Need an Inexpensive Braille Writer? There’s an App for That

Posted October 28th, 2011 at 10:30 pm (UTC+0)
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Touchscreen Braille writer created by undergraduate student Adam Duran with his mentors Adrian Lew, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and doctoral candidate Sohan Dharmaraja from Stanford University. (Photo: Stanford School of Engineering)

Touchscreen Braille writer created by undergraduate student Adam Duran with his mentors Adrian Lew, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and doctoral candidate Sohan Dharmaraja from Stanford University. (Photo: Stanford School of Engineering)

A new Braille writer, created from a relatively inexpensive tablet computer,  won the top award at an annual competition  held every summer at Stanford University.

Adam Duran, an undergraduate student from New Mexico created the application with two mentors, Adrian Lew, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Sohan Dharmaraja, a Stanford doctoral candidate studying computational mathematics.

Duran took part in the summer course, at Stanford’s Army-High Performance Computer Research Center, during which promising undergrads compete to create innovative applications.

Now in his senior year at New Mexico State University, Duran originally planned to create a character-recognition application, or “app” for a mobile device, such as a Smartphone or tablet computer.  The app would make use of the tablet’s camera to take pages of Braille and convert it into readable text.

While the challenge of that project appealed to Duran and his mentors, they realized they could go even further in creating a unique device to help the visually impaired.

The groundwork for the device’s design and mission was laid even before Duran arrived at Stanford.  Lew and Dharmaraja met with representatives of  Stanford’s Office of Accessible Education, which helps blind and visually-impaired students make their way through the world of higher learning. Lew and Dharmaraja developed ideas from that meeting that they shared with Duran.

After sitting down and brainstorming, the three gentlemen realized that, instead of coming up with a reader, a writer would really be more useful.

A device which would help the blind with everyday writing challenges, such as sending an email or taking notes in class, was needed.

“These are real challenges the blind grapple with every day,” said Lew.

While there are devices on the market that help the blind write Braille, Duran and his mentors discovered the specialized laptops can cost more than $6,000 and tend to have limited functionality.

The three realized a regular tablet computer is a lot cheaper than the specialized devices, so they decided to develop a tablet Braille writer which comes with a touch screen for people who can’t see.

Duran and his mentors had to address a number of challenges to make such a device workable.  First off, they all needed to learn Braille before they could even proceed with their work.

Next, they faced a simple logistical concern;  how to replicate a typical Braille writer’s specialized keyboard – with all its unique physical characteristics – on the flat glass surface of a tablet computer. Their answer was to create a virtual keyboard on the tablet surface.

However, instead of designing one that the user’s fingertips must find, they made keys that find the fingertips. Once the user places eight typing fingertips on the tablet’s surface, the keys appear and orient themselves to the fingers. If the user pauses or becomes disoriented, the unit can be reset by taking all eight fingers off the tablet surface and then putting them back down again.

Here’s how it works; each time a user types a keystroke, the tablet vibrates and a computer voice vocalizes the letter or character that was entered. Besides typing, the tablet writer also offers access to a variety of menu options. The user drags a finger across the tablet surface for the menu items to be vocalized. Lifting the finger used to access the menu activates a menu item.

Along with being cost effective, the units are flexible and customizable. It doesn’t matter if the user’s fingers are huge or tiny, the unit  automatically accommodates all users.  And you can use the unit from any position; reclining, standing up or sitting. The user can even use the device while it’s hanging around the neck.

To demonstrate the device, Duran put on a blindfold, oriented his fingers with the tablet’s touch screen and typed out an email address and a simple subject line. As an encore, he typed out a well-known mathematical formula and chemical equation.

All three gentlemen are anxious to see the device refined and further developed, so it can be put into the hands of those who need it most.

Sohan Dharmaraja joins us this weekend on the radio edition of “Science World.” So if you’d like to hear more about the creation of this tablet computer Braille writer, either tune into the show (see right column for scheduled times) or check out the interview below.

>>>> Listen to the interview here

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Other stories we cover on the “Science World” radio program this week include:

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