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Standards group pushes for electronic braille reader

A U.S. government standards body is close to unveiling an e-book reader for the blind that transforms electronic text into braille.

A U.S. government standards body is close to unveiling an e-book reader for the blind that transforms electronic text into braille.

The reader will be demonstrated next week at the National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) e-book conference in Washington, D.C. It connects to a computer or a portable device and translates any document--be it an e-book, email or other text file--while browsing on the Web.

The NIST has long backed research and development for an electronic braille reader, although models to date have been pricey.

"We are hoping this technology makes it possible to produce good braille display for...people who can't afford the current braille displays," said John Roberts, project manager for the braille reader project at NIST, adding that the reader will cost less than $1,000. Current braille models can run up to $15,000.

Advocates for the blind and visually impaired have attempted to narrow the digital divide by pushing for devices to bring the Internet within reach of the disabled.

Last year, the National Federation of the Blind sued America Online, claiming it discriminated against the blind because its system is not accessible to them. In July, the federation dropped the lawsuit when AOL agreed to make its software compatible with devices designed for blind and visually impaired users.

The NIST reader uses a rotating wheel that scrolls 20 braille characters. As the reader transforms the text into braille, the wheel rotates underneath the viewer's fingers.

Roberts said the new braille reader is an improvement over the current models, which are shaped "like a big soup can" and can only be read with a single finger.