Refreshable Braille Now and in the Years Ahead

by Deane Blazie

From the Editor: Deane Blazie is President of Blazie Engineering:

I am going to try to keep this talk light because I am often accused of being too serious. I don't think we can talk about Braille display technology in the present and in the future without talking about the past. So, briefly, the first I knew about Braille displays--and these were Braille displays that were commercially available--was from Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Schonherr in Germany from the University of Stuttgart. (If anybody disagrees with any of this, by the way, it may be because I made it up, and you may be right.) They had electro-mechanical displays based on very tiny solenoids. These would latch a pin in the up or down direction. We even sold a few of these at my previous company, Maryland Computer Services, and they worked fairly well. They were prone to stick due to dust and dirt a lot more than current displays, but they actually worked. That was sometime in the mid-1970's.

Then in the late '70's Oleg Tretiakoff introduced the first Piezoelectric display. He eventually put it in a device, and it was sold around the country. Does anyone remember the name of that device? The company was Elinfa, and the device was the Digi-cassette. Remember, you had to turn it upside-down on its side to get it in the record mode? That's the truth. Oleg invented the first one and he tried to market it to TeleSensory but decided they could do their own, and in the early eighties TeleSensory introduced the VersaBraille with their own display based on Oleg's Piezo design.

The VersaBraille was really the first high-volume product using refreshable Braille displays that were more or less what everything today is based on. In the early to mid-eighties the Europeans got into the act when Frans Tiemon from Holland started making Braille modules. Again, he was able to get around the various patents that were on the market at the time—TeleSensory and Tretiakoff. He eventually took over a large share of the market.

Mr. Schaefer, who was with the early mechanical Braille displays, eventually started a company called Metec in Germany, and they also eventually, in the late eighties, went to the Piezo displays. In fact, right now he is probably the largest producer of Braille displays in the world. Since the mid-eighties we have made only incremental improvements in Piezo Braille displays.

Before I talk about the present, let me talk about some things that have been tried in Braille-display design. I'm sure you have a hundred stories of things you can think of--but these are some of the things I remember, most of which we should discourage people from trying again. But, you never know; maybe somebody will make one of them work.

We have tried electric shock to the finger tip in a six-dot pattern--not a bad idea; it just doesn't work. We have also tried thermal sensing of the finger tip by putting very tiny chip resisters on a substrate and heating them up, but again it didn't work well. There are a lot of problems with these ideas, but at the time they seemed good.

IBM had an interesting idea. They took a Braille module, one six-dot Braille display and said, well, if you have one of those, why not put it on a slider, and, as you slide it, it moves the display as if you had a long line of eighty characters. That really did seem like a good idea, but again it didn't pan out. The problem is that your finger isn't moving across the Braille; your finger is sitting on a display of six dots; and, as you move the slider and hit a certain point, it switches to the next character, and your finger feels the next character. We all know now that Braille isn't read that way. Braille is read by brushing your finger across the pins or across the surface of the Braille page. The brushing is much more useful to the sense of touch. So, while the idea IBM had was good, it also didn't work well.

That same idea was used by Mr. Perenio in Spain. In fact, he may be still working on it; I'm not sure. But again there's the same problem; your finger really does need to brush across the Braille.

Along the same lines, somebody as recently as this year has come up with an idea through a NASA/Langley grant, I believe. They were paid to do a prototype, but the idea was the same thing. If you could reduce the number of Braille cells, then you could reduce the cost a lot. That is a good idea. The trouble is: how do you get the finger to feel as if it's moving across a Braille page? Their idea is to have a rotating wheel that causes the Braille to move under your finger. They have two cells of Braille and a big mechanism underneath that pops the dots up at the right time. The jury is still out. I don't think they have actually built one; they just have a concept, and they are looking for funding for it. So the idea is still around that we should be able to simulate your finger's moving across a sheet of Braille.

In the 1970's there was a moving belt of Braille. Then about six or seven years ago Densitron Corporation tried to revive that idea. This was a belt of Mylar, and they would punch the dots up in the Mylar and display the forty cells. Then, when you pushed the button at the end to read the next line, the belt would rotate underneath the device and be erased by pushing the dots down in the other direction. The line would then be repainted as the belt moved around. That didn't make it to the market either for lots of reasons: the Mylar would wear out; it didn't feel very good; it was slow; it was noisy--lots of reasons.

In the early 1990's TeleSensory tried a different thing, which was a one-cell display on the BrailleMate. Actually, I have known people who have used it, and I have watched BrailleMate users. They really do get some information from that single cell. You can turn in your BrailleMate, by the way, and get a brand new Braille Lite--a little commercial plug.

That brings us to the present state of the art. The Piezo display still rules. There is virtually nothing on the market except Piezo Braille displays. They all use the same technology, a little piece of ceramic substrate that's shaped to the right dimensions. You put 200 volts on it, and it bends. The trouble with those is that they're expensive. The current price on a Braille cell, which is eight dots, has gone from around a hundred dollars a cell in the early eighties--OEM [original equipment manufacturer] cost if you bought a bunch of them--to about $35 a cell now. That thirty-five-dollar price is negotiable, but it's roughly $35 a cell. So we have made some improvements, and if you consider the cost of money, that's probably a five-fold reduction in the cost of a Braille cell, which is pretty good. But it's still too expensive.

Piezo displays have also gotten smaller. The earlier ones were probably five inches long and two inches high. The original VersaBrailles were huge, huge things. Now Braille cells are on the order of half an inch high and three inches long. I think we will continue to see incremental improvements in the size of Braille displays. I don't think we will see a large decrease in the price. They will hover around the $29 to $30 range for quite some time unless there is a breakthrough in the basic movement, the bender.

That brings us to the future, and who knows what the future will bring. I think I know about most of the research going on out there in the line of Braille displays and there is quite a bit going on. There needs to be a lot more, so you guys with big pocketbooks, like Dr. Schroeder, should really be spending some of that money on Braille-display research, not necessarily with us, but a lot of funding is needed.

First of all there are mechanical displays that are being researched. The rotating wheel I mentioned: they're looking for someone to take that technology and build it and see if it really works. Pneumatic displays: about ten years ago we built a pneumatic display. This was one driven by air. I think a pneumatic display still has a lot of promise. We gave up on it because we ran out of funding that we had gotten from a grant, and we got excited about another technology, so we didn't pursue it. But I really think, and our engineers think, that a pneumatic display has good possibilities. I don't know of anyone else working on pneumatic displays at present.

Dan Hinton from Science Applications International has taken over a National Science Foundation grant for a mechanical display. I don't know the current status of this work; I saw it about a year ago here at the Center, and it was more or less a mechanical display like a print head that poked up dots from underneath and painted the dots on a display. Then something else would erase them--not a bad idea, low cost, pretty low-tech, but it really might work. But as far as I know, work has stopped on it because I haven't heard anything at all.

The real breakthrough may come in what's called smart materials. You have heard a lot of talk about Moore's law and how it applies not only to electronics but to science in general and technology and just about everything in our lives. We are seeing a lot coming out of materials lately, and the advancements have been exponential. A tremendous number of new materials are coming out. One of these is the field of electrorheological fluids. The simplest one is cornstarch and corn oil. You mix the two together, and you get an electrorheological fluid. Pour it into your Braille display, and send it back in to get it repaired. When you put an electric field on these ER fluids, which is really easy to do, they get stiffer; their viscosity changes. So instead of pouring like water, they would pour like pancake syrup. The viscosity of the fluid gets lower, so if you could apply that to a Braille display, you should be able to move the Braille dots up and down.

There are some patents out there showing how Braille displays can be made from these electrorheological fluids. Again, nobody has taken the ball and run with it, and I think it deserves some attention. I really think these are possible. We did a very short study of them and concluded that the viscosity doesn't change enough, so you might get into problems. We didn't continue the research, but I really think the idea deserves some attention. There are more and more ER fluids being developed and the viscosity change is larger, so they may be usable.

The next area is a polymer, which is a huge class of materials. Smart polymers do all kinds of things when you put an electric field on them or a magnetic field; they react in different ways. Electrostrictive polymers are the ones we've looked at. These are polymers that either shrink when you put an electric field on them or grow. You might have heard of electrostrictive gels; these are actually polymers that can grow and contract as you put an electric field on them. These show a lot of promise.

Texas Instruments announced a Braille display based on these. It was supposed to be the be-all and end-all of Braille displays, and it may be. But so far not much has happened with it. Texas Instruments wanted to make a very high-quality projection television. So one of their polymer physicists, Marvin Cowens, demonstrated how he could make a very small mirror, about a half-inch square, and put a million little, tiny mirrors on this substrate, and he could make each mirror tilt a little bit. By tilting enough, he could deflect the light off the screen, so essentially he had a television set based on mirrors. He really made these things, and I believe TI sells them in a product. It was all done with mirrors--you see why I get accused of being too serious. If you can move a small mirror, why not a Braille dot?

I made about three dozen phone calls to TI, but finally I got them to release to the public domain the information on these polymers. So it is available. Anybody who wants to do research on these can get the information. I really do believe there's potential here, probably more than in any of the other fields I have mentioned. The formulae are in the TI literature; they can give you data on how fast or slow they reacted. The only thing we saw was that it took three or four seconds for the pin to go down. But they thought they knew why that was happening, and they thought it could be fixed. The TI polymer is based on Polyacrilimid, in case anybody wants to research it. I have paperwork on most of these if anybody wants it; I'd be glad to share it. Nothing I've talked about so far is proprietary.

Another total area outside of smart materials is called MEMs (micro electronic machines). These are the little robots that Ray Kurzweil was talking about this morning. I'm sure they use some of this MEMs technology to move those little wings that fly around. These things are able to move little, tiny parts inside a microchip. The microchips look just like parts say inside a Braille 'n Speak or anything else, except that they have moveable members.

The problem for Braille displays is that the parts move only on the order of twenty-five microns, and that's just not enough to get a good display. However, Stanford Research Institute--SRI it's now called--has a grant application in to do some work with MEMs to try to make a Braille display. They think they have a way to do it that can actually result in a real Braille display with the normal twenty-five thousandths of an inch movement. I read the proposal; in fact, we're teaming with them on it. And it looks as if it is feasible. They would start on the display somewhere in the year 2000.

The last area, and one that we are involved in more than any other, is shape memory alloys (SMA), titanium nickel alloys. This is an old technology; it's been around and been worked on quite a bit by a company out in California called TiNi, Inc. They worked on it for four or five years, and they actually did make a Braille cell. It was demonstrated here at the NFB National Center. The problem was that it wasn't reliable and took a lot of power to activate. There were some mechanical parts on it that are very difficult to make and duplicate. The activator is a little wire about the size of a human hair, four mils in diameter. A tiny piece of wire that would make a Braille dot go up and down costs about two cents. So the pricing is right to make a very low-cost Braille display. The trouble is that it does use a lot of current, and it's rather difficult to work with.

Over the past two years we've experimented with SMA wires a lot, and we've gotten over fifty million actuations on a piece of wire. At that point the wire stabilized and stopped changing properties, so we concluded that it would probably do another fifty million actuations. We now have a single dot going up and down fifty million times; it takes a long time to do fifty million actuations; figure it out. We are in the process now of designing an actual Braille module with these wires. They may be incredibly difficult to build. They've got little, tiny springs in them. But assuming that you can get robots to put these things together, they really do have promise. That's the display work going on at Blazie Engineering. I don't know anyone else working on shape memory alloy except Purdue University, and I believe their research has stopped.

I still think that the Holy Grail in blindness is the full-page display. Everybody who is designing Braille modules wants to try to make one that you can replicate in two dimensions so that you can make a full page. There is a lot of talk about whether you really need a full page, or is four lines or six lines or eight enough? I believe that four lines is probably enough, but not being a blind person, I just extrapolate what I see people doing. A full-page display has been made by Metec. There are probably two in existence, probably not more than that--four, Dave tells me. They sell for about $50,000. And it's also a graphics display so that you can actually display dot patterns as well. It uses the little, tiny solenoids that Shaefer and Schonherr developed a long time ago.

That in my opinion is the current state of the area in Braille displays. We need more research money in Braille displays, more people doing the work--not just more money in the same pockets but new people, with new ideas doing the research. I know VisuAide is doing some research on Braille displays--I'm not supposed to tell you that--but I didn't sign a nondisclosure, so I can tell you. The last thing I would like to tell you is sort of a commercial plug. You know we are working on an Optacon grant. We are also still repairing Optacons. If you've got a broken Optacon, we'll try to fix it.

One way that you could help us is that, if you know anybody who has Optacons that aren't being used, give them to us so that we can use them for parts. We just can't find enough parts. Some state agencies have donated five, six, and seven Optacons that were in their closets, just sitting there gathering dust. There are a lot of people who depend on an Optacon for their jobs and their livelihoods, so they need to keep them repaired. With no parts anymore, we are begging people, please, donate your Optacons if you're not using them anymore, and we will get what we can for them for you. And if you have one that needs to be repaired, send it to us, and we will do our best to repair it.

Finally, our Optacon grant is being funded by the National Science Foundation. It's not nearly enough to finish the project. We are having trouble with the tactile ray technology now. We are going back to the old way of doing it, which is brute force, but trying to modernize it. So, if anybody has any funding sources and wants to see this project speeded up, please talk to me sometime before the end of the meeting.