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Patents: Creating Braille Electronically; Glow-in-The-Dark Bubbles

Editor's Note: From the editor: In the 1970s I was working for the rehabilitation agency for the blind in Nebraska. A French couple came to a staff meeting to demonstrate a refreshable Braille device called a "DigiCassette." It looked like a cassette recorder, except that it had a 20-cell Braille display. The inventors talked of a bright future with books "recorded" on cassettes that could be "played" in Braille on the DigiCassette. The agency rushed out and bought a unit. We were all very pleased--until we discovered that the thing didn't work very well. A few years later, TSI released the VersaBraille, a cassette driven refreshable Braille display that really worked! It opened up a whole range of employment opportunities for blind people, even though its technology would be laughable today. Refreshable Braille displays have come a long way since the first VersaBraille, but they are all limited to one or two lines--not the full-page displays we all dream of having. They are also very expensive. I was reminded of the old DigiCassette when I came across the following article. I do not know whether this new patent will be a disappointment like that long-ago machine or a revolutionary step forward like the VersaBraille. The author is not knowledgeable about Braille or blindness; he is unaware that there is no American Federation for the Blind. Still, those of us who long for an inexpensive full-page refreshable Braille display greet articles like this with renewed hope. Read it and judge for yourself.

Hundreds of thousands of blind Americans read by using Braille. In 1990, 4.3 million people had severe vision loss, and 512,000 of those were blind in both eyes. But that does not mean they can read easily. Fluency in Louis Braille's 1825 system can be difficult without a lot of practice. Mastering the system of one to six embossed dots arranged in two columns of three dots each to represent letters and words requires diligent repetition. A similar system of eight dots in two columns of four each is used for mathematical symbols and to represent ASCII, the generic computer code.

But many blind people cannot spend as much time reading Braille as they might like because the "cost of Braille means it's not even affordable to most sight-impaired people," said Marvin Cowens, a polymer chemist at Texas Instruments Inc. Together with Alan Gilkes and Larry Taylor, Cowens has won a patent for a display that creates renewable, raised dots on computer monitors and other screens.

Braille books and other printed materials are expensive to produce and own. The printing process is costly, the bulky books require extra storage space and the dots can begin to deteriorate after only a few readings. Braille systems for display screens exist, Cowens said, but they are complex machines that can cost $5,000 to $10,000 each.

"They're a mechanical nightmare to me," he said. Cowens, whose sight is normal, is trying now to learn Braille using the current technology. "They rely on mechanical pegs that stick up and have a lot of moving parts."

In addition to being expensive, the mechanical system also displays only one line of text per screen, making it cumbersome for Braille readers to scan a page or search for information in a document.

Yet the American Federation for the Blind says 85 percent of people who use Braille as their primary method of reading and are Braille literate have jobs. So Braille fluency can make a big difference in the life of a blind or visually impaired person.

The Texas Instruments invention "consists of a matrix of small cavities, each containing a positive and negative electrode, and filled with a small quantity of polar organic gel responsive to electric fields," the patent explains. A taut film is spread over the matrix to seal the cavities and keeps each one flat.

"Each cavity is individually addressable by electronic means," the patent continues. "When voltage is applied to the electrodes in a cavity, the gel in that cavity expands sufficiently to raise a dimple in the elastomeric film."

The cavities are cylindrical in shape, with metal electrodes embedded on the floor and one side. They create dots in the standard Braille size of 1.5 millimetres, but can be adjusted to other sizes--such as larger dots for those with less sensitive fingertips. The circuitry that delivers electricity to the gel can also cause the dots to vibrate, so letters or words can be "highlighted." The computer can also register when dots have been touched, so it will know when a word has been read or when to turn a page. Users might also be able to design and customize their own Braille systems.

The company says the displays can make word-processing, sheets, graphs, CD-ROM materials, e-mail and online data bases accessible to Braille readers. Books and other paper could be scanned into a computer equipped with the Braille display. The screen can run Braille in English or other languages. software programs will command the computer to convey Braille Dot instructions, rather than the alphabet, to the screen.

Texas Instruments believes its system will help organizations, buildings and device manufacturers comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. But it may be a while before the company has a product to offer.

"We aren't selling anything yet," Cowens said of the invention. He also did not want to guess what a Braille personal computer or laptop display would cost consumers, other than to say it would be "substantially less"

"We have proved the feasibility of the system, but there's still a lot of work to be done," he said. "We're still in the laboratory."

Cowens, Gilkes and Taylor received patent 5,580,251. [section about glow-in-the-dark bubbles deleted]

Patents are available by number for $3 from the Patent and Trademark Office, Washington, D.C. 20231.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company. Reprinted with permission.