Unlike a lot of apps, BrailleTouch isn't the result of an all-night programming cram session or the fruit of a tech start-up. Instead, it was invented by researchers at Georgia Tech including Brian Frey, Mario Romero and Caleb Southern.
It was Frey (now at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County) who conceived the product's real breakthrough, which is that you must use BrailleTouch with the smartphone facing away from your body. The revelation occurred as Frey pondered two principle problems of smartphones -- first, the smooth, featureless screens don't provide tactile feedback for proper finger positioning. And second, it's really hard to place six fingers on the phone's screen in a comfortable, usable way.
Other software developers have released Braille apps, but they've all struggled with the same problems. Their apps typically demand that you type with just one hand, with the screen pointed toward your face. By flipping the phone, though, Frey turned a smartphone's limited real estate into an advantage. That's because, on average, a phone's screen is roughly three fingers wide. Divide that space into the six keys of a Braille typewriter, and your fingers naturally find the correct spots. There's no need for visual confirmation via the phone's screen.
Because the app uses the standard six-key system, there's virtually no learning curve. Southern says that blind users with Braille experience only need around 20 minutes to master the app and then type faster than most sighted users can enter text using a standard soft keyboard.
Southern adds that the team would love to continue improving BrailleTouch, which will hit the market in 2012, and that forthcoming smartphone hardware might play a role. If phones adopt rear touchpads (much like those on the Sony PlayStation Vita), you could feasibly use the app with the phone's screen facing you. That advantage, he said, might actually benefit sighted users more than the visually impaired.
No matter how the future of smartphone-based Braille plays out, one thing's for sure: The inventiveness and clever programming of apps like BrailleTouch help close a digital divide between sighted and blind users, letting more and more people engage and communicate no matter their disability.