Computers have become an indispensable tool for handling everyday tasks in our living and working environments. But blind and partially sighted users are currently at a major disadvantage when it comes to independently reading and interpreting digital computer information, especially if it includes graphic and structured information in addition to simple text. Although it is possible to connect a braille display ‒ which reproduces the contents of the screen line by line in braille ‒ to the computer, the problem remains that, for example, a typical website with many graphical elements or an Excel spreadsheet can be only incompletely rendered by a braille display. Moreover, visually impaired users will struggle to gain a full overview of a file or website; this, however, is an immediate requirement of performing modern, PC-supported and complex tasks in education, training and the workplace.
Graphics-enabled display for blind users
Through its braille tablet, the HyperBraille project is for the first time creating the possibility that blind and partially sighted users could gain far more extensive access than previously to training and further education opportunities, and even enter entirely new fields of employment.
The tablet display is a kind of graphics-enabled laptop for blind and partially sighted users. The software required to control the tablet display is also being developed as part of the project, which focuses mainly on optimising the use of all standard Office and Internet applications commonly used in the world of work. Education and training for blind children and youths is also expected to benefit from HyperBraille in the future.
The touch-sensitive pin-matrix display drastically increases the amount of information perceivable to blind computer users through both hands, and enables them to experience spatial structures and graphic symbols as additional information. Ideally, objects such as text blocks, tables, user interfaces, menus and other elements of the Windows user interface can be fully mapped to the pin-matrix display. Moreover, geometric drawings, floor plans, diagrams and much more can be made available to visually impaired students in lessons. Blueprints, electric circuit diagrams or the Unified Modeling Language used for software development could open up new fields of employment to blind and partially sighted people.
The braille tablet display – the technology
The Braille pin-matrix display consists of 7200 pins (60 rows with 120 pins each). Its surface is also equipped with sensors. The core of the pin matrix is a module that integrates 10 pins, spaced at intervals of 2.5 mm, into a plastic module. Vertically mounted piezo benders raise the pins above the plate by 0.7 mm. These modules can be lined up both horizontally and vertically, compactly and in any way required.
An initial version, based on the pin matrix designed by Metec AG in 1985, was developed by Friedrich Lüthi (Metec AG) under the name of ‘Tawis’. The following film demonstrates the use of the old, electro-magnetically controlled pin matrix:
It is intended that by the end of the project in 2010 the modules will have been gradually optimised to make the pin matrix portable by, among other things, reducing its height.