Most tablet computers are dominated by a touch screen. The one Slavi Slavev shows me is not most tablets, though.
He loads a website on the display, presses a silver button on the device's side, and tiny bubbles rise from various holes in a grid that dominates the top half of the gadget. Sixty-five words at a time, this tablet translates text from the Web and other digital sources into Braille so people who are blind or have low vision can more easily access anything from mindless jokes to e-books to political news.
Slavev is the chief technology officer and a cofounder of the startup that's making this tablet, the Blitab. Based in Vienna, Austria, the company is close to finalizing the device (it’s still pretty chunky), which it plans to start selling for about $500 in six months. With eight hours of use per day, it’s estimated to last for five days on one battery charge.
Though there are refreshable Braille displays on the market, they tend to cost thousands of dollars and include only one line—made up of pins that move up and down—so you can read just a few words at once.
“Imagine reading Harry Potter five words at a time,” cofounder and CEO Kristina Tsvetanova says. “It’s completely crazy.”
The Blitab’s Braille display includes 14 rows, each made up of 23 cells with six dots per cell. Every cell can present one letter of the Braille alphabet. Underneath the grid are numerous layers of fluids and a special kind of membrane that the company won’t specifically describe.
The startup’s online service converts text you see on the lower touch screen into Braille; pressing a button on the side of the Blitab prompts a micro-electromechanical actuator below each hole on the upper Braille display to push up an itty-bitty bubble. Pressing another button on the side of the device refreshes the Braille display with the next page of content. A similar project from University of Michigan researchers aimed at building an affordable Braille display was shown off in December; it’s still in development.
The touch-screen part of the Blitab runs Google’s Android software and includes a screen-reading feature (this kind of accessibility feature is standard on Android and iOS tablets). The Blitab will come with a Braille keyboard app on it as well, the company says, and will be able to work offline for doing things like reading e-books.
It may be hard to build much interest, since the market for such a device is pretty limited. A 2009 study from the National Federation of the Blind found that less than 10 percent of legally blind people in the U.S. read Braille.
However, Jonathan Lazar, a professor of computer and information sciences at Towson University who researches Web accessibility for those with disabilities, thinks that the availability of the Blitab could increase the number of people who are interested in learning and using Braille. He says this is partly because its proposed price tag is so much lower than existing Braille devices.
“Conceptually, what they’re trying to do is a great idea. If they can do it for $500, would that be a giant leap forward? Absolutely,” he says.