The Holy Braille: Development and evaluation of a full-page refreshable braille display

Sile O’Modhrain leads this project to develop a tactile display device suitable for displaying a full page of braille characters and tactile diagrams. The device will co-locate tactile input and output and make interaction with text and graphic content on mobile devices as direct and meaningful for visually-impaired users as touchscreen interaction is for sighted users.

Start date: 10/1/2013
End date: 9/30/2016

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This project will seek to develop a full-page electronic braille device that will increase braille literacy among blind persons worldwide. At the same time, the project will solve the most pressing problems blocking the application of microfluidics in shape display and surface haptics on touchscreens.

Current braille display technology can only render a single line of content at a time. This project will address this problem by developing new display technology based on microfluidic actuators and microfluidic logic circuits. 

This technology holds promise for creating refreshable tactile features on a flat screen, and for new multipurpose displays because the microfluidic substrate can be designed as a transparent overlay to a visual display. There are just a few technological barriers remaining until microfluidics is practical for creating programmable haptic features. 

One of these barriers is the "piping problem", packing a dense array of bubble actuators without an independent channel dedicated to each actuator. A second problem involves matching the microfluidic actuators to the properties and sensitivity of the fingertip skin through an appropriately engineered surface. 

The research team has piloted solutions to both of these problems and will construct analytical models that will enable these solutions to be scaled for rendering a variety of features from individually-perceivable braille dots to perceptually continuous lines, curves and tactile forms. 

The design of the display technology will be guided and informed by a series of user evaluations that will advance the science of surface haptics while at the same time comparing this microfluidic approach to alternative assistive technologies currently under development in academia and industry. 

Working with O’Madhrain will be U-M College of Engineering’s Mark Burns of the Chemical Engineering Department and Brent Gillespie of the Mechanical Engineering Department. Burns will further develop microfluidic logic circuits and shift registers to individually address braille pin actuators and Gillespie will optimize the mechanics of the actuators and braille dots and adapt them to the mechanics of the skin and actively guided touch. O'Modhrain will develop the science of surface haptics to guide the match between microfluidic technology and application in human-computer interaction through braille. 

The findings of this project and the availability of a large-area tactile display would open up the possibility for a wide range of scientific exploration. It would also have a vast commercial impact due to the profound effect on what is fundamentally possible with touchscreen devices. The project will recruit and engage blind persons, under-represented minorities, women, and undergraduate researchers.

This project received an additional $15,200 through a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Supplement to support undergraduate students who will work with the researchers.


HCC: Small: The Development and Evaluation of a Full-Page Refreshable Braille Display, National Science Foundation: $499,286

REU Supplement: HCC: Small: The Development and Evaluation of a Full-Page Refreshable Braille Display, National Science Foundation: $15,200

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