Have you ever thought about how many words you read every day on your phone screen? What if you have an iPad or a Kindle? How many articles and books and websites you’ve consumed since you bought it? Must be thousands, maybe millions, which that flat touchscreen has brought to your eyes and mind. Innovation has brought they world’s library into the palm of your hand.
But what if you were blind? You can’t feel the words on a touchscreen. And you can’t see them. So the digital world, unless read to you, is completely out of reach.
There are an estimated 253 million people globally who are blind or visually impaired. Less than 1% of books worldwide are translated into braille. Visually impaired children feel the impact of a lack of braille resources on their education outcomes. There’s a reason only one in four blind people are employed.
Innovate for the visually impaired
Enter Kristina Tsvetanova. An Industrial Engineer by training, she co-founded Blitab to build a ‘tablet for the blind’. Using microfluidics, her mission is to bring digital words to those who cannot see. Blending a creative approach of tech and social good, Kristina has founded a company that puts purpose at the centre of innovation.
“Technology has so much potential to facilitate independence and inclusion for anyone with sight loss”
The device is made up as follows: it has a regular touchscreen at the bottom which is used as the control unit—reading out the options aloud for the user — and at the top, there’s a tactile display which produces braille on demand. The surface is made up of little bubble-like smart dots called ‘tixels’ — one for each and every individual braille dot . Tixdels rise and fall depending on whether they are full with liquid or not. This creates an ever-changing braille surface. Complex airflow channels under the surface control the liquid. It’s a remarkably simple-sounding solution, but one which has until now evaded the industry of digital braille devices.
The elegance lies in an uninterrupted reading experience. The user doesn’t read page by page of physical hard braille. Also, there’s no putting up with a device that feeds you only five words at a time. All the reader needs is one tablet and an internet connection to access all the words the rest of us can read.
Robin Spinks, Senior Innovation and Technology Relationships Manager at RNIB, knows all too well how important braille is for enhancing the lives of those who cannot see. “Technology has so much potential to facilitate independence and inclusion,” says Spinks. “For anyone with sight loss, embedded accessibility in mainstream technologies is a huge enabler but it’s only part of the picture,” he continues “Braille and other tactile devices have a hugely important role to play in opening up all sorts of opportunities.”
A global movement
Blitab isn’t the only company working to make the world more accessible for those with sight loss. There’s the Israeli startup OrCamMyEye, who have created a small clip-on device for glasses with a camera and speaker embedded, which reads aloud to the wearer whatever they point at. For instance, you could point at a magazine article to have it read to you, or a £10 note to work out how much money you are holding, or a person in front of you to work out who they are (if you’ve already recorded their face into the device before). Using machine learning and computer vision, they have taken two high potential technologies and pointed them towards the blind community.
One step beyond
Oxford-based OxSight are going one step further by building augmented reality glasses to act as the hearing aid for the blind. By turning the world into an image the small amount of sight the person still has can process, the glasses essentially personalise and enhance the image of the world specifically for the person viewing it. Danish company Be My Eyes have focused less on complex technology and more on the connective potential the internet brings, by creating an app which connects blind and low vision people with sighted volunteers for visual assistance through a live video call.
For Kristina though, it all comes back to opening up the internet to all. “We can change the future for millions of children,” says Kristina “by paving the way for them to be at the heart of the modern high-tech era we all live in today.”