Multi-line full-page braille display being developed at N.C. State could impact education for the blind.

By Saja Hindi

Peichun Yang, a post-doctoral student, graduated from N.C. State’s material science department in 1998. But, after an accident, Yang lost his eyesight.

After getting out of the hospital, Yang went to the Rehabilitation Center for the Blind in Raleigh where he learned to read braille and use computer reader software. But he also began to see the challenges facing blind students.

Franzon and Yang’s mockup of what their Braille reader would look like. Image courtesy NC State U.
Franzon and Yang’s mockup of what their Braille reader would look like. Image courtesy NC State U.

Yang became one of a small percentage of about 1.3 million legally blind people in the United States who know how to read braille. About 50 percent of blind people could read braille 50 years ago, now that number is down to only about 10 percent.

“At the time, I learned that a refreshable braille display is a very useful device for blind people in their work and study,” Yang said.

But he found that these technologies had two problems: they were expensive and they only allowed for reading one line at a time.

So, Yang set out to change that. And he’s succeeding.

A need to read

In 2005, Yang began working with Paul Franzon, an electrical and computer engineering professor, at N.C. State to apply for grants and develop a new kind of refreshable braille reader.

“Naturally, because of my material science background, I began to search for solutions for making a low-cost full-page braille display,” Yang said. “So, since then, I’ve been communicating with researchers all over the world.”

Franzon, said they discovered how difficult it is to educate blind people with the current devices available on the market, which only show one line at a time and can’t do equations and graphics necessary for mathematics and other technical fields. And it’s been difficult to use it to educate, especially when blind people now have technology now to use text-to-speech readers and voice recognition software on computers.

But all that leads to a different problem. According to Franzon, a lot of blind people don’t have the ability to read, rendering many functionally illiterate.

“If you don’t read written text, you don’t know how to write,” Franzon said. “You don’t know how to write good grammar. And that’s severely handicaps employment of the blind if they don’t learn that skill.”

One of the current braille readers on the market, the BrailleNote Apex, a tablet computer for visually-impaired and blind users. The keys include braille labels. Image courtesy quinn anya, Flickr Creative Commons

There’s also an issue of cost. The current devices cost several thousand dollars, out of reach for many people who end up living on disability.

Franzon said computer literacy for blind people is also very low.

“When we visited the School for the Blind in North Carolina, they talked to us about what they tried to teach in computer literacy,” he said. “They said most of their students don’t get that far. It’s very difficult to use the Web and to use computers in general with the current system aids.”

Those lacks have real consequences. According to the National Federation for the Blind, about 50 percent of blind students drop out of high school. And only 30 percent of blind people in the United States are employed.

An iPad for the fingers

The team launched a university start-up company called Polymer Braille, Inc. to gain funding for their research. The initial work ended up leading up to a grant from the National Science Foundation, and one from the U.S. Department of Education.

The pair got local help from electrical and computer engineering research assistant professor Neild DiSpigna and post doctoral research assistant David Winick, who joined the team.

Franzon and Yang’s prototype polymer sheet with electroactive areas that allow the polymer to be deformed. Image courtesy NC State U.
Franzon and Yang’s prototype polymer sheet with electroactive areas that allow the polymer to be deformed. Image courtesy NC State U.

Franzon said they have been experimenting with micromachines – small devices that can move to enable a refreshable braille display.

“[These micromachines are] dots that move up and down with sufficient force so that a blind person can read the braille display,” Franzon said.

The core of this new technology is an electroactive polymer, “a plastic that moves in response to applied electricity to create a dot that can move up and down, and from that, create an array of dots that can move up and down,” he said.

The end product would be similar in size and thickness to a thick Kindle or iPad, about an inch thick, resulting in a tactile display which can be used to display braille letters or graphical information. The display would also be able to show equations, and even mobile device technology like an interface to GPS.

“Things like teaching mathematics are impossible without a graphical display, so our belief is that there’s a significant need for this, and we think we have the technology pieces to enable it to happen,” Franzon said.

One of the challenges of the project, according to Franzon, is getting a moveable dot that is small enough to move with enough force that you can feel it, in addition to doing this at a low cost. Franzon and Yang’s goal is to create a product that could cost as little as $1,000.

“There’s the technical challenges of doing all this together at the millimeter, submillimeter scale,” he said.

Game changer

Amy Mason, an accessible technology specialist at the National Federation for the Blind, works with a team to push for accessibility for blind people, even in mainstream applications. Mason said Yang has shown them plans for the product and they’re very excited.

“If inexpensive, multi-line braille becomes widely available, it’s going to open up a lot of opportunities for using technology in new ways, seeing types of graphics that refresh automatically, being able to get a fair amount of context about something someone sees instead of one line at a time,” Mason said.

Mason said the organization wants to see braille available in as many formats as possible because it’s the reading medium that blind people use.

“It’s just as important as print,” she said. “The more widely available braille is, the more convenient it is. That’s one less barrier to teaching it.”

Yang says this new product has attracted the interest of a few schools for the blind.

“For example, the Washington School for the Blind digital learning program…has been in contact with us, and they wrote a letter of support for the proposal. [The school] is teaching math through the Internet to blind children and is really looking forward to this new braille multi-line full-page display,” Yang said.

He says that way, teachers could use it, for example, to input equations and curves, and the blind students on the other end can read the braille and interact in real-time.

While Franzon said this new technology is not specifically targeted to a certain age range, he said it may be harder for the elderly to use because their finger sensitivity goes down and they tend to not be as motivated to learn braille.

The group has received positive feedback from organizations for the visually handicapped community, and Franzon said he thinks the researchers will see more collaboration with various groups when they get to user trials and other funding. He said they hope to have a pre-prototype of the product in two and half years.

Mason said the product has a lot of potential to make a difference in education and work environments for blind people and the organization would help raise awareness when a product is available.

“If it comes out as well as we all hope it will, we would want to encourage the adoption of it,” she said.

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Saja Hindi

Saja Hindi has worked for various news organizations through jobs or internships in North Carolina, including the daily Wilmington newspaper, the Star News; the Union County Weekly; and WUNC, the local...