One group of people has traditionally been left out of our modern tablet revolution: the visually impaired. Our slick, button-less touchscreens are essentially useless to those who rely on touch to navigate around a computer interface, unless voice-control features are built in to the device and its OS.
But a Stanford team of three has helped change that. Tasked to create a character-recognition program that would turn pages of Braille into readable text on an Android tablet, student Adam Duran, with the help of two mentor-professors, ended up creating something even more useful than his original assignment: a touchscreen-based Braille writer.
Duran was challenged to use the camera on a mobile device, to create an app that transforms physical pages of Braille text into readable text on the device. From the get-go, there were problems with this plan.
“How does a blind person orient a printed page so that the computer knows which side is up? How does a blind person ensure proper lighting of the paper?” Duran said in an interview with Stanford News. “Plus, the technology, while definitely helpful, would be limited in day-to-day application.”
So Duran and his mentors, Adrian Lew, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Sohan Dharmaraja, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate studying computational mathematics, decided to develop awriter app, instead of a reader. Currently, the visually impaired must use desktop-based screen-reading software or specially-designed laptops with Braille displays in order to type using a computer.
Because a blind person can’t locate the keys of a virtual keyboard on a flat, glossy touchscreen, the team decided to bring the keys themselves to the user’s fingertips. Specifically, when the user sets eight fingers on the device, virtual keys align underneath each of the user’s fingers. The team’s Braille keyboard is comprised of eight keys: six that are used to compose a Braille character, a carriage return, and a backspace key. If the user gets disoriented, he or she can re-establish the keyboard layout with a lift and re-application of the hands. Such a keyboard is also useful because it customizes itself to the user, adjusting the onscreen keys based on the user’s finger size and spacing.
Duran demoed the app blind-folded, typing out an email address as well as complicated mathematical and scientific formulas, proving the keyboard could be useful to educators, students and researchers. He also got to see a blind person use his app for the first time, which he said was an indescribable feeling, “It was the best.”
Lew said via email, “We do not yet know how exactly this will reach final users, but we are committed to make it happen.” The team has several options they will be considering over the next few weeks, so perhaps we could even see an app end up in the Android Market soon.