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Bringing tablets and smartphones to the blind

The eight-finger keyboard.

Sohan Dharmaraja is a Stanford University doctoral student at the school's Institute for Computational Mathematical Engineering. Along with New Mexico State University senior Adam Duran and Stanford professor Adrian Lew, he participated in a summer course dedicated to high-speed computing.

The three developed a system for a touch screen user interface for tablets that lets a visually impaired user type on a tablet, smartphone or any touch screen computer device. The technology simulates the eight-finger keyboard used to type in Braille. But rather than force the user to try to locate the precise correct location on a flat glass screen, the computer adjusts to the user's fingers. Put eight fingers on the screen and the software will locate those fingers and assign them and remember them. From there, the user is free to type away.

Dharmaraja says the system is for creating an input device only at this point. "Let's say I'm sitting with this device and I'd like to write an email. I would touch my eight fingers to the screen just once. As soon as that happens, a keyboard is built beneath my fingers. It will make sure they're relatively close to where my fingers touch. At that point, it's like typing Braille.

"Then maybe I'd like to stop, get a drink of water. I remove my hands, take a sip, get them back over to the tablet, immediately another eight-finger touch, and the keyboard is built again."

This isn't the only option for the blind. Apple's iPhones and iPads, for instance, all come with the VoiceOver option where the device tells you what you're about to type before you do. But can you imagine using that in a situation like taking notes in a college lecture? Dharmaraja says, "The VoiceOver is described by a lot of people as pecking because you have to move your finger, listen to audio confirmation, confirm, move again, confirm, and it's just not a very efficient way to write."

There are also plenty of dedicated Braille writing devices on the market but they can cost $6,000 or more. Larry Goldberg, director of media access at public broadcaster WGBH, says this might be a thrifty alternative. "What's really interesting about this new device, of course, is that it's based on a mainstream, relatively inexpensive platform -- either Android or iPhone iOS devices. Braille input devices, Braille writers are very expensive, somewhat clunky, somewhat special purpose. The great breakthrough here is if developed, it will enable people to output in Braille using standard off the shelf technology and that's what helps lower the cost and barriers to entry for anyone who wants to use a Braille writer."

Also in this program, Cheese or Font. In complex times with amazing technological breakthroughs, it's good to just relax and try to sort your cheeses from your fonts. That's all.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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