January 2017 Issue  Volume 18  Number 1

Interviews

The Quest for "The Holy Braille" Full-Page Refreshable Braille Display: An Interview with Alex Russomanno

If all goes as planned, The Holy Braille, a project from the University of Michigan School of Information, is set to revolutionize the pace of education for people with visual impairments. It would do this through developing a full-page, refreshable braille display. Project designers believe that the device could drastically improve the rate at which people with visual impairments receive and interpret information. Currently, braille readers or devices that attach to the bottom of a tablet can interpret only one line of readable text at a time.

The team's two-pronged approach seeks to develop the technology needed to create a full-page refreshable braille display and tactile graphics on portable devices at a reasonable cost. It would do so through a new technology, a pneumatic system of air pressure and fluid below the screen, programmed to raise bubbles on the screen's surface to produce braille and tactile graphics.

The epicenter of The Holy Braille's development sits at The University of Michigan. Here, Brent Gillespie of the College of Mechanical Engineering, Alex Russomanno, PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Mark Burns of the College of Chemical Engineering, and Sile O'Modhrain, Associate Professor of the School of Information are working to build their Holy Braille model. Their outlook is positive and their motivation strong.

The device's catchy name was coined by collaborator Noel Runyan, and from what the team is telling us, it's the holy grail for adaptive technology for the blind and visually impaired--the "answer" or wondrous revelation of truth after a long, laborious journey. The quest for The Holy Braille is the quest for visually impaired individuals to have the same digital experience as their sighted peers.

In a recent interview, Alex Russomanno talked about his team's momentum, the project's trajectory, and what we can expect to see in the next few years.

Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald: What inspired you to join the team working to create The Holy Braille?

Alex Russomanno: I initially got involved in the project because of my prior experience with the technology that we're working on, dealing with microdevices. I did research on similar technology during my undergraduate program. While the braille and tactile graphics applications were added elements to this project, they're ones I've ended up being really excited about.

FCF: I understand that while refreshable braille displays do exist, the current technology only provides one line of text at a time. How did this factor into your team's motivation for creating a full-page refreshable braille display?

AR: Sile O'Modhrain, from the School of Information, is a key member of our team. She is blind herself and an avid user of refreshable braille displays for many years, as well as other types of adaptive equipment and technology. She has firsthand experience on what's not available in the industry, especially in the realm of refreshable braille displays. One of the big things I've learned from her and in talking to other people that use these devices is that they are very limiting. Reading a single line of rendered braille on the screen will not be like reading a full page of hard copy braille on a sheet of paper. It's not equivalent. In the same way, there is no adaptation for images, spreadsheets, or other graphics, so there's no way for visually impaired individuals to interact with these [types of] more interactive digital content. She is personally motivated to make these features available.

FCF: How has Sile O'Modhrain's first-hand experience been important for the development of the project?

AR: In collaboration with my advisor, Brent Gillespie, she's always been considering different ways they could make an impact for visually impaired individuals. Brent Gillespie works in the haptics domain--research involving the sense of touch, so there is a real clear overlap of their interests. Between Brent's mechanical engineering expertise and Sile's background in working with these devices and knowing where they are lacking, they are attacking this challenge to improve full-page tactile text and graphics.

FCF: If you had to narrow it down, what are your main objectives with developing The Holy Braille?

AR: Our first objective is to create multiple lines of text, electronically, that you could access just as you would access a hard copy braille, scanning and using both hands to really have a more immersive interaction with the content.

Our second objective is to use the technology to render images, and go so far as to render a tactile interface you can feel and interact with, similar to how sighted people interact with a desktop computer or any type of visual display with unique icons. If we could build a display that has a full page of dots that move up and down, you could use those dots to render images, to render the equivalent of icons, and you could have interesting new ways of interacting with digital content you don't currently have with text to-speech software or other adaptive means of interacting with visual content.

FCF: Where are you in the trajectory of getting to the answers of these questions?

AR: It's a two-pronged approach right now. On one side we're working with building the technology--how can we enable the creation of a low cost full-page display. We're not quite ready to be putting out a product, but in the next year we'll be looking at attaining seed funding to pursue the commercialization of our technology, enabling the creation of a potential prototype model of our device.

The second part of our research is looking at how someone would interact with such a device. Currently, while full-page braille displays have been created, they are so expensive not many people can get their hands on them. We want to research how they are used and what they will be best used for. It's hard to have these answers at this point without a prototype device, but we're moving closer to these answers.

FCF: You talk about visual displays--graphs, charts, spreadsheets--being rendered in braille. Can you explain how your team would actually create those images with braille?

AR: The image or graphic would look like a grid of dots. By programming those dots to appear with appropriate spacing and heights, you will be able to render shapes or images. This is very similar to how you program pixels to appear as an image on a computer screen. To make graphs and different images on the screen, it's just a matter of programming those physical features in the form of dots, to rise and fall in a certain, programmed manner.

Creating rendered images and graphics is obviously much more complicated than writing braille letters in a straight line. In times like this it has helped having contacts at SKERI (Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute) as they're also very interested in studying the ways that blind and visually impaired people in particular are interacting with tactile images.

FCF: Are there alternative methods that you are currently using or can use to study how individuals will use the device?

AR: Right now our research is focused on mimicking the display, or a manifestation of our display, using methods like 3D printing. We can 3D print what our display might look like and then run small-group sample studies to see how people interact with the device. We can observe how well they can identify tactile images and then we'll then use that information to guide the creation of an eventual display. We're very interested in both sides, the technology and also how the technology might be used because it's all brand new. No one has created such a device.

FCF: It seems like this technology could really change the way we are educating our blind and visually impaired students. What stands in your way of getting these devices into residential schools for the blind, or into the hands of visually impaired students around the world?

AR: We are well aware that one of the limits of creating a refreshable braille displays or multi-lined displays has been their cost. A full-page refreshable braille display could cost up to $55,000 for one device, and that's obviously prohibitively expensive if you want to get it into the hands of a student or of someone that actually needs it. We think we have come up with a specific technology and a method to manufacture that device in a way that's going to be much cheaper. We think by creating our technology, through a pneumatic system, will reduce costs of production.

With our technology, all of the dots that move up and down and all the interconnections and air channels and pumps, and everything needed to control them, would all come in one single piece. It'd be made in the same way that a computer chip is made. When you take away the need for assembling all the parts, and condense the technology into one piece, you remove some of the main factors that tend to drive up the costs. That's where I think the bread and butter, where we make our impact, will be. We want to lower the cost of these devices so we can get these things into the hands of people that will use them.

FCF: Are there still technical hurdles that your team is addressing regarding the production of The Holy Braille?

AR: There are many open questions regarding turning this into a portable device, that is something that I imagine will be further down the road. I don't think creating portable devices is impossible, but it's an added technical hurdle to make that happen. Creating the full-page rendered braille display in a desktop version, the size of a CCTV for example, that you could put on a table or desk in a classroom, we're not far from that. That is well within our current reach.

FCF: What keeps you motivated to work on this project?

AR: It's fascinating. We went to the California School for the Blind with our collaborators from SKERI earlier this year to get more information about how tactile graphics can be used and what can be improved. It's just very obvious that a lot of older children that don't have access to these materials and devices early on have a lot of trouble reading the information in a graph or comprehending what it is trying to communicate, and that makes sense. If a child has not grown up reading or learning how to read graphs, how could they be expected to comprehend what a graph is and how it's read later on in their lives? Even those who are getting access and experience with tactile images, are not getting enough to feel comfortable and fluent.

We want to get these things into the hands of these kids as early as possible, because teaching these things later makes it tougher to catch up. So, that motivates me.

If you have further questions, you can contact members of The Holy Braille team, Alex Russomanno or Sile O'Modhrain.

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