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An innovative app developed at Stanford University over the summer shows how tablet computing has the potential to transform the ways the blind interact with the world. During a two-month summer course, an undergraduate and two mentors developed a Braille writer for a touchscreen.

Braille, the alphabet for the blind built out of patterns of bumps, is the way the blind navigate the world of text. But how do blind people write Braille themselves? There exist specialized mechanical devices for the purpose, that look something like little typewriters, only with just a handful of keys. (There’s a wealth of information on the panoply of Braille writers here.) Such devices are pricey, though–$3,000 to $6,000, often. A tablet, obviously, is an order of magnitude less expensive, and has greater capabilities.

While at Stanford’s Army High-Performance Computing Research Center (AHPCRC) this past summer, Adam Duran, a rising senior from New Mexico State University, together with two mentors, Adrian Lew and Sohan Dharmaraja, developed the idea of technology to assist the blind. First they thought they’d work on a Braille reader. But then they realized they should aim higher. “The killer app was not a reader, but a writer,” Dharmaraja told Stanford Report.

Touchscreens are funny creatures. One the one hand, they’re touchscreens, specializing in the sense that the blind already use to read and write. On the other hand, they’re touchscreens, meaning they’re uniform and flat, and seemingly impossible to navigate without sight. Duran et al. knew that physical Braille writers had one major advantage: blind users could simply feel where the keys were. But how to solve that problem on a level sheet of glass?

Touchscreens have one other feature though–they’re smart. The team realized that they didn’t have to make keys in a set location that the user had to find; the user could simply set his fingers down, and the keys could orient themselves accordingly. Each time the user lifts all his fingers off the screen and sets them down again, the keyboard would adjust to the fingers’ new location.

Apart from being smart, tablets are also customizable; Dharmaraja told Stanford Report that touchscreens “can accommodate users whose fingers are small or large, those who type with fingers close together or far apart, even to allow a user to type on a tablet hanging around the neck with hands opposed as if playing a clarinet.”

A video demonstration of the app shows other neat tricks that a tablet equipped with computerized speech can pull; by dragging your finger to the side, you can activate a menu that lets you switch into different modes–a mathematical notation mode, say, or one for the symbols of chemistry.

What I wonder is if the proliferation of digital devices, optical character recognition, dictation software, and the like will render Braille itself obsolete, or at least archaic. In the same way that those who lament the death of paper and the loss of the pleasing heft of a book, will an older generation of the blind struggle to instill an appreciation for the tactile pleasures of Braille in the young crop of tablet-computing natives?

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