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E-Books: New Chapter for Braille Readers

O.C TECH BEAT / JONATHAN GAW

November 08, 1999|JONATHAN GAW KAREN KAPLAN

Electronic books may attract an unexpected audience: blind readers.

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a Commerce Department agency in Gaithersburg, Md., have developed a way to convert the text of e-books into Braille. With about $200 worth of materials, they were able to build a prototype Braille reader that rivals commercial systems that cost between $10,000 and $15,000.

The main reason for the dramatic price difference has to do with the system's design. Traditional Braille readers produce an entire line of text at a time, which the blind read by running their fingers across the bumps the machines generate. But those systems require hundreds of mechanical devices called actuators to produce so many letters at once.

NIST's Braille reader only generates two letters at a time, and blind readers can track the text as the letters scroll underneath their fingers. Because the Braille reader is so much smaller, it only requires 12 actuators and is therefore much less expensive to produce, said Oliver Slattery, a guest researcher at NIST who leads the development team.

The suggestion for building a Braille reader came from a Library of Congress employee who was participating in a conference to develop industry standards for e-books. The NIST researchers took up the challenge because they thought it was "a cool idea," NIST spokesman Philip Bulman said.

The agency has contacted several companies that might want to turn its prototype into a commercial product, and a few have expressed interest, Slattery said.

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