Each summer the Army High-Performance Computing Research Center (AHPCRC) invites a select group of undergraduates from across the country gather for a two-month immersion into the wonders of advanced computing.Adam Duran is one such undergraduate, a student both lucky and good. Last June, he came to Stanford at the suggestion of one of his professors. His mentors were Adrian Lew, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Sohan Dharmaraja, a doctoral candidate at Stanford studying computational mathematics.
"Originally, our assignment was to create a character-recognition application that would use the camera on a mobile device -- a phone or tablet -- to transform pages of Braille into readable text," said Duran. "It was a cool challenge, but not exactly where we ended up."
While a Braille character reader would be helpful to the blind, Lew and Dharmaraja learned, there were logistics that were hard to get around. So, the three began to ask questions. That is when they stumbled upon a sweet spot. There are devices that help the blind write Braille, to send email and so forth, but they are essentially specialized laptops that cost, in some cases, $6,000 or more. All for a device of limited functionality, beyond typing Braille, of course. "Your standard tablet has more capability at a tenth the price," said Duran. "So, we put two and two together. We developed a tablet Braille writer," said Dharmaraja, "A touchscreen for people who can't see."
As any computational mathematician will tell you, such a matrix yields two-to-the-sixth minus one variations, or 63 possible characters. These 63 characters are enough for a Western alphabet plus 10 numerical digits, with several left over for punctuation and some special characters.
The challenge: How does a blind person find the keys on a flat, uniformly smooth glass panel? They made keys that find the fingertips. The user simply touches eight fingertips to the glass, and the keys orient themselves to the fingers. If the user becomes disoriented, a reset is as easy as lifting all eight fingers off the glass and putting them down again.
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