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A Kindle for the blind? U.S. researchers working on an affordable Braille tablet

“Imagine having a Kindle that isn’t a visual Kindle but instead has a tactile surface that can be read by a person who’s blind using Braille,” ponders Sile O’Modhrain, a performing arts professor who herself is visually impaired.

It’s a fascinating proposition, and one O’Modhrain and researchers at the University of Michigan are working to solve.

The professor explains that at the current time digital Braille devices with refreshable displays can only offer one line of information at a time, and are also prohibitively expensive with a single-line costing around $4,000.

Related: Dot is a smartwatch for the visually impaired

The engineers are currently working on an entirely new technology for building what it hopes will be a more affordable Braille tablet. The device under development incorporates a “microfluid” display comprising tiny bubbles that fill with air or liquid and pop up as Braille characters.

“One of the advantages of our display is that it’s entirely pneumatic, so we can drive it with either air or fluid,” O’Modhrain says. “That means we can produce a display that’s a lot cheaper than existing displays that rely on electronics, so we never have to worry about wiring, or assembling individual mechanical objects.”

The team is using manufacturing methods borrowed from the silicon industry, “where chips are laid down in layers instead of having many small parts to assemble,” according to a MIT report. This more cost-effective approach means the tablet could retail for under $1,000 when it’s finally completed.

braille tablet

While text-to-speech software has undoubtably provided huge benefits for blind people in recent years, the system can’t communicate visual data such as textured images, something a Braille tablet would be able to do.

O’Modhrain says a Braille device would offer the visually impaired much greater access to spatially displayed information, opening up subjects like science and math. She adds that users would also be able to interact with graphs and spreadsheets, making the tablet a whole lot more useful than a simple reading device.

For the visually impaired, the idea of a Braille tablet must be a tantalizing prospect, and one that would certainly bring the 200-year-old writing system firmly into the 21st century.