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Researchers team up to "search for the Holy Braille"

Feb 18, 2016

The Next Idea

In a past life, Sile O'Modhrain edited audio for BBC radio.

"At the time I was working," she says, "I could edit using a razor blade and tape" to physically piece different sections of a recording together. But when audio editing processes switched from tactile to digital, she found herself out of a job.

O’Modhrain, now a Professor of  Performing Arts Technology at the school of Music, Theatre and Dance at the University of Michigan, is blind. Although screen-reader technology allows her to listen to blog posts or online news, she can't access digital images of sound waves, or math equations, or infographics.

This is because the current technologies that can translate computer data into Braille can only process one line at a time. Anything that has alternative characters or relies on spatial relationships -- like musical notes arranged on different parts of a staff -- just doesn't translate.

So now O'Modhrain has a new job: teaming up with a team of engineers at the University of Michigan to create fully-functional Braille tablets. 

Professor Sile O'Modhrain (center) experiments with a Braille computing prototype at the University of Michigan while PhD candidate Alex Russomano (right) looks on.
Credit Joseph Xu, University of Michigan Office of Communications and Marketing

Alex Russomano, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan, is on that team. He works on "tactile graphics," which are "graphics that you can feel, touch, and interact with."

Russomano's goal is to program a computer to fill or deflate tiny air bubbles that will pop up on the surface of a tablet computer screen. These bubbles could form Braille letters, produce 3-D versions of graphs or charts, or represent musical notes on a line.

The challenge, according to Russomano, is to power enough bubbles to produce a full-page of Braille, but not make the tablet itself too heavy or too expensive. Even though the component parts are tiny, they have to be tightly packed into the space of a standard-size computer screen. Plus, if the technology is too expensive, it will be out of reach for the vast majority of people who need to use it: visually-impaired people themselves.

Nonetheless, Russomano and O'Modhrain are optimistic. They are in the process of looking for a manufacturer now and hope that a Braille-equipped tablet computer will be available commercially within the next 5-10 years. 

O'Modhrain says this new product could have a profound impact on the daily lives of visually-impaired people. She hopes that it can expand educational opportunities into technical fields, as well as allow for the kind of slower, thoughtful reading experiences that sighted people can have with printed material. "Having something read to you," she says, "is not nearly as effective as reading it yourself, and there's no reason to suspect that wouldn't be the same for blind people." 

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