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Artificial Muscles: Making Active Braille Displays a Reality

Posted August 21, 2009 5:00 AM by Dead Weight

Artificial muscles, more technically known as electroactive polymers, are paving the way for displays that may one day make reading a computer screen as easy for the visually impaired as it is for the non-impaired.

Why Make Braille Displays?

While written or typed Braille has enabled visually impaired people to read for almost 200 years, it goes unnoticed by many people with fully functioning vision that all present electronic displays, like those for computers and cell phones, operate solely based on visual cues. Therefore, it is almost impossible for the visually impaired to effectively interact with many of the electronics most modern people take for granted.

The idea behind a Braille display is that one day it will be possible to create a surface that can actively and instantly create raised Braille characters, and change from one character to another based on an electrical input. These displays will then be able to change which Braille letters they represent as easy as the computer screen you're looking at right now can change the text characters it represents.

What Role Do Artificial Muscles Play?

Presently, Braille displays do exist to some extent; however, they are generally limited to a single line of text and can cost thousands of dollars. The reason for this is that these displays rely on individual electrical actuators to raise and lower every dot of every Braille character as the text changes (each letter is composed of 6 possible dots).

With electroactive polymers, scientists and engineers are hoping they will be able to create a polymer surface, which when exposed to electric fields, will selectively expand in certain spots and thus form raised bumps in the form of Braille letters. In theory, such a display should be relatively cheap since there are no moving parts, and instead of just one line of characters, it could possibly display an entire page of up to 25 lines with 40 characters per line.

When Will Braille Displays Start Showing Up?

Unfortunately, the firsts of these displays are still in their developmental stages, and currently even electroactive polymers themselves are a relatively unrefined technology. However, at the current rate of development, we could begin to at least see finished prototype models showing up in the next few years.

Resources:

http://www.freedomscientific.com/products/fs/focus-40-blue-product-page.asp

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/08/090814202711.htm

http://electrochem.cwru.edu/encycl/art-p02-elact-pol.htm

http://news.softpedia.com/news/Braille-Displays-To-Be-Powered-by-Artificial-Muscles-119354.shtml

Image Source: http://www.afb.org/Section.asp?SectionID=6&TopicID=199

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Guru

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#1

Re: Artificial Muscles: Making Active Braille Displays a Reality

08/21/2009 10:01 AM

As you pointed out, Dead Weight, most of the things that people just can't live without these days are made for persons who can see. Since I have only known one or two visually-impaired people in my lifetime, I hadn't really spent much time considering this issue that affects so many people. I'm grateful that this kind of work is being done for their benefit, and for bringing awareness to the rest of us.

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#2

Re: Artificial Muscles: Making Active Braille Displays a Reality

08/21/2009 10:31 AM

Just shows that a couple of the things we take for granted (tv, computers, cell phones) are things that other people have learned to live without. Makes me think of other things I could be doing instead of watching 2 hours of television.

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Active Contributor

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#3

Re: Artificial Muscles: Making Active Braille Displays a Reality

08/21/2009 5:20 PM

Yeah, before writing this article I had never given it a second thought that every screen I look at in a day can't be interacted with by people with visual impairments. In fact, it was such a shock that helping other people realize this made up most of my motivation to write this article. Thanks for the comments.

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#4

Re: Artificial Muscles: Making Active Braille Displays a Reality

08/24/2009 9:50 AM

I would think that - although the technology described still has great potential for suitable applications - a verbal communication interface would be more efficient for computer-based devices.

I was just looking at a new version of "naturally speaking" and was amazed at how far it has come since early speech recognition - I hope that the text-to-speech side with command interfaces for visually impaired have advanced as well.

Of course, that assumes that most visually impaired are not also hearing impaired. That would pose even further challenges for a future Helen Keller edition of the iPhone...:(

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