Enter the Braille-enabled tablet

Bulgarian trio's tactile touchscreen will let blind people read and type

It was in the final year of her master's studies at the University of Technology in Sofia that Ms Kristina Tsvetanova was asked by a colleague if she would be able to sign him up for an online course.

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At first, she was surprised by the request. After all, most students today are able to use a computer and the Internet. Then she realised that the young man sitting next to her was blind.

"For the first time, I understood how intensively we come to communicate and work with technologies to which certain groups of people like those who are blind have only limited access," said the 25-year-old business engineer.

To be sure, there are technological tools such as screen reading and enlargement programs that translate electronic information into audible content. But these tools are expensive and awkward to use. Until now, blind people have had only limited access to portable tablets.

The encounter prompted Ms Tsvetanova to embark on what has proved to be a challenging project - to develop a tablet for blind people and those with limited vision. The result: the first prototype of the "Blitab" to be presented at the end of the year.

To protect the tablet from being copied, Ms Tsvetanova reveals few technical details about the device that she will build with her boyfriend Slavi Slavev and his younger brother Stanislav, both experts in software and 3-D design.

But this much she will tell: With a newly developed screen technology, smooth surfaces can be perceived in a tactile manner. Small cylinders emerge on the screen, like buttons or little bubbles, that can be read in Braille. The device includes a Braille conversion software.

Text can be entered in Braille through an integrated Perkins-style keyboard.

Early this year, Ms Tsvetanova and the Slavev brothers moved from their homes in Bulgaria to the Austrian capital of Vienna with nothing but a couple of suitcases and their savings. Here, they said, were better circumstances for a start-up.

They first worked as consultants for a large company, and continued to work on their tablet projects in their free time.

One day, they spotted a young man with a cane alighting from a tram at a station, and approached him. Eighteen-year-old Gerhard, had just completed his high school exams and agreed to test a 3-D model to see if the dot patterns of the Braille writing were "readable".

He is now one of the backers of the Blitab project, along with the Austrian Relief Society for the Blind and Persons with Impaired Vision.

After submitting their project in several competitions, they attracted attention and garnered government funding which allowed them to quit their jobsand devote their attention to perfecting the device.

The potential of such a device is promising. According to World Health Organisation statistics from 2013, there are 39.8 million blind people and 285.3 million vision-impaired persons worldwide. Of these, 20 per cent have mastered the dot-writing system developed by Frenchman Louis Braille in 1825.

The young entrepreneurs are counting on completing a marketable prototype by the end of the year. They will then seek investors so as to be able to begin production.

The price of Blitab, according to Ms Tsvetanova, will be "about €2,000 (S$3,260)", and the product will be made available to organisations supporting those who are blind and visually impaired, as well as to libraries for testing purposes.

Ms Tsvetanova is aware that the expectations are rising with every award and report in the media.

"But that is even greater motivation to also succeed," she said.

Karin Tzschentke is contributing editor of the Austrian daily paper Der Standard in Vienna.