There have been so many technologies recently to help the visually impaired. However, navigating in a strange setting is still a major challenge for them. Researchers from EPFL think they can solve this problem. They have developed a tablet, which can help the visually impaired to find their way around unknown places. The tablet can generate maps and shapes using its lightweight and reconfigurable touch screen, letting the users read the graphic data on the touch screen with their fingers.
This touch screen tablet is quite different than your usual iPad. It comes with 192 magnetic buttons across its 12x15cm surface. The buttons are capable of moving up and down within a few milliseconds, creating patterns like the layout of street, building or a room instantly. Individual buttons can vibrate easily because of the faster actuators. Users can also see the specific parts of the map by zooming in.
Saving energy with magnets
The fundamental mechanism of this tablet is pretty straightforward. Each of those 192 buttons comes with a tiny magnet installed between two thin layers of steel and two coils. By creating a local magnetic field by conducting current through one of the coils for five milliseconds, each of the buttons can move up or down. The two steel plates attached with the button make it remain in the up or down position. Using Bluetooth, it can also connect to computers and tablet PC.
“The system requires no power to keep the button in place,” said Herbert Shea, director of EPFL’s Microsystems for Space Technologies Laboratory. “This keeps energy consumption to a minimum.”
Say goodbye to white cane and Braille
Visually impaired people can detect any nearby obstacle using a white cane and can read using Braille. However, it’s been almost impossible for them to checking out a street before venturing on it. According to Herbert Shea, this new tablet is going to fill in the gap.
“Those of us who are visually impaired currently have to use a white cane with an audio GPS when we go to new places,” said Denis Maret, being impressed by this new prototype. “Like in a vehicle, the GPS tells us when to turn. But we have no way of checking that information, or of making a mental map of the place. This technology will make us more independent.”
Besides guiding people around, this tablet can also be used to help the visually impaired school children. Students learning mathematics or geometry could be beneficial using this device. Currently, students in Poland and Italy are testing this tablet in cooperation with the BlindPad project partners.