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Tablet app brings new touch to Braille

Can a tablet designed for those who can see become accessible to those who can't? A research group at Stanford has created a Braille writer that has the potential to revolutionize a stagnant market.

A new way for the blind to type on a tablet could change everything. Stanford University

Software developed during a summer course at Stanford University could one day radically shift the way the visually impaired use modern tablets, potentially removing the need for a wireless Braille display.

Adam Duran, a senior at New Mexico State University, has developed a stunning way for blind people to type on tablets. Duran created the touch-screen Braille writer software with Adrian Lew, a Stanford assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Sohan Dharmaraja, a doctoral candidate.

It's all in the fingertips. The eight keys (similar to a standard Braille keyboard) in the software do not have a predefined position, but rather work with the location of the fingers. A user simply presses eight fingers anywhere on the screen, and voila, the keys are automatically oriented to that location.

If there's a problem, users simply lift their fingers and put them down again. As shown in the video below, typing is a breeze. Curiously missing is the mention of haptic feedback (vibration), or voice support, but for a first version this software is very encouraging.

Traditional wireless Braille displays are often limited in design. Dharmaraja noted that the software out of Stanford is much more adaptable to a variety of situations, and "can accommodate users whose fingers are small or large, those who type with fingers close together or far apart, even to allow a user to type on a tablet hanging around the neck with hands opposed as if playing a clarinet."

This Android tablet for the blind costs a fortune, but is actually on the low end of the pricing spectrum. LevelStar

We've covered a vibrating touch-screen Braille concept previously, but an app like this could greatly shake up the ultra-expensive Braille input device market. If inexpensive software allowing the visually impaired to write on an iPad or an Android tablet matures, it could blow away devices that cost thousands of dollars more.

An upcoming Android-based Braille display device, for example, is projected to cost "under $4,000."

Currently, Apple's iOS offers much greater accessibility options than Android. Apple's mobile OS (and OS X) natively offer VoiceOver, a highly advanced screen reader that works with any app, and support double-tap, drag, and flick gestures. iOS4 also supports 30 Bluetooth Braille displays in more than 25 languages.

Accessibility support in the regular builds of Android is surprisingly weak (and unsurprisingly fragmented), especially for those who are visually impaired.

A better option for Android users is the $99 Mobile Accessibility app, which offers a suite of apps and a web browser, and includes a screen reader powered by Nuance. Motorola includes a screen reader named Voice Readouts with its newer Android devices that does work well (and supports third-party apps).

Further reading can be found at Accessible Android and AppleVis.