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Braille texting app could have broader appeal

Designed for the visually impaired, an open-source app out of Georgia Tech could prove to be a texting tool for the masses.

Most of us have at least tried to text without looking at our phones before. I confess to having shot off a quick message while stopped at a red light, or immediately following crazy goals and tackles at soccer matches, or even from the confines of my pocket at parties.

The prototype app BrailleTouch is currently undergoing usability studies. Georgia Tech

Now a free, open-source app called BrailleTouch is about to make this form of multitasking that much easier--for the visually impaired and sighted alike.

Designed at Georgia Tech, the app incorporates the Braille writing system into a touch-screen device. It essentially turns an iPhone's touch screen into a soft-touch keyboard programmed for Braille, thus requiring only six keys, that converts gestures into input points.

By using the six-key Braille configuration, the keyboard actually fits on the touch screen, allowing users to hold their devices with their palms, thumbs, or pinkies while the screens face away from them.

"BrailleTouch is an out-of-the-box solution that will work with smartphones and tablets and allow users to start learning the Braille alphabet in a few minutes," Mario Romero, the project's principal investigator, said in a news release. "It also reduces the need for expensive proprietary Braille keyboard devices, which typically cost thousands of dollars."

A few like-minded concepts are popping up, including the similar (but $4.99) TypeInBraille app just released by EveryWare Technologies and an 8-key version developed by students at Stanford that follows the location of the user's fingers.

Whether the masses will take the time to learn to type the Braille alphabet (Romero says they don't have to learn to read it, and that people can learn to type it in a matter of minutes) remains to be seen, but those who do may eventually find that they are able to type up to 32 words per minute with 92 percent accuracy, according to early studies with visually impaired participants proficient in Braille typing.

The app has already won the MobileHCI 2011 competition for design in Stockholm, in the fall of 2011. The Georgia Tech team has developed iPhone and iPad versions of BrailleTouch and says Android versions are next. BrailleTouch is currently being demonstrated at the Abilities Expo-Atlanta 2012 this weekend.