Holy Braille: Scientists developing Kindle-style tablet for the blind

Artist's impression of a Braille tablet (Credit: Kelly O'Sullivan, Michigan Engineering)

Artist's impression of a Braille tablet (Credit: Kelly O'Sullivan, Michigan Engineering)

Scientists at the University of Michigan are working on a revolutionary display technology that could one day feature in a Kindle-style Braille tablet for the visually impaired.

“Imagine having a Kindle that isn’t a visual Kindle but instead has a tactile surface that can be read by a person who is blind, using Braille,” explained Sile O'Modhrain, associate professor of music and associate professor of information at the University of Michigan, who herself is visually impaired, in a video.

The pneumatic technology harnesses liquid or air to shrink the mechanism and expand. A series of bubbles within the display are then either inflated or not inflated, which push dots up and down to create the Braille characters. The researchers’ goal is for the technology to display the equivalent of a page of Kindle text at once.

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Refreshable Braille displays, as they are known, do exist, according to O’Modhrain, but the electronic versions can only display one line of text a time and are extremely expensive. A single line refreshable Braille display typically costs between $3,000 and $5,000, so a full page Braille display would cost somewhere in the region of $55,000, she added.

Because the University of Michigan’s refreshable Braille display does not rely on electronics, researchers are touting the technology as a much cheaper alternative to its digital counterparts.

The technology could also open up a host of possibilities for visually impaired people.

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“Blind people currently only have access to a single line of Braille with these digital devices,” said Alexander Russomanno, a graduate student and research assistant at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering. “You can’t do much with a single line – it’s hard to read, for one, so that’s a pain point. Also, you can’t do things like graphs, you can’t do things like spreadsheets, you can’t do any kind of spatially distributed information.”

O'Modhrain estimates that it could be between 5 and 7 years before devices using pneumatically-powered displays become available. “We are currently developing the low-level components that will become the basis of this new display technology,” she explained, in an email to “You could think of this like developing the technique for displaying pixels using liquid crystals.”

At the moment, researchers can drive a series of connected dots to display a single Braille character and are working on scaling up the system to display characters and dots on a much larger array. “Once that is done, then we would need input from people who can help us develop techniques for manufacturing displays for a mass market,” added O'Modhrain. “And then, of course, the display needs to be integrated into a product, which again would depend on a third party developer deciding to use the device in their product. “

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