook to the top platform, as it almost had an accident one time!
  2. Connecting a USB extension cable between the USB port and the camera connector would enable mounting the connector so that the brightness control is more easily accessible - i.e. on the side of or underneath the platform.
  3. Instead of using a "borescope" camera, you could mount an "old" mobile phone with its camera looking down and connect it via Bluetooth or cable to the computer - would it work? try and see!
  4. Using a Raspberry Pi or Arduino and an LCD monitor would be feasible but I'm not experienced with either of them to give any further guidance.
  5. Remote support could be offered by installing Team Viewer on the netbook and logginf from afar - this means you could also keep an eye on what granny was reading at the time!.

Please share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section.

Thank you for reading!