New technologies that enable cell phones to translate speech on the fly and read documents for the visually impaired could have important implications for both educators and students.

Late last year, NEC Corp. announced the development of an automatic Japanese-to-English speech translation tool for mobile phones sold in Japan. The software is aimed at Japanese travelers abroad, but versions for other languages could one day prove useful for educators and administrators in schools with large populations of English-language learners.

And this month, software developer Ray Kurzweil and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) will begin selling what they say is the first cell phone to incorporate text-to-speech capability.

These developments reveal how quickly text-to-speech and speech translation software is evolving, and they point to a day in the not-so-distant future when students with reading disabilities or language barriers could hold a highly portable solution to these challenges in the palm of their hand.

NFB spokesman Chris Danielsen recently demonstrated the next generation of computerized aids for the visually impaired to reporters.

He fidgeted with his cell phone, holding it over a $20 bill. “Detecting orientation, processing U.S. currency image,” the phone said in a flat monotone before Danielsen snapped a photo. A few seconds later, the phone said, “Twenty dollars.”

The Nokia cell phone is loaded with software that turns text on photographed documents into speech. Besides telling whether a bill is worth $1, $5, $10, or $20, it also allows users to read anything that is photographed, whether it’s a restaurant menu, a phone book, or a textbook.

“We’ve had reading devices before,” Danielsen said, noting similar software is already available in a larger handheld reader housed in a personal digital assistant. Companies such as Code Factory SL, Dolphin Computer Access Ltd., and Nuance Communications Inc. also provide software that allows the blind to use cell phones and PDAs.

Inexpensive hand-held scanners, such as WizCom Technologies Ltd.’s SuperPen, can scan limited amounts of text, read it aloud, and even translate from other languages.