Braille is widely used in the United States by people with visual impairments. However, despite numerous improvements in accessibility on the internet and smart devices, braille-reader hardware innovation has been virtually stalled. Dot’s smart braille device, which allows for the easy display of text and tactile representations, has made a significant step forward. This could open up new avenues for education and accessibility.
2,400 pins make up the Dot Pad. They can be quickly set in either up or down positions to form braille letters or other easily-recognizable shapes. There are enough space for 300 braille symbols, and 20 additional in the line below. The device integrates directly with Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader feature. This allows you to read text, icon labels, graphs, or simple images in just one tap.
The company is based in Korea. It was founded by Eric Ju Yoon Kim and Ki Kwang Sung, who were fed up with the inability to learn and read despite all of the advances in computing and interfaces.
Although this is not the first digital braille display, it’s far from the only one. These devices have been around for many decades but their capabilities and quantity has been severely limited. Braille displays are used to read digital text. However, these devices are usually clunky, old, one-line machines that haven’t changed for many years and rely on legacy software.
They are not designed with learning and children in mind. There are many disadvantages for children with visual impairments. For example, they lack textbooks and activities that can be used with them. One such child’s parents created the BecDot to teach braille to toddlers.
Sung stated that it was absurd for visually impaired people to be unable to access digital graphical information in the 21st Century. There are many innovations in every industry, from education to jobs and social networking services. The demand for graphical information is increasing, so visually impaired people are being cut off. Remote work and education were mandatory even in a pandemic. But they didn’t have a solution.
The monitor was made to enable low-vision and blind users to interact with the same pixel-based images and representations that sighted people take as a given.
Braille readers are usually very complex mechanically. They rely on hundreds of tiny hinges, gears and gears that raise and lower pins on demand. And they have to be strong enough to withstand constant pressure and touch. There have been many innovations from prestigious research institutes over the years, but none of them have made it to market. Dot aims to change that by providing better hardware and deeper integrations with tablets and smartphones.
As you would expect, the Dot Pad’s core innovation is the “dot”. There are many ways to make these tiny pins (6 per braille alphabet) retract and extend reliably, and they do so quickly and not too loudly. But Dot’s is the best.
Sung said, “We got the idea out of the mechanism speakers.” Although the tiny electromagnetic actuator vibrates in smartphones speakers, the team modified it to move a pin upward and downward using a magnetic ball rotation that locks in either the up or the down position and can be unlocked and removed quickly. It is only a fraction of what was possible with previous mechanisms. (Dot shared schematics and cutaways, but did not want to make them public.
The company was able create a grid with thousands of pins that has very little space between them. This is large enough to read as letters, but dense enough to form images-like patterns. While the Dot Pad’s bottom section has a section for traditional braille, the main grid can be described more as a “tactile show” rather than anything else.
A pre-production prototype device was available for me to try. It worked well and refreshed the screen in less than a second. (This is still being improved to the point that animation is possible) and could be easily scanned by a user’s hands. The flexible protective screen protects the pins and allows for easy swapping. You can also easily replace the cells.
Dot’s collaboration with Apple is another advantage. You can invoke the Dot Pad with a gesture and instantly see the highlighted item on the display. The video below shows the process in action.
A new “tactile graphic API” is available in iOS 15.2. This will allow developers to include and modify this capability in their apps. I have asked Apple for feedback on the API and will update this post if they respond.
Kim stated that many blind/low vision users worldwide rely on the iPhone and iPad due to VoiceOver, the industry-leading screen reader. We are thrilled that Dot’s tactile technology has been optimized for VoiceOver and that this will increase digital accessibility. These users can feel and understand images, in addition to speech and literary braille.
Although the fidelity of the display is limited, it can display icons, line drawings and graphs well. A graph from an article on stocks can be seen as a rising or falling tone. Sighted people may be able to see it, but others will need to find ways to interpret it. VoiceOver has a similar feature. It’s better than nothing, but not ideal. VoiceOver and its own image analysis algorithms will enable the Dot Pad to attempt to accurately represent any area or element of the screen.
Text can also be represented as a page of braille letters, arranged in rows as normal. Or as the letters themselves. This makes it possible to appreciate typefaces and logos better. Braille has no serifs, so this is a great way to learn. It is quite fascinating to feel large-scale type in this tactile way.
This is an excellent resource for children. This is a great resource for children who have a visual impairment. Being able to illustrate simple images such as letters, shapes and houses that others take for granted, like cats and houses, can make a huge difference in education.
It is important that the devices are integrated with each other so they don’t become a problem for someone in a very limited situation. Dot also has access to a robust accessibility platform that the iPhone and iPad are ubiquitous digital devices.
The vast improvement in voice-powered interfaces has been tremendously empowering for people who cannot use graphical interfaces. However, braille is still an important option for learning and reading. Technology must not impede opportunities in any of these areas.
Kwang Sung stated that the community’s feedback has been positive and that people have been focusing on the possibilities instead of the limitations. They did increase the “pixel count” in the initial stages to render better images. Kwang Sung said they are currently working on Dot Pad-friendly custom graphic libraries so that, if the Twitter logo is recognized, it can use its own version instead of scanning the outline every single time.
The pad is part of the Dynamic Tactile device project, led by the American Printing House for the Blind & HumanWare. It will be launched in 2023. Developers will be able to weigh in on their experiences with the API.
Future features include tactile representations for photos, not just the images but also the layout, descriptions and positions of people and other aspects. The pins will be locked at the middle heights to allow for different feel levels and other uses. The pad could also be used to input and display. Being able to touch the pins to send a touch message to the right part of the screen, would be another useful feature.
The Dot Pad, just like other braille displays, is not cheap or simple. However, it may be cheaper and easier than others. The manufacturing and assembly of the Dot Pad is not an easy task. This is especially true given the high prices for components and chips right now. It uses thousands of tiny ICs, which were previously used primarily for car window control switches. Prices right now are skyrocketing.
This is the exact type of device that should not be paid for and for which there are many subsidy and other programs. Children don’t need to pay for essential items such as desks at school. It is in everyone’s best interest to help people with disabilities receive a quality education. Accessibility is a good thing. But it also has important knock-on benefits. People who were unable to learn or participate in an industry now have the chance.
Dot’s founders stated that they are working with the Korean government and the U.S. government, as well the blind community and advocacy groups to integrate Dot Pad into curricula and to use existing funds and methods of payment to pay for them. Learn more about the tactile graphics API for developers here.