Using a keyboard on a touchscreen — as one might find on a tablet like the iPad or a mobile phone — can take a little getting used to even for people with the sense of sight intact. Engineers at Stanford University have taken a step toward something that might, at first thought, seem even more improbable: using a touchscreen interface to help the blind access everything that a tablet computer or mobile phone has to offer.
While there are currently note taking machines that can be used by the blind to write Braille, they can cost upwards of $6,000. A tablet computer, on the other hand, is much cheaper and more versatile in its capabilities. The engineers expanded on an idea that began as an effort to use a tablet computer as a Braille reader, but wound up with something quite a bit more unique.
Says team member Adam Duran: “Originally, our assignment was to create a character-recognition application that would use the camera on a mobile device — a phone or tablet — to transform pages of Braille into readable text. It was a cool challenge, but not exactly where we ended up.”
It may seem odd that a user interface devoid of tactile feedback would (or even could) be used to work with Braille — an alphabet that is based on bumps that are interpreted by the touch of its reader’s fingertips. The engineers worked out a way that virtual keys on the touchscreen’s flat surface wouldn’t have to be found by fingertips; instead, the keys would find the fingertips. As eight fingertips are places on the touchscreen, the keys orient themselves accordingly. If the keys need to be reset for any reason, lifting all eight fingers from the surface does the trick easily and painlessly.
Such a design has another benefit that should help in its adoption once the technology becomes ready for prime time.
“They’re customizable,” says team member Sohan Dharmaraja. “They can accommodate users whose fingers are small or large, those who type with fingers close together or far apart, even to allow a user to type on a tablet hanging around the neck with hands opposed as if playing a clarinet.”
Professor Charbel Farhat states it plainly: “No standard Braille writer can do this. This is a real step forward for the blind.”