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TACTILE PC DISPLAY

Library helps the blind enjoy graphics

by Kenzo Moriguchi

HIGASHI-OSAKA, Osaka Pref. — While audio read-out software has made it easier for blind people to access text-based information on computers, graphics have remained a hurdle.

But a new device installed earlier this month at the Osaka Prefectural Central Library allows blind PC users to read graphic information via a tactile display that can approximate an image on a Windows screen using 3,072 pop-up plastic pins, each 1.6 mm in diameter.

The library installed the 5 million yen display — paid for by a government subsidy — as part of efforts to make the learning center more friendly to the blind.

“By using the (tactile) display, the blind can understand the visual information contained in books and Web sites, which was impossible before,” said librarian Masayuki Sugita, who is blind.

The display fits on a 19 cm × 14 cm screen, providing visual information via pins that protrude 0.7 mm. The display has a 16 × zoom function, meaning users can get in close and touch small kanji. The screen can also be scrolled vertically and horizontally using touch panels on the display.

For the congenitally blind, the device provides an opportunity to learn kanji. Those who can already read kanji can use the device to read books that have been scanned, Sugita said.

Only about 10 percent of Japan’s estimated 300,000 blind people can read braille, according to Sugita.

He pointed out that the increasing amount of graphic content on the Net — ostensibly to make it more user-friendly — makes life more difficult for the visually impaired.

“However, the (tactile) display enables the blind to feel an image as it is and better enjoy the cyber world,” he said.

Kumiko Shibata, a regular visitor to the library who is also blind, was astonished by the new display.

“I feel as if I am seeing the picture on the screen,” she said. “It’s a good feeling.”

Shibata said she has often wondered what she was missing on the Net.

The library is the first public facility in Japan to install the tactile display. The device was developed by Saitama Prefecture-based manufacturer KGS Corp. and the National Space Development Agency of Japan to enable a blind researcher at NASDA to monitor a satellite control system.

The faculty of engineering at the University of Tokyo uses the display for research purposes.

According to a KGS official, the device is expensive because each unit of the tactile display is assembled by hand.

The library has been providing volunteer-based reading services for the blind since 1974. In 2000, it acquired an optical character reader, which scans a book, converts it to audio and reads it back.

But explaining pictures has always been difficult, Sugita said, adding that the new technology will make books more enjoyable for the blind.