Tablets for the blind

Nov. 15, 2011, 3:02 a.m.
Tablets for the blind
(SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

Using a tablet computer is a complicated task for the visually impaired, with few tactile reference points on the screen and few, if any, built-in features to make it easier. But thanks to research this summer by Adam Duran, a New Mexico State University senior, that may soon change.

Duran participated in the Army High Performance Computing Research Center (AHPCRC) summer internship program at Stanford. There, he and his mentors, assistant mechanical engineering professor Adrian Lew and Sohan Dharmaraja Ph.D. ’11, developed an application that enables visually impaired people to easily use keyboards on touch-screen devices. The AHPCRC summer intern program selected 15 undergraduates from all over the country to come to Stanford and work with faculty and graduate students on an assigned research project.

Duran and his team started even before the interns arrived on campus.

The AHPCRC “gave us some Android tablets and said, ‘Do something with them,’” Lew said.

He and Dharmaraja wanted to create a Braille character-recognition program that would use the camera to take a picture and then translate the picture into voice.

“We were really enthusiastic about it because it was doing something that could help people,” Duran said.

However, when Dharmaraja went to talk to the Stanford Office of Accessible Education (OAE), the project began to change.

“They [the OAE] told us that there was no real, good method for blind people to type,” Dharmaraja said. “It seems a little unreasonable to expect a blind person to use the camera to take a good, accurate picture. So we changed that project and decided to do a writer for Braille.”

Lew, who had a blind student in his spring quarter class, agreed with this new idea.

“That was resonating with me because I have seen this student taking notes in class with the bulky Braillewriter with buttons,” Lew said.

The Braillewriter keyboard has eight keys, one for each finger. Lew emphasized the importance of these eight positions because they mean the visually impaired individual doesn’t have to change the position of their fingers.

“The tablet mimics the Braille writer people used to use,” Lew said. “That’s the good thing of the application. They [the blind] don’t have to learn it — they know it already.”

Lew, Dharmaraja and Duran started working on the application. Since none of them knew how to program tablets, they had to learn the process from scratch. But that did not deter them.

“Sohan and I would code something,” Duran said. “I would blindfold myself and try to use the tablet without any of Sohan’s help and vice versa. Once we were comfortable typing blindfolded…we took it to someone who is visually impaired to get feedback from them. Everything kind of derived from experience.”

After several iterations, they finally came up with a breakthrough solution for the interface. Instead of having the fingers find the keyboards, they programmed the application to find the positions of the fingers when in contact with the screen.

“I think we found a nice way to solve the problem because it was very natural–put your eight fingers there, and you have the keys,” said Lew. “It is a nice, simple solution and does not require much from the user.”

As for the future of the application, the team wants it to be “in the hands of those who need it,” Dharmaraja said. “Our goal is to make sure that this gets developed and gets out soon.”

The New Mexico State University senior said he benefited greatly from his summer experience.

“One thing that I was fortunate to learn from Sohan and Professor Lew is they do 100 percent all the time,” Duran said. “It was just so gratifying to be able to do the work and actually see people use it.”

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