The Braille system has allowed blind people to read the written word since 1825. Unfortunately, Braille doesn't translate well to the glossy smooth surfaces of modern touch screen tablets and phones. A new app thinks it can change that.

Each character in the Braille system—developed by Louis Braille for the French military—consists of a series of raised dots laid out in a 2-by-3 grid that are read with the fingertips. There are 63 possible character variations using the system, which is enough for the English alphabet, 10 numbers and a few punctuation marks. Characters beyond these are written using character-modification keystrokes on the traditional eight-button keyboard of Braille laptops. The problem is that these laptops are both expensive (some upwards of $6000) and only have limited functionality in real-world situations.

The new app was created by NMSU undergraduate Adam Duran, Stanford Assistant Professor Adrian Lew, and Stanford Doctoral candidate Sohan Dharmaraja as part of the Army High-Performance Computing Research Center's (AHPCRC) annual two-month summer immersion course. It allows the blind to use tablets via the Braille eight-button keyboard but with an important twist.

Instead of requiring the user to find virtual buttons on a glass surface (how frickin' impossible is that?), the individual keys orient themselves to the correct finger whenever the user touches the screen. "They're customizable," Dharmaraja said in a press release. "They can accommodate users whose fingers are small or large, those who type with fingers close together or far apart, even to allow a user to type on a tablet hanging around the neck with hands opposed as if playing a clarinet."

It's still in the prototype stage but, if it is able to be brought to market, it could be "a real step forward for the blind," said Professor Charbel Farhat, executive director of the summer program. "No standard Braille writer can do this." [Phyorg]