Aside from audiobooks or text-to-speech, TeleRead has had few stories to cover on ereading for the visually challenged – for obvious reasons. However, a team at the University of Michigan is pioneering a radically better, cheaper ereading experience for the blind – including graphics – thanks to a touchscreen with a difference. According to the report in the MIT Technology Review, the team took a new approach to rendering Braille or visual material onscreen by using microfluidics to produce bumps or dimples on the display surface.
Once commercialized, the new design could make far cheaper, tablet-format ereaders for the blind a practical proposition. At present, Braille ereaders tend to be single-line devices, limiting and tiring to use for most readers. The report instances the potential for Braille tablets costing less than $1000. A video on the device, including the mockup shown in the picture, is available here.
Some outsiders may point to audiobooks and text-to-speech software as alternatives available right now that make such an innovation almost redundant. Yet, as the article points out, there are areas of study, such as mathematics or musical notation, where Braille or some form of touch-readable surface, is essential. With Braille learning rates declining (under 10 percent of blind or partially sighted schoolchildren at the start of the decade versus 50-60 percent in the 1960s), the visually challenged are facing almost insurmountable barriers in such areas. A better Braille/tactile ereading device could bring down those barriers.
Other similar devices, such as the BLITAB, are under development. However, the latter is still only available for pre-order, and appears to focus only on text rather than graphics. The University of Michigan screen technology could be only 18 months away from commercialization, according to the report, and may be on track to be the Eink standard for Braille and haptic displays.