The Dynamic Tactile Device: A New Solution to an Old Problem

Person in a suit looks at a device with a large tactile image displayed

The Dynamic Tactile Device: A New Solution to an Old Problem

by Karen Anderson

I grew up as a blind Braille-reading student in the public school system in Nebraska. I vividly remember my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Williams, rearranging her classroom storage so we had space in the classroom for all the volumes of my Braille textbooks. She never wanted me to feel that I had to miss instruction time to go get a new volume. In my desk I kept the volumes I needed for each textbook we were using. When I needed a new volume, I got up, walked across the room, and found the cupboard where my books were stored. Then I thumbed through the volumes until I found the one with the pages we were using. This was the best setup I could imagine at the time, but I wondered what it must be like for my sighted peers, who only had one book to worry about. 

I am a very spatial learner, particularly when it comes to math and science concepts. By the time I was in high school, I had a notetaker with a forty-cell Braille display. My teachers were hopeful that I could do my math homework on the notetaker rather than working everything out in hard copy Braille on a Perkins Braillewriter and waiting for my teacher of blind students to transcribe my assignments. However, try as I might, I could not keep enough of the information in my head to handle doing complex math without seeing the entire problem. Reading one line of Braille at a time simply didn't cut it for me. I went back to the Perkins, and I was successful, but I needed that extra step, my teacher of the blind transcribing my work. 

I know that my experiences are not unique. Generations of blind students have worked through similar challenges, and we have all lived to tell the tale. But blind students and blind adults have long dreamed of a refreshable Braille display that could display more than one line of Braille at a time. In our wildest dreams we have even imagined that this multi-line Braille display would be able to show us tactile graphics. In general, tactile graphics have been limited or nonexistent for blind students and adults.  

The National Federation of the Blind, along with our partners at the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) and HumanWare, believe that the time has come to make this dream a reality. We believe that technology has come far enough to make this device possible. Just as importantly, we believe that we have assembled the right team to make it a reality. 

Many blind people are likely to be skeptical. After all, this is not the first time we have heard about work on a device that can do at least some of these things. I can't count the number of times I have been tagged on social media by friends and family, eagerly sharing a news story about a future tablet for blind people that will present multiple lines of Braille. I get my hopes up, only to discover that no headway has been made on the project. In most cases it turns out that blind people haven't even been consulted at all. 

Now, for the first time, a truly unified effort has been launched to make this dream a reality. Our partners at APH have more than a century of experience providing Braille textbooks to blind students across the country. HumanWare has decades of expertise developing innovative technology used by blind people around the world. And we in the National Federation of the Blind belong to the nation's oldest organization of blind people. Who better to help develop this game-changing technology for blind people than blind people themselves? 

A great deal of research and thought has gone into developing this dynamic new tactile device. Everyone involved in the project wants to make sure it will meet the needs of as many blind people, particularly blind students, as possible. 

The Dynamic Tactile Device (DTD) will be able to show ten lines of Braille at a time, and it will be thirty-two characters across. This decision was made in part because we want to make sure that it will easily fit on a student's desk. One of the things that most excites me about these developments is the fact that blind students once again will be able to use the butterfly method of reading, where the right hand finishes a line of Braille while the left hand drops down to begin reading the line below. For obvious reasons this method hasn't been possible for readers using traditional one-line Braille displays. We know that reading with both hands, using the butterfly method, is the best way to build speed as a Braille reader. I look forward to seeing how fast some of our students will be able to read with so much Braille under their fingertips. 

In addition, equidistant pins mean that the Dynamic Tactile Device will be able to show tactile graphics, not just Braille characters. This development will be truly revolutionary in terms of math, science, and other spatial content. The device will be able to show tactile graphics labeled in Braille. Furthermore, blind people will be able to interact with the graphics in ways we never really have been able to before. We will be able to zoom in and out on pictures to explore more detail or less, as needed. We will also be able to view material that has been drawn or shown on another device. For example, we might be able to touch a diagram that has been drawn on an iPad using an Apple Pencil. This capability will absolutely change how we interact with tactile graphics and how we teach blind students to understand what has previously been seen as a mostly visual medium.  

Below the display on the Dynamic Tactile Device is a Perkins-style keypad that allows the device to be used for writing as well as reading. The Dynamic Tactile Device will also have an on-board ecosystem of Braille-centric applications optimized for viewing multiple lines of Braille at a time. Students will be able to work math problems on this device and still read the lines above and below where they are currently writing. Touch-sensitive cells will allow us to use our fingers to navigate to where we want to edit, rather than having to use cursor-routing keys as we do when we use Braille displays that are currently on the market. 

We anticipate that this device will dramatically shorten the time it takes to get Braille textbooks into the hands of blind students. A student will be able to download their books from the cloud instead of waiting for boxes and boxes of Braille volumes to be shipped across the country. But the Dynamic Tactile Device isn't just a powerful tool for blind students. Blind adults will be able to view sports schedules, maps, or knitting patterns. Undoubtedly they will find uses for the device that we can't yet imagine. Picture a blind website developer using the Dynamic Tactile Device to look at the webpage they are designing, checking how it will be laid out without having to use a human reader. A blind architect could tactilely examine digital blueprints as they change in real time. A blind musician could view both hands of a piece of piano music or multiple parts of a finished score. 

The Dynamic Tactile Device does not stand alone. In order to make a multi-line Braille display truly feasible and usable to its full potential, our partners have realized that we need to develop a new Braille file standard. The new standard must be optimized to show multiple lines of Braille on one device. We are currently working together to develop the EBRF, or Electronic Braille Ready File, standard. EBRF will make it possible for users to navigate through files as seamlessly as sighted people navigate through electronic files on their Kindle or iPad. 

One of our first goals is to get this device into the hands of every blind student in the United States K-12 system. Of course, such a powerful device won't be inexpensive, at least at the start. To make it available we will need to work together to find funding. The American Printing House for the Blind receives an annual appropriation to provide educational books and other materials for students who are blind or have low vision. Increasing this funding will be the most efficient way to get this device into the hands of students quickly. The National Federation of the Blind supports increasing the appropriation for APH to fund distribution of this new Braille display. Our members excel in this kind of advocacy. We know our stories, and we are comfortable telling them. I have illustrated some of the ways having a device like this could have impacted my educational career. We need to share many more stories from our members across the country. We have our stories, our experiences, and most importantly, we have our passion to make things better for the next generation of blind students. By working together we have the power to help our partners secure funding to get the Dynamic Tactile Device into the hands of blind students across the United States, and to make it available to blind adults as well. 

Our partners know what a huge impact this device will have on the blind community, and we all believe that this is the right group to make it happen. Bruce Miles, CEO of HumanWare, says, "At HumanWare we are absolutely thrilled to be working on the DTD project alongside our partners at APH and the NFB. It will be nothing short of a revolution in electronic Braille that will clearly transform the Braille experience for everyone around the world. It aligns perfectly with our mission and is the type of challenge that is built into the DNA of our company." 

Craig Meador, President of APH, states, "There is no more important frontier for APH than this project. Leveling the education and learning playing field, not just for students but for adults as well, begins with equal access to Braille and tactile images. This really isn't about fancy tech; it is about achieving equality. And there is no other partner we need by our side in the journey to achieve equality than NFB."

President Riccobono put it eloquently. "Each of us has the power to shape the future of the DTD through our active involvement in promoting Braille literacy through the National Federation of the Blind. As we move toward beta testing this innovative device, we as blind people need to be the quality control. What does it do well? What does it do really badly? What does it not do that it should? How could it be leveraged to be more meaningful to us and our authentic experience as blind people? What can we learn from testing these new approaches? These questions and more we must explore through our active testing of this innovative device. 

"More importantly, how are we, as blind people, going to utilize the power of this partnership to raise expectations and transform dreams into reality? The answer is, together. Let's imagine what is possible and then make it happen together."