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Low-Cost Tactile Displays for the Blind and Visually Impaired

A simple and inexpensive tactile display technology that has almost no learning curve and can augment alphanumerical displays in existing devices

Age-related medical conditions are responsible for most cases of blindness and visual impairment worldwide. In 2015, there were an estimated 36 million blind people in the world, with an additional 217 million suffering from moderate to severe vision impairment. Over 80% of the visually impaired were older than 50, and this percentage is expected to rise due to a globally aging population.

Tactile assistive devices have the potential to enhance the lives of this growing population; however, most existing technologies have a Braille interface for users to control devices, which presents a steep learning curve, especially for aging individuals who lose their sight late in life. Although assistive technology based on audio feedback does not have this drawback, such devices have other limitations: many visually impaired individuals prefer not to draw attention to their disability, and therefore talking or voice-activated products raise privacy or security concerns. Moreover, a significant proportion of the elderly suffer from a combined impairment of vision and hearing, which reduces the effectiveness of audio technology.

Electrical Engineer, Michael Karpelson, presents a Wyss Institute Validation Project that is developing a simple and inexpensive tactile display technology for the blind and visually impaired, that has almost no learning curve and can augment alphanumerical displays in existing devices. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Making displays tactile

Low-Cost Tactile Displays for the Blind and Visually Impaired
Wyss Institute roboticists and electrical engineers have engineered tactile displays with alphanumerical indicators that can be fabricated at low costs, and replace ubiquitously present displays in many devices. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

To overcome this challenge, Wyss Institute roboticists and electrical engineers have developed a simple and inexpensive tactile display technology based on multi-segment alphanumeric characters, analogous to the displays in countless electronic devices such as watches and microwave ovens. This proven display format enables assistive devices to easily transmit alphanumeric information, using a simple and inexpensive design functionality that has enabled its universal adoption around the world. Unlike Braille, there is no learning curve in interacting with tactile segmented displays, and they provide both tactile and visual information, allowing immediate use by both visually impaired individuals and caregivers.

The initial demonstration of this technology consists of a 7-segment tactile display that can replace visual 7-segment displays, enabling manufacturers to quickly bring accessible versions of existing products to market – including timepieces, smart watches, fitness trackers, general appliances, and personal medical devices such as glucometers. At the core of the display lies a novel microactuator array that engages the entire display module and determines the on- or off-state of each individual display element. A single, more powerful actuator then activates the display, providing enough displacement and force to allow users to easily detect the display characters with their fingertips. The microactuator array has low power requirements and can be fabricated with existing manufacturing strategies at low costs.

The technology is available for partnership and licensing opportunities.

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