When most of us are surfing the Web we generally do it in much the same way we read a newspaper. We scan the entire page looking for information that interests us before focusing our attention on that area. But imagine if your computer display only allowed you to see one line at a time. Finding that relevant nugget of information suddenly changes from a simple exercise to a time consuming chore. That’s the problem facing blind computer users today who are forced to rely on expensive electronic Braille displays that only show one line of text at a time. Researchers have now developed a concept that could enable a full-page, refreshable Braille display that would allow the blind to take full advantage of the Web and other computer applications.
Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a concept called a “hydraulic and latching mechanism,” which would not only use a series of dots to represent letters and numbers, it would also translate images into tactile displays, effectively mapping pixels in an image and allowing the full-page Braille display to represent the images as raised dots.
The mechanism would be made of an electroactive polymer that is very resilient and inexpensive, when compared to current Braille display technologies that generally rely on a mechanism which raises the dots using the piezo effect of some crystals, where they expand when a voltage is applied to them. The crystal is connected to a lever, which in turn raises the dot. There has to be a crystal for each dot of the display, meaning eight per character.
With the new mechanism, once the dots are raised to the correct height, a latching mechanism would support the weight being applied by a person’s fingers as the dots are read. The material also responds quickly, allowing a reader to scroll through a document or Web site.
“The last 20 years of computer technology have been relatively inaccessible – and today’s common mobile computing devices, from smart-phones to digital navigators and iPads, have been completely nonexistent – to blind people, because the display technology for the blind has not kept pace,” says David Winick, a researcher at NC State and co-author of the paper. “We hope to enable the development of applications that will give the blind more complete access to the Internet and other computer resources, such as e-books.”
Earlier this month, the researchers presented their findings on the hydraulic component of the mechanism, showing that it is a viable technology. The next step is to demonstrate a proof-of-concept model of the latching mechanism.
“We hope to have a fully functioning prototype of the mechanism within a year, and that could serve as the functional building block of a full-screen refreshable display, “ said Dr. Neil Di Spigna, a research assistant professor at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the research.
The research, “The integration of novel EAP-based Braille cells for use in a refreshable tactile display,” was presented at the 12th International Conference on Electroactive Polymer Actuators And Devices in San Diego.