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Your UCP: National September 08, 2003
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Assistive Technology

NFB, NIST Announce Partnership, Demonstrate Device That Allows Blind to "Feel" Electronic Images

Baltimore, MD, Oct. 24, 2002)—The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) today announced a partnership to collaborate on the development and first field testing of a prototype device that will allow the blind to "feel" electronic images and graphics.

The new technology introduced by NIST and NFB is a device that brings electronic images to the blind and visually impaired in the same way that Braille makes words readable. The prototype conveys scanned illustrations, map outlines, and other graphical images to the fingertips, and it can translate images displayed on Internet Web pages or in electronic books.

The collaborative partnership between NFB, the nation's largest consumer organization of blind people, and NIST lays the foundation for technology development that will occur when NFB's National Research and Training Institute for the Blind opens its doors in 2003.

Now under construction adjacent to NFB headquarters in Baltimore, the Institute "will become the international center for research, training, and new innovations designed to improve the lives of blind individuals," said NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer.

According to Dr. Maurer, the Institute will serve as a national hub for educational programs aimed at upgrading the skills of teachers of the blind, training programs that inform parents of blind children on the newest teaching techniques, and research designed to improve mobility for the blind. The Institute also will focus on new ways to access computer information with speech and Braille technology, and on methods that allow seniors who are losing their vision to learn Braille.

In announcing the new prototype device, Dr. Maurer noted that graphics for the blind have always been difficult to produce and extremely expensive. "Sometimes, however, a graphic presentation is the only way to portray a figure, a thought, or an image," he explained. "The prototype for a graphical presentation machine created by NIST will speed tactile images to the blind at a fraction of the cost previously required, opening opportunities which have never before been available to blind children and adults."

The prototype uses refreshable tactile display technology - 3,600 small pins that can be raised in any pattern and then locked into place to hold the pattern for reading. The pins then can be withdrawn and reset in a new pattern, allowing a person to feel a succession of images on a reusable surface.

Each image is sent electronically to the device through the use of software that determines how to create a tactile display matching the image.

The inspiration for the prototype came from a "bed of nails" toy found in a novelty store. Watching the pins in the toy depress under fingers and then return to their original state started the NIST team thinking about how the principle could be applied to electronic signals.

NIST originally pioneered a device known as the NIST Braille Reader as part of a NIST project to make electronic books more accessible to the blind. That earlier device uses a combination of disks, rods, and small motors to produce 64 different combinations of raised Braille characters.

The current version of the reader incorporates several design improvements based on feedback from NFB members who field-tested the original design. The original design, for example, only allowed the user to read Braille with a single finger, despite the fact that many blind people prefer reading Braille using several fingers. The current version allows for the use of several fingers. It is also more compact and mechanically simpler than the original.

The announcement of the prototype and the NIST-NFB collaboration comes during Meet the Blind Month, a national campaign launched by NFB to dispel misconceptions about blindness. The campaign is designed to "create opportunities for Americans to meet blind people, to learn firsthand about their lives, and to recognize that blind people are pretty much just like everyone else," said Dr. Maurer.

"Our goal," Dr. Maurer continued, "is to spread the word that the real problem with blindness is not lack of eyesight, but lack of information which, in turn, creates misunderstanding about blind people. Getting to know us a little better will expand everyone's lives."

NFB affiliates and local chapters across the country are staging informational exhibits in shopping malls and other public gathering places throughout October to demonstrate some of the technologies developed for blind people, including speech and Braille output technology and NFB-NEWSLINE, the pioneering service that allows blind people to "read" daily newspapers using a touch-tone telephone service.

With more than 50,000 members and 700 local and state affiliates and chapters, NFB is the largest and most influential membership organization of blind people in the United States. As a consumer and advocacy organization, NFB is the leading force in the blindness field today and the voice of the nation's blind.

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