Virtual Braille opens employment doors for visually impaired

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Over the last decade the array of assistive devices that help the visually impaired use computers has grown.

However, the prohibitive cost of these products prevents their widespread deployment.

Work being done by a group of researchers from McGill University in Montreal may soon change that.

The researchers are working on a Virtual Braille or – an appliance that is likely to be a lower-priced alternative to conventional Braille readers.

What’s more, virtual Braille (VB) technology is expected to open up greater employment opportunities for the blind.

The current model the team is working on is called Stimulator of Tactile Receptors by Skin Stretch squared (STReSS2).

“By developing a smaller and simpler device with fewer moving parts, we hope to create a far cheaper Braille reader than the ones in the market today,” said Vincent Hayward, director, Centre for Intelligent Machines (CIM), McGill University.

The prototype is among the research projects exhibited this week by CIM, as part of an event sponsored by Precarn Inc., an Ottawa-based non-profit consortium of corporations and research institutes that support the development of intelligent information and communication technologies.

McGill University student Vincent Levesque, who is actively involved in the project, describes how the VB display works.

“You simply plug it onto the back of a computer, as you would a mouse,” said Levesque, who is pursuing a doctorate in haptics, the study of how humans communicate with each other through touch.

The prototype is a pad containing an array of 64 miniature ceramic slabs called “benders” that move laterally as the device senses text appearing on a computer screen.

The device reads screen text and its array of “benders” proceeds to translate that text into Braille, a code devised by a Frenchman nearly 200 years ago.

The Braille system – created in 1821 by Louis Braille – is still widely used by the visually impaired to read and write. The system uses a series of raised dots with varying arrangements to represent characters of a writing system. Blind persons moving their fingers across a page written to Braille can read the contents by feeling the words represented by the dots.

The team, composed of Hayward, Levesque, Qi Wong and Jerome Pasquero, call their prototype devices laterotactile displays because the benders create temporary “lateral skin deformations” as they make contact with a user’s fingers.

With other computer Braille readers, users move their fingers across a flexible pad to feel for the dots. When the user finishes reading one line, the pad is “refreshed” and produces another line of text.

The VB user keeps his finger tip planted on the small pad but moves the pad across a surface as he would a mouse.

Levesque said the team is exploring the possibility of incorporating the device on a mouse. This would enable users to scan the contents of a computer screen at will, rather than being restricted to reading line-by-line.

“We still have to work out how this could be accomplished without the user losing track of what’s being read or getting lost on the page so to speak.”

Most devices on the market today only allow users to read up to a line of 18 characters, according to Debbie Gillespie, manager, Braille publishing at the Canadian National Institute of the Blind (CNIB) Library in Toronto. By contrast, she said, a VB device on a mouse would serve to “represent the entire screen at once.”

Gillespie says if the concept works it would enable the visually impaired to “see” the screen lay-out as a sighted user would. “You could have an entire screen of information literally at your fingertips.”

She said the system would produce crucial time savings and be particularly beneficial to visually impaired software developers.

An array of Braille readers that provide users a tactile translation of what is on their computer screens and voice synthesizers that read out text messages have been available for years.

But despite advances in computing, these devices remain expensive with prices starting at $5,000 and going beyond $10,000, according to Jeff Fitzgibbon, national director, consumer goods and assistive technologies, CNIB.

The McGill researchers hope to develop a device that would cost much less.

The price of Braille readers is often a deterrent for employers, who might otherwise hire people with visual disabilities, as well as for visually challenged individuals with limited incomes.

“Anything that can be done to make information more readily available will have a definite positive effect on the society, labour and the economy,” said Fitzgibbon.

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