I’ve said in this magazine on numerous occasions that cheap, accessible technology for the blind will only be made available on a grand scale when companies are able to figure out a way that the sighted public can benefit from the same product or interface. It’s a matter of economics–the more people you have to sell your product to, the cheaper you can offer it in order to still make a profit. Up until now, there have been few devices, whether mass produced or in the concept phase, that have been able to successfully bridge that gap. But a team of Disney engineers may have just developed a technology capable of changing that.
On the surface, the new technology is sort of gimmicky. They talk about being able to pick up a coffee mug and it feeling hairy, or running your hand across a normally smooth surface that would instead feel like sandpaper. But what hasn’t been addressed in any great detail is specific tactile markers and symbols; or more importantly, Braille.
Disney engineers have been tooling around with this new touch interface in order to morph our perception of how certain objects feel. In order to accomplish this, they use a weak electric signal that is fed through the user’s body. When the user touches an object with a common electrical ground attached to a signal generator, the effect is perceived. This strange sensation is called reverse electro-vibration, dubbed REVEL.
The electrical signal is entirely imperceptible to the user (very similar to low-grade static electricity), and creates an electrostatic field around the user’s body. When touching an object attached to a REVEL signal generator, the faint electric field around the user’s body modulates the friction between the user’s finger and the object to alter how the user experiences the texture of that object. As of this writing, they have been able to create the illusion of virtual pebbles and individual grains of sand on a smooth surface. This technology, which only requires constant electrical signals be put through the user’s body, would not require any special gloves or devices, and could perhaps even be embedded into clothing.
While this technology is new, imagine if you could wear a watch that was able to pass that faint electrical signal through your body and would be able to connect wirelessly with a common tablet computer. With that connection, and a special app installed on the tablet, the surface of the tablet could become a dynamic Braille display, capable of filling the entire screen with multiple lines of Braille. If the tablet was an iPad, for example, VoiceOver would still be present to guide you through any other function on the device, but all of the apps on the screen could be given custom Braille tags. A Braille keyboard or typewriter would also be a very easy inclusion.
While the sighted community would be able to benefit from this technology in the form of augmented reality and amusement, this could be a huge equalizer for the visually impaired community and serve as the first real way to modernize how people read Braille at a significantly lower cost than currently available technology can offer.