October 31, 2007 A recently completed licensing agreement for two new technologies may help bring affordable graphic reading systems for the blind and visually impaired to market. The two systems bring electronic images to life in the same way that Braille makes words readable.

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

The two new systems, a tactile graphic display device and fingertip graphic reader, were developed by researchers at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) in the US. 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 further 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 The actuator points then can be withdrawn and reset in a new pattern, allowing the tactile reading to continue through a variety of images.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 you think the devices look familiar it’s because inspiration came from a “bed of nails” toy found in a novelty store. The toy allows the user to press their hand or face or an object onto the back of the nails and they raise up to create a picture 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.