U-Michigan Researchers Working On a Braille Tablet Which Will Likely Never Reach the Market

Researchers at the University of Michigan have come up with the next over-hyped screen tech that has yet to see the outside of a research lab.

WiredDigitalTrends Fox News, and other sites report that the researchers are working to build a new type of Braille display that could potentially replace the ruinously expensive and minimally functional Braille displays currently on the market.

“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,” Sile O’Modhrain, a performing arts professor who herself is visually impaired, ponders in the following video.

What they are trying to develop is a microfluidic display, which is another way of saying that this will be a display that you  touch rather than see.

Instead of having light shine out of the screen, in a microfluidic display fluid or air is pumped into and out of a chamber behind each little dot. Increase the fluid, and the dot pops up and can be felt. Remove it, and the dot sinks into the surface.

That's a nifty idea, but you shouldn't expect to see it any time soon. O'Modhrain told Fox News that she expects it could take 5 and 7 years before devices using pneumatically-powered displays become available. “We are currently developing the low-level components that will become the basis of this new display technology,” she explained, in an email to FoxNews.com. “You could think of this like developing the technique for displaying pixels using liquid crystals.”

And even when it is ready, don't be surprised if it is as expensive as the $3,000 to $5,000 Braille displays it is replacing.

One key detail has been left out of all most of the reports I read, and that is the limited market. It's not just that there are somewhat less than two million legally blind people in the US, but also that hardly any of them read Braille.

Edit: Wired noted the lack of Braille use in the UK, but they did not make the connection between that detail and the potential market size. And they're not the only one.

Citing a report from the National Federation of the Blind, NBC reported in 2009 that fewer than 10 percent of the 1.3 million legally blind people in the United States read Braille, and just 10 percent of blind children are learning it.

To call that a small market is an understatement, and the limited demand will increase production costs and drive the price up.

And that is why most people in need will have to content themselves with the truly affordable solutions like the iPad, iPhone, and other consumer mobile electronics. They may be less than ideal for the task, but they are available and workable, and that counts for a lot.

About Nate Hoffelder (11274 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: "I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

4 Comments on U-Michigan Researchers Working On a Braille Tablet Which Will Likely Never Reach the Market

  1. “One key detail has been left out of all the reports I read, and that is the limited market. It’s not just that there are somewhat less than two million legally blind people in the US, but also that hardly any of them read Braille.”

    And that paragraph is the key. World wide there are many more blind people but despite the public increase in braille use on everything from ATM’s, metros’ and cross walks etc., it has in fact been on the decline for many decades. Much of the current transcription is done by volunteers at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) of the Library of Congress. In the end it is about the prohibitive cost that precludes such devices from reversing that trend. Then again technology is forever changing and something like this may simply be the Apple Lisa in a bright future of braille devices.

    • @ CJJ

      Yep. And I think there is a self-reinforcing loop here, too. Few people read Braille, so there’s no huge pressure to release books in that format. As a result, there aren’t many Braille books available, so there’s little drive to teach people how to read it.

      It’s a cycle which will only be broken if a regulatory body like the US govt standardized on Braille over TTS and spoken word, and that just doesn’t seem likely given the lack of hardware. Audio is easy to do on existing hardware, while Braille is effectively impossible.

  2. And presumably it’s also about the increasing availability and power of text-to-speech technology. As I understand it visually impaired people can now take a photo (or have it taken) of a sign or document with a smart phone or tablet, and have it read back to them straight away. Why would they bother with Braille?

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