BrailleTouch: Mobile Texting for the Visually Impaired
Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 2011, Volume 6767/2011, 19-25
Georgia Institute of Technology
School of Interactive Computing
BrailleTouch is an eye-free text entry mobile application developed by Georgia Tech researchers. It incorporates features of the Braille system, a form of language used by the visually impaired which enables them to write by means of a keyboard. The authors have compiled a list of hardware solutions for Braille text entry. The costs of these solutions range from $400 to $6,000. Their solution has been developed for iPhone and Android smartphones.
As seen in the image above, BrailleTouch occupies the entire screen, and the screen faces away from the user. It has 6 keys and enables the user to type a combination of 63 different characters. Frey et al have interviewed people in the Braille industry and found that individuals using Braille may type between 36 and 84 words per minute. They believe that current Braille writers would be able to achieve between 30 and 50 words per minute using BrailleTouch, given the fact that audio feedback for each letter typed will consume a fraction of a second. I can type about 90 wpm on a traditional QWERTY keyboard with very few mistakes without looking at the screen. I use my favorite soft-keyboard on my Galaxy S2 – Swype – and I do sometimes have frustrations even after using it for over a year. I did one test using Swype and achieved 25 wpm, while looking at the keyboard! The authors note that research results for traditional full-sized QWERTY show typing speeds between 70-100 wpm for expert users. Because you don’t need to know how to read Braille in order to type it, they believe that there is a future in their BrailleTouch system because it will be easy for individuals who already know how to type Braille to start using BrailleTouch. They also expect that anyone who doesn’t know to to write Braille can easily learn using BrailleTouch because of the audio feedback feature.
In the future, the team plans to measure the typing speed and accuracy of the visually impaired using BrailleTouch. They are also interested in having sighted individuals use their application to see how it stacks up against other soft keyboards. I am looking forward to using this technology. The authors detail their future work in the paper, but here are a few things which I am still curious about.
When support is added for sighted individuals, I have to wonder how it will be implemented given that sighted users would like to have the screen facing them instead of away from them. Moreover, the authors mention that their application allows a combination of 63 different characters. It will be interesting to see if and how they support the full set of characters found on traditional soft-keyboards. Lastly, the screen real-estate on smartphones is very valuable. BrailleTouch currently occupies the entire screen. The keyboard on my Galaxy S2 takes up about half of the screen’s real-estate in landscape mode, and slightly less in portrait mode. This problem seems easier to solve than the first two.
YouTube results for “braille touch” resulted in several videos showing this kind of technology. One video comes out of Stanford University and shows the technology being used on a tablet. These ideas are a step in the right direction, making it easier for the visually impaired to communicate without additional hardware.