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BrailleTouch's low cost eyes-free typing tool shows promise

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braille dots covering a white sheet of paper

Sometimes, the costs of add-ons which make technology usable for people with disabilities can be truly mind-boggling. But not all of us have the wherewithal – having registered the shock – to do anything about it. That's where a smartphone keyboard system, BrailleTouch, developed by a team of computer scientists at Georgia Tech comes in.

Team members became aware of the digital divide that affects people with sight impairments when watching a blind teenager texting her friend via her braille keyboard. While impressed at how the device had allowed the teenager to keep in touch with her friends, they were shocked to discover the cost: $6,000.

“We recognised a potential cause for a profound digital divide, and a significant design challenge: How can we support affordable text entry for the visually impaired on inexpensive commodity mobile devices?” the team wrote in their research paper.

Between them, they came up with a smartphone-based system, which turns the handset's screen into a portable braille keyboard.

BrailleTouch divides the space at the outer quadrants of screen into a six-button touchpad so that when held in two hands, it provides a keyboard similar to the so-called Perkins design, which is commonly used on braille keyboards. BrailleTouch also features swipe gestures, which correspond to space and back buttons. Feedback meanwhile can be given as a click or via an automated voice.

Now the team, led by Caleb Southern of Georgia Tech, have demonstrated their system has practical possibilities, having shown those used to braille keyboards can quickly transfer their skills to BrailleTouch.

They got a cadre of expert braille keyboard typists together and taught them to use their smartphone-based alternative. “Participants were able to transfer their existing braille typing skills to a touchscreen device within an hour of practice,” the group reported.

On average, users managed to type 23.2 words per minute using BrailleTouch; the fastest achieved 31.1 words per minute.

Average error rates with BrailleTouch were 15 percent, which the group said is in line with comparable systems.

The group believe BrailleTouch could reduce the cost of eyes-free braille typing dramatically and plan field trials in the near future.

The work was presented at the Mobile Human Computer Interaction 2012 in San Francisco this week.

25 Sep 2012

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