Device aims to brings text and graphics to visually impaired

A European consortium is attempting to develop a portable and affordable Braille device with tactile display that will give visually impaired users access to words and graphics.

Anagraphs (anaglyptic refreshable photo-haptic screen), which has so far been developed with €1.5m of FP7 funding, departs from similar, single line Braille pin devices already available as it offers users text and graphics for the first time.

In use, Anagraphs can be plugged in to any mainstream e-reader, tablet or screen-based personal computer in order to transfer text and graphics.

By utilising thermo-hydraulic micro-actuation and software developed in partnership with project coordinator Pera Technology, each of the device’s 6,000 Braille dots are activated through resistive heating array. The dots are raised as the resistive heat expands the paraffin waxes in the screen from liquid to solid.

According to the RNIB, similar Braille displays consist of a number of cells (usually between 12 and 80) that have eight pins in each. As information is received from the computer the top six pins move up and down to form Braille characters, with the lower two pins signifying formatting or other information.

Depending on the model, a refreshable Braille displays can either connect to a computer using a cable or wirelessly using Bluetooth but they remain expensive – between £1,500 and £10,000 – due to the number of cells and features incorporated into each device.

Pera Technology, a Melton Mowbray-based product development company, aims to drive down costs through the use of wax actuation. They also developed the software for text-to-braille transfer, plus the software that took graphical input and converted it to the matrix of the pad.

‘One of the innovations of the project was to develop a pad, so a matrix of dots that could be read by the [visually] impaired which would include both text and graphics,’ explained Peter Fowell, Anagraphs project manager at Pera Technology.

‘A number of devices on the market are all single line, so they’re just a row of 6 x 2 matrix  or an 8 x 2 matrix,’ he said. ‘They are refreshable but they are all electro-mechanical. Ours is a matrix of 90 x 68, which allows you to display both text and graphics.’

The Anagraphs project – undertaken in conjunction with the Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems, CK Productions, Innora, and Hobart Lasers – is currently in the final stages of development.

‘It’s now a case of taking it to the next step for Horizon 2020 because that is the latest funding vehicle that we’re now looking into now that FP7’s finished,’ said Fowell.