Friday, May 22, 2015

Ferrotouch: An innovation in technology for the blind

Before electrical engineer Katie Cagen worked at Microsoft, she was a finalist in the national Collegiate Inventors Competition.  Her invention, which she termed "Ferrotouch," uses electromagnets and ferrofluid to create bumps on an elastic-covered surface—bumps which can be formed into the shape of braille letters.

The idea is to create a more versatile (and hopefully less expensive) version of a "refreshable braille" machine.  Refreshable braille machines are devices that interface with computers, providing a braille version of text for users who cannot see the computer's display.  Traditionally, such machines work by using movable pins that pop up to form the standard patterns used in the braille alphabet.

A photo of a traditional refreshable braille machine.  The machine is black, and has has a row of holes placed in 2x4 groupings through which white plastic nubs can rise in different patterns to form different braille letters.
A traditional refreshable braille machine.  Photo courtesy Ixitixel on Wikimedia Commons.

With Cagen's Ferrotouch, however, the bumps are formed by magnets placed under a layer of magnetic ferrofluid.  The magnets then interact with the fluid, "pushing" it up in places and forming bumps that can be manipulated in various ways.  Because of the mutability of the fluid, Ferrotouch has the capability of displaying far more than braille; charts, diagrams, pictures, and countless other visuals could be represented in a tactile way as well. 

Cagen, a Harvard alumna who graduated in 2014, came up with the concept for Ferrotouch when she was visiting colleges.  Her host during an overnight stay at Harvard was Sally Kiebdaj, a blind student who later became her close friend.  During their time studying together, Cagen noted how much Kiebdaj used technology for school work, but also how she could not access certain materials such as visual data or PDFs.  Cagen's original intent was to make content such as this accessible, though she would also like to make her device capable of acting as a braille reader as well.

The invention is still in relatively early stages, and one possible problem to be solved is that the dots may not be defined enough for effective braille.  Cagen hopes to receive enough funding to pursue this issue, noting that while her original goal was to provide a way to display visual information that could not be transmitted through braille, having braille capabilities would certainly be a bonus for the device.

Whatever the outcome, Cagen hopes to show Harvard's students and faculty that assistive technology is a good field in which to work.  Even though funding is scarce due to technology companies that see only a small market, there are still valuable opportunities to enhance technological experiences for the blind and other people with differing abilities.

You can learn more about Katie Cagen and Ferrotouch here and here, or visit her Youtube channel to see more Ferrotouch testing videos.

We'd also like to ask our readers: do you or someone you know have experience with assistive technology?  What has your experience been like?  Whether negative or positive, tell us about it in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter!

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