Those who know me know that I have a keen interest in assistive technologies for people with physical and cognitive disabilities. This interest came about as a child as my grandmother Madeline "Madge" Snyder brailled hundreds of books for the Library of Congress and started the now famous "Books On Tape" program for those with visual impairments.

My interest then grew significantly when I had the opportunity to produce the interactive and motion graphics components of the 2000 Paralympic Games is Sydney, Australia. braille.jpgSince then, I have tried to keep current with the latest advances in technologies for the disabled. To that end, I stumbled across an exciting licensing agreement for two new technologies that will help bring affordable graphic reading systems to the blind and visually impaired. The systems give physical dimension to electronic images in the same way that Braille makes words readable.

The Braille system, which incidentally, was based on a method of communication originally developed by Charles Barbier for Napoleon's soldiers, was devised by Frenchman Louis Braille in 1821. As we know, braille allows vision impaired people to read and write using characters made up of raised dots. Braille has been used the same way as a system for almost two centuries.  But, these new technologies could mark a significant change in the way the blind are able to “see” in that they incorporate images, rather than words and numbers.

One of the new systems, a tactile graphic display device and fingertip graphic reader, were developed by researchers at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). The tactile graphic display for localized sensory stimulation, was created using an array of about 100 small, very closely spaced (1/10 of a millimeter apart), actuator points set against a user’s fingertip. To “see” a computer graphic with this technology, a blind or visually impaired person moves the device-tipped finger across a surface like a computer mouse to scan an image in computer memory. The computer sends a signal to the display device and moves the actuators against the skin to “translate” the pattern, replicating the sensation of the finger moving over the pattern being displayed. With additional development, the technology could possibly be used to make fingertip tactile graphics practical for virtual reality systems or give a detailed sense of touch to robotic control (teleoperation), and space suit gloves.

The second technology, introduced as a prototype in 2002, conveys scanned illustrations, map outlines or other graphical images to the fingertips, and can translate images displayed on Internet Web pages or in electronic books. It uses refreshable tactile graphic display technology, allowing a person to feel a succession of images on a reusable surface. The machine uses about 3,600 small pins that can be raised in any pattern, and then locked into place to hold the pattern for reading. The actuator points then can be withdrawn and reset in a new pattern, allowing the tactile reading to continue through a variety of images.

If the devices look familiar to you, it’s because inspiration came from a “bed of nails” toy found in many novelty stores. If you haven't seen it, the toy allows you to press your hand or face or an object onto the back of the nails and they raise up to create an "image" of that object. Watching the pins in the toy depress under fingers and then return to their original state started the researchers thinking about how the principle could be applied to electronic signals. NIST recently signed a non-exclusive license for commercialization of its two tactile graphic display technologies with ELIA Life Technology which may soon see the two products become commercially available.