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Friday, October 21, 2011

Writing Braille on an ordinary tablet

Wouldn’t it be great if blind people could jot down notes on their tablet computers without needing elaborate and expensive Braille writing devices?  Thanks to the innovations of a team composed of undergraduate Adam Duran and his mentors Adrian Lew and Sohan Dharmaraja, that may soon be possible.  The team participated in the Army High-Performance Computing Research Center’s summer challenge at Stanford University. 

The original challenge was to use the camera on mobile devices to create Braille readers, but Duran and his mentors decided to make a Braille writer instead. Braille consists of arrangements of raised dots corresponding to letters, numbers, punctuation, and even chemical and mathematical symbols.  Currently, people who wish to write in Braille can modify their laptops with writers that can cost up to $6000.  They can also use dedicated Braille writers (also costing thousands of dollars) that resemble typewriters except for having only eight keys:  six for placing dots and two for carriage return and delete.  Duran’s team set out to replicate the eight-character Braille writer on an ordinary tablet.

Left:  Braille writer attached to laptop.  Photo by Podzemnik, 2/9/2011.

Right:  Stand alone Braille writer. Photo by Matthieu Faure, 10/15/2008.

The obvious challenge was to figure out how a blind person could know where to place his fingers on the smooth panel of a tablet in order to hit the right keys.  That turned out to be no problem at all, thanks to some ingenious software.  The user simply places his eight fingertips on the panel, and the keys automatically orient themselves to those points.  You can see a demonstration below.

Needless to say, this device would be immensely useful.  Blind people could not only take notes during classes or meetings, but by wearing the tablet around their necks, they could also jot down information such as names and phone numbers as they walk along.  The system isn’t yet available for public consumption, but hopefully will be soon.

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