Raising Dots, Opening Doors

June 07, 2014

Dr. Peichun Yang learned Braille at the Rehabilitation Center for the Blind in North Carolina. An NC State materials science and engineering alumnus, Yang was recovering from an accident that led to permanent blindness.

Today, with the advent of text-to-talk devices and the expense and fragile nature of Braille displays, the Braille acceptance rate continues to decline, locking out the blind population from computer usage and other mobile technologies. Current Braille displays allow one line at a time for viewing, making access to Internet content frustrating and limiting.

Yang wanted to give the blind more options, including a less expensive one. 

"I tried many approaches, searched literature and communicated with engineers and scientists around the world," Yang said. "In 2005, I found a very good research paper published by Dr. Paul Franzon, professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State, and one of his students."

Yang and Franzon met in 2005, focusing on microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, and Yang proposed to create an electroactive polymer system for tactile, full-page and refreshable displays. The conversation was the beginning of Polymer Braille.

A Department of Education grant jump-started the company's efforts, and Phase I and II National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grants, received in 2012 and 2014, respectively, have kept the company going. Also in 2012, the company was named to NC State's inaugural class of the Fast 15. Today, Franzon, Yang and electrical engineering doctoral students David Winick and Shep Pitts comprise Polymer Braille.From left: Dr. Paul Franzon, David Winick and Shep Pitts 
From left: Dr. Paul Franzon, David Winick and Shep Pitts

Here's how the technology works: An electroactive polymer moves in response to an electric voltage that's been applied to create a dot that moves precisely up and down. The force - far more delicate than that of a human hand - is nearly instantaneous. As the tiny dots are raised, latching mechanisms engage to support the weight from the user's passing fingers. Each display will comprise hundreds or thousands of dots.

Focusing on the education sector, the company's goals are to increase Braille acceptance, computer usage and mathematical literacy among the blind.

"All these people are locked out of the Internet world; they can't use the computer, and that's a big deal these days," Franzon said. "Having access changes the social aspect of being blind and the ability to integrate with the community."

Franzon adds that text-to-speech devices, while helpful, are most beneficial when a blind person is able to read and write Braille.

Current devices are expensive - around $8,000 - because of the delicate ceramic component that is time consuming to produce and manipulate. Franzon's team is using a polymer, which can easily be cut using a razor blade and made out of flexible and less-expensive pieces.

To produce and manipulate the super-tiny pieces, the team relies on the "clean-room" and 3D printing machines in the Monteith Engineering Research Center on Centennial Campus. The work holds promise for transforming an industry.

"What's exciting is we'll have something in hand that will really make an impact. It will change everybody's idea of what Braille is and what it can be," Winick said. "Right now, it's strictly used for reading rather than as an interactive device or one with different display options."

Credit: From NC State Engineering Spring 2014 Magazine feature "Starting Points."