[Venture Abroad] More tech companies focusing on assistive technology with Braille

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[Venture Abroad] More tech companies focusing on assistive technology with Braille

For a long time, assistive technology for the visually impaired has mostly centered on audio options like Apple’s Siri, but a new trend is emerging of devices applying Braille.

This year’s International Technology and Persons with Disability Conference, the world’s biggest exhibition for IT products catering to the disabled was held in March in San Diego. It featured a number of companies with devices that incorporate refreshable Braille.

One notable product was the Orbit Reader, the most recent prototype from the U.S.-based Transforming Braille project.

The Orbit Reader is a note taker with a 20-cell, eight-dot display on which users can type. Its weight comes in at less than a pound, much lighter than readers currently on the market, and is significantly cheaper, estimated at around $500. Its launch in the market is expected to be in late 2016.

BrailleNote Touch, developed by HumanWare in partnership with Google, was another notable product introduced through the conference. The device’s most unique feature is its touchscreen. Instead of tactile keys, HumanWare’s TouchBraille calibration system determines where the users’ fingers are on the screen and figures out the dot combinations the user wishes to input. While innovative, the device is in the high price range of existing 18-cell Braille readers at around $4,000.

Korean players are also getting in on the game. Neo Access has produced a Braille reader, NeoBraille, using its own proprietary technology. The hardware is similar to existing readers but is 40 percent smaller in volume and 20 percent lighter than previous models sold in Korea. It was supported by the Korea Employment Agency for the Disabled.

“We had to import core Braille display technology from abroad until now,” said Park Seung-kyu, the agency’s president. “But our efforts to develop assistive technological devices have paid off by developing Korea’s own technology.”

Large companies are acknowledging the potential of this niche market. Industry leader Apple recently added an “Accessibility” category to its online store featuring products to assist customers with disabilities including impaired vision. Among the products offered is HumanWare’s Braille Display, which allows blind people to navigate Apple’s iOS via a Bluetooth Braille keyboard. But companies have only scratched the surface. There is a long way to go before the industry can reach a level where assistive devices are affordable for many. Braille reading devices at the moment cost anywhere from $2,000 to $15,000.

Simply offering the devices is just the first step. Educational support will also be necessary, as the worldwide Braille illiteracy rate is over 90 percent amongst the blind.

“A lot of times, reading information and instructions out loud to our devices interferes with our privacy,” said Park In-beom, a blind 22-year old student at Ajou University. “And at some point, there’s a limit to what you can do with hearing, so you need Braille.”

There are 235,000 visually impaired people in Korea, according to Statistics Korea.

BY KIM JEE-HEE [kim.jeehee@joongang.co.kr]

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