The innovative Braille touchscreen for Blind people
It all started when I was studying Electronic Engineering in the Technical University in Sofia. I had colleagues who were blind and some friends with vision impairment. From them I knew quite well how hard it was to study and find all the relevant information for their disciplines. Not to mention the difficulties of socialization, without the ability to use a computer. One can only imagine how easier the lives of these people would be if they could use the internet with a braille display just like we do.
So I started thinking about the possible ways to ease the access of these people to the internet, so that they can study, use the internet freely and socialize. Is there any way to make the experience as complete as it is with one who has normal vision? I wanted to help them get more than bits of text off the web, but the complete access to interactive web pages, which the average user has.
There were some devices already available on the market, but they were so expensive that few people could afford them and it seemed that they were not efficient enough. A quick Google search told me that some people before us also had the ideas of developing a mobile braille device – a book reader and a tablet, but their projects were never realized.
I shared my idea with one of my friends, a software developer. He said it was a “good idea” and when he says that, he really means it. A few months later we started planning the project on which we would work for years.
We wanted to create something far more advanced and interactive than the Refreshable Braille Displays for computers, which have been on the market for over a decade now. They use pins, which allow them to print out lines of text in braille, allowing the user to interact with a computer. This sounds good but, in fact these devices are too expensive for what they can do – they were designed for old computers and work like “a text terminal”. The prices are as high as to $10.000 for the larger ones that display more characters. One of the issues of the braille display is that it prints out only one line of text and it does not act like a real monitor, it does not refresh quickly enough and the user has to scroll constantly when browsing through large texts. We wanted to change that.
Great ideas need funding too
Unfortunately, funding was a serious problem. It is extremely hard for a young scientist or inventor to focus on his work in Bulgaria. Money is all that you have to think about, instead of working on your ideas. You either work so much that you don’t have time for your project or you have to sell it. Access to public funding was almost impossible, because of all the bureaucracy and corruption. I don’t even want to speak about that. The National Fund for Scientific Research was not an option either since it is focused mainly on financing Educational and Scientific institutions, rather than individuals. We spend a lot of time applying to contests and even searched for corporate financing before we finally gave up.
At some point, we were forced by the circumstances to move abroad. Our destination of choice was Denmark – there we both found jobs which allowed us to keep working on the project. Started a new life, earned better and spend our free time working on the braille touchscreen in the next few years. While I was designing the hardware, my friend developed the software for the future device.
Our device will not be using any mechanical triggers or pins, but a liquid based on wax, that creates ‘tactile pixels”, which would allow the user to freely browse through a web page or a document. Our screen is able to refresh itself more silently and rapidly.
The device is already capable of automatically recognizing documents on a flash disk, displaying and translating them to braille. It can be used as a GPS navigation by displaying a relief map which can help the person find his way around a city. Browsing the web is also possible and future versions will allow the people with impaired vision to socialize by allowing them even to chat in braille. Some of the features are still under development, but hopefully the first release of the product will be able display simple images too.
After we moved to Denmark, we found great support to our ideas. Our project is financed by donations and the European Union. We are currently negotiating with a corporate investor, and if things go as planned, the first Braille touchscreen device will be out on the market soon.
Note: * This image is for illustration purposes only.