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How tech helped blind students 'watch' the solar eclipse

A revolutionary device called Graphiti displays tactile images in near real time.

Public relations manager Becky Snider greets me at the entrance to the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky. "There are like 280,000 square feet," she says as we descend far into the bowels of the building. "We have to take people on guided tours or they'll get lost down here." I can easily believe it. We walk nearly five minutes before reaching our destination, a nondescript basement-level conference room.

The American Printing House for the Blind, or APH, has been a Louisville institution since 1858. Not only does the non-profit organization provide braille textbooks and other educational aids through the Act to Promote the Education of the Blind, its research department also develops new technologies.

One such device, a prototype called Graphiti, helped students and adults who are blind or visually impaired experience Monday's solar eclipse in near real time. According to APH, that's never been done before.

Graphiti displaying Monday's solar eclipse.

Chris Monroe/CNET

What is Graphiti?

Graphiti was developed by Orbit Research for APH. Technically, it's a dynamic multilevel tactile touch display.

Put simply, it's a large-ish square tablet with a black finish and a series of buttons lined up in two tidy rows toward the bottom.  Unlike your iPad at home, Graphiti's screen is made up of a 40 by 60 grid of movable pins. It looks vaguely like a Lite Brite -- you know, that toy from the 90s with the colorful pegs.

Graphiti's integrated pins are much smaller and they're capable of displaying all sorts of information tactility... everything from charts to drawings and even images of a solar eclipse. Since the pins can adjust to various heights, Graphiti can also convey topographical data like maps, as well as shading and colors.

While Graphiti is still a concept, APH sees a number of applications for its use, particularly for students who are blind or visually impaired. 

"The biggest issue in education for any blind kid out there is being able to deliver real time graphical information as their sighted peers received it in the classroom," APH president, Craig Meador tells me. "It doesn't have the impact that it did for every other student in that classroom [if they're getting the information later]."

Graphiti can read most file types.

Chris Monroe/CNET

How to Graphiti a solar eclipse

As part of its efforts to bring awareness to Graphiti, APH invited about 30 students and adults who are blind or visually impaired to experience the solar eclipse on Monday (see the APH video above).

A photographer captured one image of the eclipse every 30 seconds, shared the file with Graphiti and its screen refreshed accordingly, with an updated tactile representation.

"People don't realize it, but this is such a big deal because a blind person has never had access to something interactive where you can actually zoom in on an image or rotate it, or move around and see different parts of it," explains Larry Skutchan, the APH director of technology product research. "The students were amazed."

So was I. Skutchan, who is blind himself, showed us how to navigate Graphiti. Everything from pulling up a tactile display of the eclipse to writing on the screen was done on a laptop connected to Graphiti -- or directly on the Graphiti unit itself.

There's also nothing quite like it available today. "Over the years, people have tried to solve this problem in many, many different ways," Skutchan explains, "but this [Graphiti] is the first one that is actually able to apply the filters and images and represent them with varying heights and pins."

The future of Graphiti

Despite being a revolutionary product for blind and visually impaired people, Graphiti still has a long way to go to get from concept to retail. If it were sold today, it would cost roughly $4,000 to $5,000. That doesn't include the laptop, software and any other accessories required for full functionality. All together, Meador increases the estimate to about $8,000.

There's also the challenge of familiarizing people with this technology. Skutchan believes Graphiti's ultimate success will come from the gaming industry and augmented and virtual reality.

APH already has a few ideas for next-gen Graphiti's, such as using the screen as a refreshable braille page for textbooks and making the units "scalable" so multiple devices could be connected to display something large on the wall like a world map.

"The hope is that we're showing all of these other companies out there -- we're non-profit -- but the for-profit companies, that this technology is achievable," Meador adds. "If we're doing it here at this small company in Louisville, Kentucky... what could they [the big companies] do if they piggyback off of this research and take it to the next level?"