The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has licensed two technologies that could bring affordable graphic reading systems to the blind and visually impaired. The two systems bring electronic images to life in the same way that Braille makes words readable.

The first technology, a tactile graphic display device, allows a person to feel a succession of images on a reusable surface by raising 3,600 small pins (actuator points) into a pattern that can be locked in place, read by touch, and then reset to display the next graphic. Each image, from scanned illustrations, Web pages, or other sources, is sent electronically to the reader, where special software determines how to create a matching tactile display.

The other technology is an array of about 100 small, closely spaced actuator points set against a user's fingertip. To "view" a computer graphic, a blind or visually impaired person moves their device-tipped finger across a surface like a computer mouse to scan an image in computer memory. The computer sends a signal to the display device and moves the actuators against the skin to "translate" the pattern, replicating the sensation of the finger moving over the pattern being displayed.

The technology could be used to make fingertip tactile graphics practical for virtual reality systems or give a detailed sense of touch to robotic control and space suit gloves.

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