Can't BrailleTouch This…or Can You? A Review of the BrailleTouch Prototype
Back in February of this year, a team of researchers from Georgia Tech in Atlanta, GA, unveiled the BrailleTouch prototype, an eyes-free app that allows you to enter text in braille using a touchscreen smartphone. The widespread interest in this app created a media frenzy that took its researchers completely by surprise. Media coverage of BrailleTouch included CNN, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, the BBC, and several other news sources and technology blogs. BrailleTouch also won the MobileHCI 2011 competition for design at the MobileHCI conference in Stockholm, Sweden. According to Georgia Tech's media department, the video BrailleTouch Helps Visually Impaired Users has received more views than any other Georgia Tech video. Although BrailleTouch is an app targeted specifically for people who are blind or visually impaired, the international media coverage of this app suggests that a replacement of the virtual QWERTY keyboard also resonates with the mainstream population.
BrailleTouch was developed collaboratively by Georgia Tech researchers Mario Romero, Caleb Southern, and Brian Frey. Prior to its media debut, these researchers carried out extensive user studies and focus groups with braille users, largely through the Center for the Visually Impaired in Atlanta. These studies gave the researchers insight into the app's performance, and provided them with a valuable venue for gleaning first-hand feedback and suggestions from braille users. The development of BrailleTouch has received the vote of confidence, and financial backing, from both the Alternative Media Access Center and the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies.
What is BrailleTouch?
BrailleTouch allows the user to type in braille using the touchscreen of a smartphone as the text entry interface. BrailleTouch is designed to closely emulate the finger placement of braille writers such as the Perkins Brailler and portable braille note-takers. A braille cell consists of six dots of two columns of three dots each. A braille character is created by using a combination of dots in a braille cell. When BrailleTouch is loaded onto a touchscreen smartphone, the entire touchscreen becomes a virtual braille cell. The user activates the two columns of dots by tapping on the sides of the screen with his or her fingertips. Entering of text requires the correct finger placement within the virtual braille cell.
BrailleTouch audibly announces each character as it is being brailled. Inputting braille is much easier to learn than reading braille, and requires no tactual discrimination. BrailleTouch is designed so that the screen of the smartphone actually faces away from you when in use, and is therefore truly "eyes-free." Your index, middle, and ring fingers of both hands curl around the touchscreen of the mobile device as it faces away from you, so that your fingertips hover slightly above the surface of the touchscreen. This design may seem counterintuitive, since we are so accustomed to having the touchscreen facing us as we type. Facing it away from you allows you to more effectively use the fingers of both hands for braille input.
Short Learning Curve to Fast Brailling
Georgia Tech's user studies concluded that braille users were able to quickly and easily transfer their skills acquired on a braille writer, since the same finger positioning is used on both devices. For example, pressing the left index finger on a braille writer creates the letter A which is the same finger used to create an A on the touchscreen using BrailleTouch. Likewise, the finger placement required for the remainder of the alphabet using BrailleTouch all correspond to the finger placement of a braille writer.
The user studies revealed that in a short amount of time, some braille users were able to type at speeds exceeding 30 words per minute, with accuracy rates surpassing 90%. When you take into account the number of times the AutoCorrect feature on smartphones corrects misspelled words using the QWERTY keyboard in order to improve its accuracy, these numbers represent some very impressive results. Because a braille cell contains six dots, BrailleTouch only requires that six areas of the screen be accessed to replicate the braille cell. When you compare that to the 45 or more minuscule characters making up the QWERTY keyboard, it shouldn't be surprising that the level of speed and accuracy with BrailleTouch is so high. In fact, BrailleTouch will not include AutoCorrect, the ubiquitous feature on smartphones that was created with the assumption that you will make a lot of errors as you hunt and peck with your smartphone's QWERTY keyboard.
A Forgiving and Intelligent Interface
BrailleTouch is quite forgiving of exact finger placement when entering text. This is because the program relies on the number of fingers being placed on the touchscreen at any given time, and whether the touch points are on the left or right side of the screen. Many of the photos and videos of BrailleTouch show six blue dots on the touchscreen, representing the braille cell. Those dots are a little misleading, and suggest that in order to carry out a braille character, the finger tips need to be placed on the visually displayed dots. BrailleTouch is actually more flexible at interpreting braille characters than that. Take, for example, the letter L which consists of dots 1, 2, and 3, or in other words, the left side of the braille cell. You would therefore use the three fingers of the left hand to carry out an L. As long as three fingers are touching any part of the left half of the screen at any given time as it's facing away from you, BrailleTouch recognizes an L. A handful of gestures are also incorporated into the app to simplify its use, including right-flicking with a single finger to leave a space, and left-flicking with a single finger to backspace. A case can be made that speech recognition programs such as Siri on the iPhone, or Iris on Android devices, significantly reduce dependency on the QWERTY keyboard. Indeed, in specific instances these can be very valuable tools. However, if you have a need for privacy, if network and Internet access is unavailable, or you are in a noisy environment, speech recognition is not a solution.
Dispelling the Myths
During the media blitz with BrailleTouch, a number of news sources disseminated misinformation. The tech blogs were also abuzz with questions and speculation about the app, and there was confusion as to why the app was not yet available. The app is still a prototype, and has therefore not been released to the public. Mario Romero, Principal Investigator for the BrailleTouch project, hopes the roll-out date will be this summer; although, it may be later. At that time, the app will be made available as a free download.
iOS and Android Compatibility
BrailleTouch has mostly been demonstrated to the media using Apple's iPod touch. This has also added to the confusion among the public. BrailleTouch will have the ability to integrate with the Android operating system, and override its virtual keyboard to allow text entry. Because Apple's iOS is not open source, BrailleTouch will only function as a stand-alone app on iOS devices. This means that BrailleTouch will not have any text entry or text editing capabilities with either the iPod touch or iPhone. The app will audibly announce the letters you are brailling using an iPhone or iPod touch, but will not allow integration with any of the apps or features within the operating system of Apple devices. Considering the fact that the iPhone and iPod touch are by far the most accessible, out-of-the-box solutions for people who are blind and visually impaired, restricting such a valuable tool like BrailleTouch from integrating fully with Apple devices will be a disappointment to many Apple fans.
Grade 2 Braille May Be Coming
According to the Georgia Tech researchers, the release of BrailleTouch later this year will support Grade 1 braille. They are also cognizant of the value of Grade 2 braille, and are considering including it in a future release. As much potential as BrailleTouch has for Grade 1 braille users, the potential is even greater for people using Grade 2 braille, which is roughly the equivalent of shorthand. With Grade 2 braille, a single braille cell can represent part or all of a word. It's not hard to imagine how incorporating Grade 2 braille into BrailleTouch could markedly increase the rate of input for people who are proficient with that system.
It Doesn't Solve Everything
Another misleading piece of information regarding BrailleTouch is that it replaces the need for braille displays used by people who are blind and visually impaired. Considering the fact that Apple does not currently allow BrailleTouch to override its QWERTY keyboard, braille displays are the only option available for braille input and braille output on iOS devices. Braille displays such as Refreshabraille 18 and Brailliant Bl 32, although costly solutions (in excess of $1,000), are available options for both braille input and output on smartphones. Even if BrailleTouch was fully integrated with iOS devices, neither Apple nor the Android platform provides braille output without additional hardware. Well-rounded braille literacy skills require the ability to input and read braille effectively. If you are blind or visually impaired, and are unable to see the touchscreen of the smartphone, you are still reliant on the speech synthesizer of the device itself such as Mobile Accessibility for the Android platform, or VoiceOver on iOS. In certain environments, accessing information audibly on your smartphone may not be convenient or appropriate. That said, the value of BrailleTouch is that it allows you to quickly and efficiently enter text from almost anywhere at a moment's notice, as opposed to relying on a secondary device that you are required to carry with you and sync with your mobile device. Very often, the convenience factor alone is one of the most influential factors in determining a product's usefulness.
Educational and Social Implications
An ever-increasing number of adults and teenagers are using smartphones. From an educational standpoint, BrailleTouch may provide greater opportunities for blind and visually impaired people to reinforce their braille skills, and also make braille more relevant on a daily basis. At a time of ever-shrinking budgets, inexpensive text-to-speech software solutions and audio-enabled eBook readers are increasingly crowding out braille literacy. While this might not seem problematic since most students are still able to access material audibly, there are a number of shortcomings to audio access alone, including the inflexible, linear stream in which information is delivered, the fact that some people are not strong auditory learners, and the lack of reinforcement of spelling skills. For a person who is blind or visually impaired, BrailleTouch still depends on the auditory output of a smartphone, but because it reinforces the use of braille, it has the potential to reinforce braille skills and supplement what a refreshable braille display has to offer.
The vast amount of media coverage that BrailleTouch has received demonstrates that braille is still viable and relevant today. The app may also create a better understanding of braille itself, bringing it easily into the hands of the mainstream instead of isolating it in some esoteric category equivalent to learning hieroglyphics. The title of a Los Angeles Times article on BrailleTouch reads: "Could BrailleTouch App Revolutionize Texting?" An international chord has been struck that reverberates with the knowledge that there is an easier method of text input on smartphones than hunting and pecking through a QWERTY keyboard.
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