Information Today
Volume 17, Issue 10 • November 2000
NIST Demonstrates New Reading Device for the Visually Impaired

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has announced the release of a new Braille reader that may soon bring the benefits of electronic books to the visually impaired. An agency of the U.S. Commerce Department’s Technology Administration, NIST demonstrated the machine at its recent Electronic Book 2000 conference in Washington, DC. [For more on the conference, see Judy Luther’s report on page 23.]

NIST engineers developed the reader, which transforms the text of e-books into Braille, and can be used for reading e-mail, browsing the Web, and other text-based applications. Computer scientists and engineers at NIST’s Information Technology Laboratory had previously developed a prototype Braille reader as a possible low-cost alternative to conventional, electronic Braille readers.

During the past year, some 250 members of the National Federation of the Blind tried it out and made suggestions about how to make the reader even better. Engineers then set to work on a major redesign to incorporate several improvements. For example, many blind and visually impaired people prefer to read Braille using several fingers, and the original design only allowed for reading with a single finger. The new Braille reader also is more compact and mechanically simpler than the original.

NIST estimates that the reader could be manufactured for about $1,000. Braille readers currently on the market carry price tags as high as $15,000.

Much of the cost savings are a result of a new design approach. The new NIST reader uses only three actuators—the mechanical devices that form Braille letters. Commercial Braille readers usually have hundreds of actuators. The NIST reader employs software to translate text into Braille, and features variable speed that allows people to read faster or slower, or to pause the device.

NIST is seeking to transfer the technology to the private sector, where it can be commercialized to bring the benefits of e-books to the blind and visually impaired. About 50,000 e-books already have been sold in the U.S., and industry analysts believe e-books could represent a $2.3 billion market by 2005—about 10 percent of all consumer books.

NIST held the world’s first e-book conference in 1998. The agency has been working with the e-book industry to develop voluntary standards that will facilitate the growth of the industry. A group of publishers, e-book manufacturers, and software developers announced an agreement to adopt the Open eBook (OeB) specification last year.

Source: NIST, Gaithersburg, MD, 301/975-NIST;

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