Helping the blind to see

NIST has recently licensed two technologies that may help bring graphical reading systems for the blind and visually impaired to market.


The US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has recently licensed two technologies that may help bring graphical reading systems for the blind and visually impaired to market.


ELIA Life Technology of New York licensed for commercialisation both a tactile graphic display device and fingertip graphic reader developed by the NIST researchers.


The former, first introduced as a prototype in 2002, allows a person to feel a succession of images on a reusable surface by raising some 3,600 small pins (actuator points) into a pattern that can be locked in place, read by touch and then reset to display the next graphic.


Each image – from scanned illustrations, web pages, electronic books or other sources – is sent electronically to the reader where software determines how to create a matching tactile display.


An array of about 100 small, very closely spaced (1/10 of a millimetre apart) actuator points set against a user’s fingertip is the key to the more recently created tactile graphic display.


To ‘view’ a computer graphic with this actuator, a blind or visually impaired person moves the device-tipped finger across a surface like a computer mouse to scan an image into computer memory. The computer then moves the actuators against the skin, effectively translating the pattern to allow the user to ‘feel’ it.


The inspiration for both NIST graphic displays came from a ‘bed of nails’ toy found in a novelty store. Watching the pins in the toy depress under fingers and then return to their original state started the researchers thinking about how the principle could be applied to help the blind.