We've written a lot about touchscreen technology, both existing and near future, but there's an inescapable limitation if you're a user with impaired or zero vision: touchscreens accept your touch, but usually respond solely with visual information. Now Finnish scientists have devised a way to remedy that, and it's a darn clever re-interpretation of Braille.
Redesigning a conventional touchscreen with some form of exotic morphing material haptic-feedback surface that recreates the Braille alphabet is not beyond the pale--its just distant technology. Where the new system's innovation lies is in its simplicity. It simply merges two existing devices, the LCD touchscreen and piezoelectric transducers.
Instead of recreating the 2 x 3 matrix of raised spots that represents a Braille character, the new system just vibrates the screen using the transducers. As a reading finger is touched to the screen, its position is logged relative to the conventional text character beneath: The Braille is then emulated as a Morse code-like chain of intense and weak vibrations of the screen. A strong one relates to a Braille dot, and a weak one represents a Braille space--it's incredibly simple. Volunteers involved in the research have been able to transition between conventional Braille and the new technique without too much difficulty, reading single characters in around 1.25 seconds.
The research was conducted at the University of Tampere, and so far it's been limited to single characters. A Nokia 770 mobile Internet tablet was the main research tool used, and since it already has haptic feedback built in to the screen, it's relatively easy to develop and test the technique. According to team leader Jussi Rantala, the next steps are to move onto expressing words and sentences using the new transducer trick. The most promising aspect is that there's already a large body of work on automatically translating on-screen text into synthetic speech--Rantala notes that it would be relatively simple to adapt this to work with the new haptic Braille.
[via New Scientist]