Mobile devices have become incredibly popular for their ability to weave modern conveniences such as Internet access and social networking into the fabric of daily life. For people with disabilities, however, these devices have the potential to unlock unprecedented new possibilities for communication, navigation and independence. This emergence of mobile “assistive” technologies, influenced heavily by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 25 years ago, marks a major step forward for people with disabilities.

Bar-Code Readers:

Bar-code readers, in use since the early 1970s, are no longer the exclusive domain of warehouse workers and store clerks. Apple’s App Store and Google Play have dozens of apps that turn smartphones into bar-code scanners to help with inventory management, data collection and even price-checking. More recently app developers have begun to think of these scanners as a way to help people with visual impairments identify items as they work or shop. Digit-Eyes, for example, lets users of iOS devices create labels that they can affix to different items and then read those labels using the autofocus cameras on their Apple devices. The app can also read a number of the standard UPC (universal product) and QR (quick response) codes found on product labels in stores.

Refreshable Braille Displays:

Refreshable braille displays use electromechanically controlled pins, as opposed to the lights in a conventional computer monitor, to convey information. They do this using software to gather a Web page’s content from the computer’s operating system. The software converts the words and images into a digital version of braille and then represents the text with a touchable row of finger-size rectangular cells lined up side by side like dominoes. Each cell has six or eight small holes through which rounded pins can extend and retract with the help of piezoelectric ceramic actuators to represent various braille characters. Each time a person reads the row of braille with his fingers (left to right), the pin configurations refresh to represent the next line of a Web page’s text, and so on.

Concerned that existing, one-row-at-a-time braille displays were causing vision-impaired people to miss out on much of what the Web had to offer, a team of North Carolina State University researchers in 2005 began developing a display that could translate words and images into tactile displays consisting of up to 25 rows, each with 40 cells side by side. By 2012 the researchers had formed a start-up called Polymer Braille and received grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Education to develop their new braille display. Plans call for it to be similar in size and thickness to a tablet computer and use an electroactive polymer film that moves in response to applied electricity. This movement raises and lowers pins to create arrays of dots representing braille letters, graphical information or mathematical equations.

Wearable Finger Reader:

Having to use screen readers and similar apps is less than ideal at times—the software can be inaccurate and slow in converting text into speech, and it provides no help when attempting to read text printed on paper. To help address these needs an international team of researchers is developing a finger-worn devicethat the vision-impaired can use to turn any text into audio even under dim lighting conditions.

Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, Singapore University of Technology and Design, and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have developed a few different versions of a FingerReader. The first uses two haptic motors—one on top of the finger and another below—that vibrate when a finger deviates from the line of text. A second version uses a musical tone to caution when a finger is not tracking properly. A third variation combines both vibration and sound. The device features a tiny camera and software designed to process video in real time as the finger sweeps from left to right.

The FingerReader exists only as a prototype but the researchers are already considering new configurations and uses. The researchers have conducted experiments thus far on a laptop connected to the FingerReader but plan to create a more portable version that interfaces with an Android smartphone. The technology may also be able to help those with learning disabilities or dyslexia. A separate team of researchersis pursuing still more uses for finger-mounted devices and was recently awarded a patent for their FingerSight sensor that gives visually impaired users information about more distant objects.

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