Technology helps the visually impaired

For over two years, students, faculty, and staff associated with Carnegie Mellon University’s TechBridgeWorld have been developing the Automated Braille Writing Tutor, a device designed to aid visually impaired students in learning to write Braille. “Our team is dedicated to innovating and implementing technology solutions to meet sustainable development needs around the world,” said M. Bernardine Dias, founder and director of TechBridgeWorld, a research group.

“According to the World Health Organization, more than 90 percent of the world’s 160 million blind and visually impaired live in developing communities.... The literacy rate of this population is estimated to be less than 3 percent. We hope to improve literacy and raise literacy rates among the visually impaired in developing communities,” she said.

As described in a recent Carnegie Mellon press release, last summer, four current and former Carnegie Mellon students from the Pittsburgh and Qatar campuses, in affiliation with the Technology Consulting in the Global Community program and Microsoft Research India, traveled to the Mathru School for the Blind in Bangalore, India to field test the second version of the Braille tutor. “Improvements were made beforehand by various students, undergraduate and graduate, in both the Pittsburgh and Doha campuses, to incorporate the Mathru School’s suggestions on the first version of the Braille tutor,” said Ermine Teves, a project assistant for TechBridgeWorld. Teves traveled to Bangalore over the summer after graduating from Carnegie Mellon last May with a B.S. in business administration. In addition, the students redesigned the school’s website, digitalized their student records, and developed software to convert visual images to tactile images using the Mathru School’s Braille text printer. “Children are always quick to learn new things, and the Mathru students were no exception,” Teves said. “I have personally seen tremendous improvement [in the students’ ability to learn] to write Braille using the Braille tutor.”

While using the Braille tutor, students use a wireless stylus to write on a digital slate. The tutor provides feedback by repeating the words and letters written on the slate. This allows teachers to identify and rectify problems much more quickly than when students are taught with a traditional slate and stylus. The Automated Braille Writing Tutor project began in the spring of 2006 through TechBridgeWorld’s V-Unit program, which is designed to provide graduate students with opportunities for independent study.

Nidhi Kalra and Tom Lauwers, at the time doctoral students in the Robotics Institute, developed the device with the guidance of Carnegie Mellon faculty. Early tests were conducted with the help of Visually Impaired Pittsburgh Area Computer Enthusiasts. One of TechBridgeWorld’s newest partners is the Sefula School for the Visually Impaired, located in Mongu, Zambia. Sarah Belousov, project manager for TechBridgeWorld, and M. Frederick Dias, technical consultant for TechBridgeWorld, visited the school last July to meet with the school’s headmaster and teachers, as well as representatives from ProjectEDUCATE, a nonprofit organization.

“We really enjoyed meeting the headmaster and teachers at Sefula, who responded very enthusiastically to the Braille tutor project and our proposed research plans,” Belousov said. “Their response was very positive, and they even created a song for us that they performed on our last visit to the school,” she said. Future plans for the Braille tutor include the addition of other Braille languages, the creation of more games, redesigning the tutor to function without a connected computer, and continuing to gather user feedback. “We plan to make the Braille tutor software and hardware specifications open source so that others can improve the Braille tutor based on their needs, as well as manufacture it for use in their developing community,” Dias said. “By doing this, our goal is that every blind child will have access to the Braille tutor to assist them with their learning.”