Student-made tablet app may make dedicated Braille writers obsolete
By Jan Belezina
October 11, 2011
Undergraduate student, Adam Duran, made excellent use of his time at Stanford University, where he attended a two-month summer course organized by the Army High-Performance Computing Research Center (AHPCRC). Together with his mentors, Adrian Lew and Sohan Dharmaraja, he created a potentially game changing application that should make the lives of visually impaired people both easier and less expensive. The application turns a tablet into a Braille writer and thus saves the blind from having to purchase a device that may cost up to ten times more than a tablet.
Some Braille notetakers are essentially specialized laptops with limited functionality that tend to come with a steep price tag, with some costing up to US$6,000. Although some attempts at writing a tablet application that would make dedicated devices obsolete had been made before, none produced a result that would match the user experience. Simply using the standard eight-key Braille keyboard layout doesn't do the trick. The biggest challenge is allowing a blind person to correctly position his or her fingers over the virtual keys on a completely smooth glass panel.
This problem could be easily overcome by an appropriate tactile feedback technology, or at least that is what Microsoft engineers seem to think. The Redmond based company has already filed an appropriate patent application for their still-to-be-developed tactile feedback technology that uses plastic cells sprayed with a flexible polymer. If Microsoft is to be believed, those pixel sized bits of plastic would be manipulated with UV light and would be used to convey a whole array of textures.
It all sounds great, but it's a bit to early to celebrate. Even if we live to see Microsoft bring this technology to fruition, it's difficult to say whether it is ever going to make its way into a portable tablet. The patent application clearly states that the technology is being developed for use in Microsoft Surface - a table-sized behemoth tablet used in corporate environments and public spaces.
Apps4Android Inc has a different, considerably less high-tech take on finger orientation on a flat touch screen. The company's Braille Keyboard "Screen Protector" is basically a transparent plastic stencil with a finger positioning design cut from it. This simple yet effective solution gets the job done in that it allows a blind person to use a tablet as a Braille notetaker. However, it is still far from perfect. First, the user has to buy an additional piece of hardware (the stencil) and deal with the hassle of applying it, adjusting it, washing it etc. (let's remember we are talking about an accessibility accessory for the visually impaired). Second, It has the disadvantage of constraining the user to pre-defined finger spaces, disregarding the users' typing preferences and habits.
Both these grievances are neatly addressed by Duran's ingenious app. Instead of asking the person to conform to the keyboard layout, the Stanford summer course team made a keyboard layout that conforms to the person. All the user has to do is touch eight fingertips to the screen, and the appropriate keys are automatically assigned. This means that the application is fully customizable and it accommodates varying finger shapes and sizes. The app menu can be accessed by shaking the device and navigated by dragging a finger across the screen.
Here's some video of Duran demonstrating the application.