Learning Braille with Haptic Gloves

Georgia Tech researchers have demonstrated a way for people to learn Braille, while doing other tasks. The result builds on their previous work that showed we can learn through our fingertips—technically, “passive haptic learning”—without paying conscious attention.

It’s an important breakthrough, because blindness is one of the gravest risks of aging and it’s far harder to learn new languages as we get older.

But if you’re thinking, “Bah! Braille is outmoded now,” it turns out, according to a 2008 article in Education Week, that rather being entirely replaced by such things as speech-to-text readers, Braille’s uses have been enhanced by new technologies:

“Portable devices similar to laptop computers allow blind students to type notes and read them back through a Braille display. Similar devices can render text on a computer screen into Braille, using a refreshable display. And software is cutting down on the time it takes to produce Braille reading materials for students, including textbooks. Just listening to books doesn’t teach a blind child how to read, spell, or write, instructors say.”

Georgia Tech’s method involves wireless gloves that transmit pulses to their wearers as sensory cues about what to do next. In earlier experiments (see video below), people learned to play piano with the gloves signaling which finger to use.

In the current experiments, subjects wore the gloves first with audio cues telling them which letters they were typing. Later, they wore them while playing a distracting game with no audio cues at all. Yet under both circumstances, they learned Braille. In fact, those who felt the glove’s vibrations were a third more accurate compared to a group that only heard audio cues.

In addition, says Georgia Tech Ph.D. student Caitlyn Seim, “People could transfer knowledge learned from typing Braille to reading Braille…After the typing test, passive learners were able to read and recognize more than 70 percent of the phrase’s letters.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zi6t89pi17c#t=17]