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Commerce's NIST and National Federation of the Blind Cooperate on Development of Technology that Allows the Blind to 'Feel' Electronic Images

Partnership Exemplifies President's New Freedom Initiative for Helping Americans with Disabilities

Researchers John Roberts and Oliver Slattery using the tactile graphic display device
NIST researchers John Roberts (right) and Oliver Slattery demonstrate a new device designed to allow people who are blind or visually impaired to feel images. The device uses software to convert electronic image files into outlines. An array of more than 3,000 rounded pins then recreates the outline as a raised pattern that can be locked into place and felt to "view" the image.
Credit: Copyright Robert Rathe

Deputy Secretary of Commerce Sam Bodman and National Federation of the Blind (NFB) President Marc Maurer today announced that the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the NFB will work together to test a prototype technology developed by NIST that provides the blind and visually impaired with access to electronic images in the same way that Braille makes words readable.

NFB members will "field test" the new device, known as a tactile graphic display (see fact sheet for details), so that NIST researchers can get first-hand input on how the technology may be improved for future commercialization. The Federation put an early version of NIST's rotating-wheel Braille reader [that converts electronic text such as e-mail into Braille characters] through its paces and gave the designers valuable ideas for making the device more user-friendly and effective. Today, the current Braille reader is ready for licensing by the company or companies that can bring this low-cost, powerful tool to the marketplace.

Today's announcement comes in conjunction with National Disability Employment Awareness Month and NFB's National Meet the Blind Month.

"This collaborative effort epitomizes the spirit of President Bush's New Freedom Initiative and this Administration's commitment to improving the quality of life for all Americans with disabilities," said Bodman. "The NIST devices allow the blind to participate in the information revolution and are prime examples of the types of assistive technologies that the New Freedom Initiative encourages."

Maurer added his praise for the NIST/NFB partnership, saying that the collaboration has "created breakthroughs in access technology for the blind and visually impaired."

"Text and graphic conversion devices have in the past been difficult to produce and extremely expensive, limiting their wide distribution to those who could benefit from them," Maurer said. "Our work with NIST to foster the development of simple-to-manufacture, low-cost and easy-to-use alternatives will open opportunities for learning, exploration and growth to blind children and blind adults in the home, school and workplace."

Founded in 1940, the National Federation of the Blind is the nation's largest and most influential membership organization of blind persons. With 50,000 members, the NFB has affiliates in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and over 700 local chapters. As a consumer and advocacy organization, the NFB is considered the leading force in the blindness field today.As a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Technology Administration, NIST develops and promotes measurements, standards and technology to enhance productivity, facilitate trade and improve the quality of life.

Additional Contact: pmaurer [at] (Patricia A. Maurer (NFB)), 410-659-9314  ext. 272

Released October 24, 2002, Updated January 13, 2023