Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Holy Braille Project

Dr. Sile O’Modhrain, a blind associate professor at the University of Michigan, is curently developing a kindle style tablet that uses braille lettering and is refreshable. She was born in Iredland, and attended Trinity College in Dublin where she earned a BA in music. She then went on to earn an MS in music technology from the University of York in England, and a Ph.D. in computer-based music theory from Stanford University. 
 Sile O’Modhrain (pictured), an associate professor of information at Michigan, is leading the team at Michigan to develop a full page refreshable Braille device, which will be able to display full pages of text which can be refreshed under computer control

She has an eye condition similar to retinitis pigmentosa, which has left her blind. In order to perform her duties as a professor, she uses screen a braille reader to read email and uses the internet. But she has encountered numerous problems with them. Current braille readers can only read one line at a time, so it's impossible to figure out any charts, graphs, or anything that is spatially distributed. The one line braille readers available are very expensive, costing at a minimum $3,000. With the current technology a kindle size braille reader would cost around $55,000.

With her own struggles and the struggles of other blind people in mind, Dr. O'Modhrain and her research assistants set out to develop a braille reader tablet that was refreshable and affordable. What they've created is and entirely pneumatic system that uses air or liquid to push up pins on the tablet surface to form braille letters. Because of this their tablet doesn't need to worry about wiring tons of circuits, reducing the cost of production. Dr. O'Modhrain's lab has the technology working, "the biggest difficulty faced by the team is controlling the thousands of pneumatic pumps needed to create an entire page of text, while keeping the entire device small enough to be portable" (1).

Researchers at the University of Michigan are developing a refreshable device which, when available, would be capable of displaying pages of the raised bumps, which can be read by touch. The 'Braille Kindle' (artist's impression illustrated) could make reading text and working with graphs easier for millions

Dr. O'Modhrain felt "'One of the consequences of blind people not being able to access Braille, is that they're limited in terms of the kind of scientific or mathematical things they can do in their access to spatially displayed information. And even being able to do something fun, like see a graphic that represents performance statistics for their football team over the last year'"(1). She believes that "the findings of this project and the availability of a large-area tactile display would open up the possibility for a wide range of scientific exploration" (2).
Obviously Dr. O'Modhrain had a lot of intrinsic motivation to work on this project, as this technology would greatly benefit her. She also was motivated to help blind people around the world and made it a goal of the project to use the technology to increase braille literacy of blind people around the world (2). But she also has a lot of extrinsic motivation to complete this project. She works for a university that pays her not only to teach, but also to do research like this braille reader project, and she received grant money to fund this project, so people have invested in her completing this product.

Dr. O'Modhrain has taken a problem she experienced personally and found a novel way to make the technology even more useful while also reducing the cost. With her design the technology will be more readily available to blind people around the world.
Click here to watch an interview about The Holy Braille

Works cited


  1. This is a really interesting post! I had no idea that a Braille reader the size of a kindle could cost that much. I wonder how long it will take for this pneumatic reader to be out on the market to aid others who are visually impaired? And can this also be applied to other things that would pop up on the internet like pictures, ads, and other spatially displayed information? This is definitely a necessary invention and I'm sure it will be perfected through Dr. O'Modhrain's own testing.

  2. The first thing I thought of when reading this post was social justice in science. I've never considered the difficulties visually impaired individuals would have in a science field because of the many computer generated graphics. This technology, which is undoubtedly creative, would be making progress in giving the visually impaired a better opportunity to be involved in fields with computer graphics. It's great that O'Modhrain was not willing to settle for the one-time braille readers. This technology does not sound like an easy feat; I can't wait to see the progress of this braille kindle!

  3. This is very cool! One of my acquaintances is legally blind, and through her I learned that most blind people don't even read Braille because of how resource-intensive it was in the past (Braille takes up much more space than traditional print books, and purchasing several volumes per book in Braille can get expensive quickly) and because it isn't practical for most of the things we read today (like phones/computer screens). An invention like this provides a creative solution to both of these problems, and I'll be fascinated to see how rates of blind people who read Braille changes because of it!

  4. This is incredible! We live in a society that is all about easy access, but we often forget that we are only allowing things to be easy for a certain group of people. I am curious to see what companies will decide to invest in this--it is an incredibly relevant issue. Hopefully the price will be able to reduce in the future. But it is great to see how the traditional form of media (braille) is being introduced into modern society. Thanks for sharing this!

  5. I am so intrigued by this innovation. To think that a full page of text can be made into braille through simple pins, water, and air is incredible. I currently work at an adult home for the Visually Impaired, and I can definitely say that they would appreciate this. A lot of the people I work with do not have the money to learn and actively read braille. Like you said, it's expensive! But with the innovation of pins and air/water, it could definitely bring down the expenses, which would be great! Living with a disability should not disable your wallet. I love this idea, I definitely believe that O'Modhrain is very creative. Thank you for sharing!


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