May 26, 2022

Braille is widely used Used by the visually impaired, but despite significant improvements in accessibility on the Internet and on smart devices, hardware innovation for braille readers has come to a near standstill. Dot has taken a big step forward with the introduction of a Braille smart device that not only makes it easy to display text, but also displays images tactilely, potentially opening up a whole new level of education and accessible content.

The Dot Pad consists of 2400 pins in a pixel grid that can be quickly adjusted up or down to create braille letters or easily recognizable shapes. There is room for 300 braille characters here, plus 20 more in a more traditional line at the bottom. Importantly, the device integrates directly with the Apple VoiceOver screen reader, allowing you to read text, icon labels, and even charts or simple images with a single tap.

The Korea-based company was founded when co-founders Ki Kwang Sung and Eric Joo Eun Kim grew weary of the lack of learning and reading opportunities despite many other advances in computers and interfaces.

This is far from the first digital braille display – devices like this have been around for decades, but they are certainly limited in both quantity and capacity. You’ll usually find braille displays for reading digital text, but these are often old one-line machines that haven’t changed in years and rely on other older software and hardware.

These tools are also generally not meant for children and learning. Children with visual impairments face a number of systemic disadvantages, such as a lack of textbooks or an inability to keep up with the classes that are given to them. It was this defect that prompted the parents of such a child to create Baekdot, a toy that helps the child master the level of Braille.

“In the 21st century, there was no reason for people with visual impairments to refuse digital access to graphic information,” says Kwang Sung. “There is a lot of innovation in every industry, including education, jobs and social media… The demand for graphic information is ever-increasing, which means visually impaired people are being cut off. Even in the event of a pandemic, work and education were far from compulsory… but they had no solution.”

They set out to create a monitor that would allow blind and visually impaired users to access and interact with pixelated images and representations attributed to the sighted.

image credit: Dot

Braille readers tend to be extremely complex mechanically, relying on hundreds of tiny hinges and gears to raise and lower pins on demand, and they must also be rigid enough to withstand constant pressure from being touched. Over the years, we have seen many innovations from well-known research institutes, but none of them made it to the market. Dot is trying to change all of that, not only with better and more powerful hardware, but with deeper integration with smartphones and tablets.

The original innovation of the Dot Pad, as you might expect, is the “dot”. How to lift and retract dozens or hundreds of these tiny pins (6 per Braille letter) securely and quickly (and not too loudly) provided many solutions, but the point is completely new.

Animated image of a pin on a rising dot block

image credit: Dot

“The idea came to us from the speaker system,” Kwang Sung explains. A tiny electromagnetic actuator vibrates in the phone’s speaker, but the team modified it to move the pin up and down using a magnetic ball rotor that locks easily in the up or down position and quickly unlocks and closes. . All this is several times smaller than the previous mechanism – “10 times smaller than existing piezoelectric Braille actuators.” (Dot showed me the diagram and pin cutouts privately to show how it works, but refused to share them publicly.)

This means that the company was able to create a grid of thousands of pins with a small gap between them, large enough to be read like letters, yet tight enough to form patterns that represent images. Below the dot-pad is traditionally a dedicated area for distance braille, but the main grid is better described as a “tactile display” than anything else.

I had a chance to play with a pre-production prototype of the device and it worked very well, the whole screen refreshed from top to bottom in about a second (this also improves to the point where animation is possible) and seemed to be easily scanned into the user’s hand. Both displays have a flexible protective shield that prevents pins from getting stuck and can be easily replaced. The cells themselves are also easy to replace.

Another big advantage of Dot is its partnership with Apple. Dot Pad can be called with a gesture, it immediately displays the selected element on the screen. You can watch the process in action in the video below:

And iOS 15.2 has a new “Tactile Graphics API” for developers to enable and customize this feature in their apps. (Apple didn’t comment on the dot block and API when asked.)

Joo Yoon Kim said, “Many blind/visually impaired users around the world rely on iPhone and iPad with VoiceOver, the industry’s leading screen reader.” “We’re thrilled that Dot’s touch technology is now optimized for VoiceOver and will expand our digital reach. In addition to speech or literary braille, these users can now understand and enhance images.”

Obviously the accuracy is somewhat limited, but it can display things like icons, line art, and charts very well. Imagine a chart in a stock article – viewers can see it at a glance, but others will have to look for other ways, like VoiceOver’s built-in chart, which uses the chart as a kind of rising and falling tone. . Better than nothing, but definitely not perfect. With VoiceOver and its own image analysis algorithm, Dot Pad will attempt to represent any area of ​​the screen or element on the screen.

Obviously, text can be displayed either as a whole page of braille letters (usually staggered) or as the shape of the letters themselves. This allows the user to better appreciate things like fonts in logos – of course, there are no serifs in Braille. In fact, the feel of this type as a whole in such a tactile way sounds quite interesting.

The image on the iPad is displayed in a dotted bar.

image credit: Dot

But more importantly, it’s a great resource for kids. A visually impaired child grows and remembers a lot and can easily draw things like letters, shapes, and simple pictures like houses, cats, etc. for teaching K-12 in the blind community.

Part of this is, of course, tighter integration with the most common tools, so it’s not just a tool that is used in very specific circumstances. Not only are iPhones and iPads as pervasive as today’s digital devices, they also have a powerful accessibility stack that Dot has taken advantage of.

Of course, the huge improvements in voice interfaces have proven extremely beneficial for those who cannot use graphical interfaces, but Braille remains an important alternative, especially for reading and learning. All these conditions and more need to be improved so that opportunities are not limited to technology.

Community response has been positive; Kwang Son said that people think about possibilities, not about limitations. But early on, they increased the number of “pixels” to better represent images, and they’re working on a library of custom images that are handy for use with dots so that, say, the Twitter logo is recognized by the software. instead of scanning the schema every time, you could just use your own version.

The hands of a person touch the image of the globe, depicted with a pin on a dotted notepad.

image credit: Dot

Future workplans will include tactile representations of photographs – not necessarily images, but layouts, positions and descriptions of people and other aspects that can be placed on the screen. They are also working on a way to lock the pin at medium height for graduated feel and other uses. And perhaps the panel can be used for both input and display – another useful feature would be the ability to press a pin to send a touch signal to the right side of the screen.

Of course, like previous Braille displays, the Dot Pad isn’t cheap or simple, although it’s potentially cheaper and simpler than others. Manufacturing and assembly is not an easy task, and the total cost is difficult to say, especially given the high prices for chips and other components at the moment. (It uses thousands of tiny ICs, previously used mostly in car window switches, and now prices have skyrocketed.)

Fortunately, this is exactly the kind of tool that you don’t have to pay for and for which there are countless (subsidized) programs. After all, children don’t have to pay for essentials like the desks they use at school. And it is in everyone’s interest to help people with disabilities get a good education. Better access is welcome on its own, but it has more impact when those who haven’t studied or participated in the industry finally get the chance to do so.

Dot’s founders noted that they are working with the Korean and US governments, as well as the blind community and advocacy groups, to integrate DotPad into the curriculum and use existing tools and methods to pay for it. Developers can learn more about the touch graphics API here.

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