Kyle Schurman
Oct 24, 2011

Braille tablet: A smooth surface never felt so good

If tablets, like the iPad, truly are the wave of the future in computing, creating a way for the blind to use Braille-like interactions with tablets should be close behind.


A New Mexico State University student and two researchers at Stanford University this summer did exactly that, creating a tablet that allows for writing Braille. Adam Duran, the senior at NMSU, worked with Adrian Lew and Sohan Dharmaraja on the technology at the Army High-Performance Computing Research Center (AHPCRC) at Stanford.


For those who need some background, Braille is a long-used alphabet for the blind. It uses a series of raised dots on a sheet of paper to represent letters, and a blind person runs his or her finger over the paper, translating the feel of the dots into characters and words. You’ve probably seen or felt these dots in places like elevators, where the buttons usually have a printed visual number and a Braille label.


When wanting to write in Braille, a visually impaired person normally would make use of a machine that looks and works a little like a typewriter and creates the raised dots on paper. The Braille machine consists of eight keys. Six of the keys create the dots for the characters, while the other two are a delete key and an “enter” key.


As the researchers began the project, they knew tablet computers could help a visually impaired person “read” by using audio signals and verbal commands. However, helping the blind person “write” was a bigger challenge. After all, the glass of the screens cannot undergo phase change on the fly, creating raised dots.


“Imagine being blind in the classroom, how would you take notes?” Lew said in an interview with the Stanford Report. “What if you were on the street and needed to copy down a phone number?”


So the researchers changed their way of thinking. The researchers did not figure out a way to make a touch screen suddenly change its composition and create the raised dots that represent Braille. They did, however, figure out how to use software to make the touch screen change its orientation to allow the blind to communicate with the tablet computer more easily.


As this YouTube demonstration video shows, the researchers made the touch screen “smart.”


By making use of intuitive software and features already built into a touch screen tablet, the app can sense the location of the user’s fingers on the screen. The tablet then adjusts the position of the “keyboard,” calibrating it to match the location of the person’s fingers. After using it a few times, the keyboard even can adjust the size of the keys to match the size of the user’s fingers. The on-screen keyboard would resemble a Braille writing keyboard, so those who already know Braille could quickly transition to the on-screen keyboard.


Visually impaired people could just place their fingers anywhere on the screen, and the app adjusts its Braille keyboard to match that positioning.


This type of tablet app could replace previously created Braille mobile devices, such as one that makes use of vibrations as the user touches the screen of the tablet. The varying intensity of the vibrations signal different Braille characters. However, this is method is a slow process for allowing visually impaired people to write using a touch screen tablet. Microsoft has applied for a patent for another type of tablet that would make use of a flexible polymer to create raised dots on the touch screen.


Beyond the complexity of such specialized devices, they probably will cost at least a few thousand dollars. By working with off-the-shelf tablets, the Braille app would be much less expensive. It could completely change the way blind people interact with computers, and its relatively low cost would give many more people access to such devices.


Those who developed the Braille app are continuing to work with the technology, such as incorporating audio clues as keys are pressed, and they have not filed for any patents. Being a touch screen app, it might not require a patent, like the Microsoft device does. Some legal aspects of the device are still being worked out by the researchers.


However, there’s little doubt about the excitement this app is creating in the world of high-tech. To have something so simple in design carry so much potential is exciting.


And, for visually impaired people, the idea is exciting, too. Never before has a smooth surface carried so much information for someone using Braille.