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Touching is Believing

By Lauren GravitzApril 1, 2003 6:00 AM


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A novel display may soon help blind people perceive photographs and other images by touch, much as the braille alphabet allows them to read words. Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, who worked on a device that translates digital text into braille, recently turned their attention to another problem. "There's a real need for an affordable display that will handle graphics," says computer engineer John Roberts, who heads the NIST team. Roberts's machine creates a simpler, reusable type of tactile display using a thin rod that runs under a bed of more than 3,600 fine, rounded pins. The rod pushes the pins up to draw the desired image; an underlying sheet of metal, with one hole for every pin, is then shifted slightly to lock the pins in place. The resulting "image" is about half the size of a sheet of writing paper. When hooked up to a computer and a scanner, the NIST display can create tactile versions of images ranging from book illustrations to Web sites. Roberts, who is talking to manufacturers, says a commercial version of the display could be produced for about $2,000.

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