Introducing Assistive Technology: Braille Phone

Braille cell phone concept introduced recently finally combines smooth design with assistive technology functionality.

Despite the fact mobile phones and tablets are penetrating our lives thoroughly, they also become more and more useless for the people with disabilities. All those touch screens are very impressive, when you are not visually impaired. Mobile computing is therefore falling into paradox. It is here to help, but, for some people, it also becomes an obstacle itself.

Touch sensitive, even for blind

Before we go under for technical details, try to imagine the following picture: Visually impaired man on a bus stop next to you pulls up the phone from his pocket. The same way you are just playing with your very smart touch screen phone, he activates his, and buttons magically pop up on the surface. He makes a quick call to his office and then writes a message to someone as phone reorganize the buttons into landscape mode. Braille letters swiftly appear on where the display would be. And before you can stop starring with fascinated face, he puts his phone back to the pocket, enters his bus, and disappears in the distance.

Where mainstream manufacturers fail, come clever designers with their concepts. Sumit Dagar, computer and media designer from India, is one of those. Building on the idea of technology for everyone, he came up with courageous concept of a “Braille phone” about a size of Apple’s popular iPhone. It is as elegantly designed and should be capable to offer the same experience to visually impaired that touch screen can generally offer to others. Assistive technology Inspired by the touch perception of braille text, this phone should be able to model buttons physically on its surface, of course textured with braille dots. And they will be able to change their position on demand.

Forget about magic

The concept uses “clever material” (electrically sensitive plastic is one of considered alternatives) that can make various shapes and forms, commanded by a control unit. Front part of the phone is smooth and shapeless in basic mode. When activated, buttons appear on the surface, enabling you to make a call or write a message. Not only the buttons, but also a display area, where braille letters appear as you write them, so you can re-read what you wrote. Using this system, all other functions of a phone can be used. Calendars, calculator, even picture viewer (using special silhouette view).

Idea of this kind of material shaping is still a concept, inspired by already existing braille readers. It is working with a term “heightmap”, known from 3D computer graphics. Heightmap is usually a raster image used to store values such as surface elevation data. In the Braille phone concept, it works with the pixels height instead of colours or other values. Control unit then transfers the pixel height information to the surface, and the surface shapes itself into whatever is needed. Buttons, display area, braille text etc. Sent message in braille will of course transfer itself into proper format when reaching the ordinary phone, and vice versa.

Idea itself is very tempting and attractive (similar concepts has been around some time, like Samsung’s Braille Phone or B-Touch Phone & Reader) but prototype is not available yet. Software control is not a problem at this point, however, hardware part is still a challenge to be approached by material engineers

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