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Oct. 3, 2000 - Discovery.com News

New Braille Display

Blind Web Surfing Made Easier
By Larry O'Hanlon,

A new kind of Braille computer display may soon make it easier and vastly cheaper for blind people to surf the Internet, as well as read electronic books and email. For years, blind and visually impaired Web surfers have had the unsavory choice of using klunky audio-reading software to read for them what's on the screen or invest up to $15,000 for a device that converts text into Braille characters that they can scan through far more efficiently.

The Old Clunker

"A lot of people who would like to use Braille can't because they can't afford readers," said engineer John Roberts of the National Institute of Standards in Technology, who manages the new Braille display project.

Last week, Roberts demonstrated the prototype Braille display at the Electronic Book 2000 conference in Washington, D.C., in hopes of getting a manufacturer interested in taking his device from the lab to the computer store for about $1,000 each.

Unlike the rectangular Braille displays that use hundreds of tiny and expensive moving parts to generate Braille symbols, the new display is round, about as big as a roll of masking tape. Fingers are placed on the outer edge as the display rotates under them.

Instead of employing hundreds of tiny moving devices, called actuators, to make the texture of Braille symbols, the device uses only three actuators and they're not that tiny or expensive, says Roberts.

Initial tests of the new display have been promising. "Over 95 percent (of those tested) were able to read it without any trouble at all," said Roberts.

Still, the new display has a way to go before it can compete with the performance of displays already on the market, says Judith Dixon, consumer relations officer for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Disabled, which is part of the Library of Congress. Dixon, who is blind, uses a commercial Braille display at work everyday. She tested out the new NIST display at Electronic Book 2000.

"It's creative," Dixon said of the unusual shape of the reader. "I think what will probably happen is the product will be picked up by a manufacturer."

Then it will probably be sped up and given additional functions. And if it hits the market as a low-cost alternative, she says, it can't happen soon enough.


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Date last modified November 24, 2000