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Optacon (wikipedia.org)
92 points by bangonkeyboard on Jan 28, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 32 comments

Since this is a site that actually revolves around everything start-up, I feel the need to mention that there might indeed be a market for this. The Optacon filled a nieche that currently nothing else does. A portable, relatively affordable generic tactile graphic display. While we have OCR these days, things like layout and handwriting are still a major issue. There are problems that are pretty much unsolved in practice, like OCR'ing math formulas and have them present in a readable tactile way, which the Optacon solved for those people motivated enough to deal with it. A modern Optacon would still have the nice small camera, but likely also a "terminal mode" which could be used to explore the content of your computer screen, using the camera as a sort of mouse. If you manage to design something that is reliable, and matches or surpasses the Optacon in practicability, you can expect to charge around $5k for it and it should be a success (as far as successes in the assistive technology market go). I should probably mention that this has already been tried around 2000. The product was called VirTouch and was made by an israeli company which name I forgot. Unfortunately, they never really went into mass production, the company somehow went out of bussiness before the product went out of demo mode unfortunately. However, I still think this could be pulled off if done right.

If I understood this correctly, a pixel that is "on" in the tactile array is not just raised up above the "off" level, it is actually vibrating up and down at somewhere between 250 and 300 Hz.

That certainly makes the mechanics complicated, an array of such pins is not exactly off the shelf today either, I think?

It feels like the rest of the system, including of course the optical part which was a major achievement back then with custom silicon to get 144 photodiodes on a single chip, are more or less trivial today. But the complexity of a mechanical "display" is still not something that is solved by mainstream components as far as I know.

I wonder how reliable they are, I hope it's "very" since people are still using mechanical devices from 15+ years ago for something as critical. :/

Edit: I found this link [1] which shows a cross-section of a sensing pin connected to a piezoelectric bimorph. I can't imagine packing 144 of that structure that closely together, though. But perhaps the device offsets the bimorphs from the array, connecting the pins and bimorphs mechanically.

[1] https://books.google.se/books?id=6dWjBQAAQBAJ&pg=PA309

YOu are right regarding the vibrating dots. Actually, that is what makes the Optacon special compared to say, a refreshable braille display. It is actually easier to feel small structures if they are vibrating.

However, one big disadvantage of that system was the resulting noise. Reading with an optacon is pretty noisy.

However, it gave blind people a sort of independence that does no longer exist today. Some Optacon users did their degree with just that device, and basically no external help. These days, OCR is still not enough and you often need help from a sighted person to actually get your study material prepared.

> That certainly makes the mechanics complicated, an array of such pins is not exactly off the shelf today either, I think?

A solenoid is just a pin with an electro magnet wire wrapped around, put a spring on the pin to pull it back into the electro magnet and when you turn the magnet on it should vibrate.

A 100x100 grid of solenoids should cost under $100 they are fairly cheap, you might even be able to use a grid of wires and pins so they are addressable.

Where can you buy suitable solenoids?

It's sad how some great tech is killed just like that. Here I was, wearing my Pebble 2, being sad about how Pebble died, and then I read this. It is way more important for this kind of tech to live and improve.

Doesn't taking a picture of the whole page at once and then having it read to you after OCR dominate this in every way, from ease of input (from the page) to flexibility of output (to the human)?

I'm not blind, but that method probably doesn't let you skip around the page - including backwards - as easily.

It also sounds like the Optacon had some fancy capability to represent non-textual data like graphs and metadata like fonts:

> The Optacon offers capabilities that no other device offers including the ability to see a printed page or computer screen as it truly appears including drawings, typefaces, and specialized text layouts.

I've been using Optacons since approx 1982 where my school had one available. I read language reference and utility manuals at work. I even tackled Knuth vol 1 using an Optacon. I was even able to use it to read food packaging of different shapes and sizes (something which wasn't possible with OCR). I could even use the Optacon to read some diagrams. I was able to use them until about 2010 when my last one died. I would snap up Optacons from my cohorts as they abandoned them in favour of OCR solutions or phone apps.

What advantages does the optacon have over OCR solutions or phone apps? Why did your cohorts abandon them?

Wow. Blast from the past. We used it in our Psychology Dept. to find out if users could perceive 3D images through simulated 3D rotation of the 2D lines on the device. This was in 1984 and I was the student intern software developer. They put the project on hold at some point.

> The Optacon offers capabilities that no other device offers

It was discontinued in 1996, how is it still doing something that no other device offers?

Devices don't magically stop working when the company stops making them.

Devices back then didn't, at least.

The moving parts of a pre-2000 product were definitely more robust then these days. That applies to piezzo based refreshable braille displays as well. However, when using hardware that actually needs to move parts around, nothing keeps working forever. After 20+ years of use (you have to remember that these devices are the primary means of reading for a blind person, so they get quite a workout) almost everything will start to fail.

Which is not the point of the question. They're asking why no one else has stepped up to fill that void.

because there's no money in it. that's the usual reason for things not steadily getting better over time.

I think there's money to be had. Insurance covers assistive devices for the blind like screen readers, which can be quite expensive. I can't find data on how many completely blind people there are in the developed world (many, like my mom, use a blind cane but can still read with their peripheral vision and large print), but I imagine there'd be enough to support a small start-up.

everybody wants to be an unicorn apparently, not many people wanting to be a 'small startup' when you can just coast at FAANG.

I studied with someone who worked on a project to make dynamic Braille displays with heated wax (Wikipedia suggests alternative designs are available but more expensive) which isn't quite the same, but there's also less paper (with 'paperless' invoicing etc.) today and what there is could be scanned in.


But it sounds like that came to an end:

> funding from the European Union ran out before it could be brought to production.

Actually, all the piezzo-alternatives I know flopped. Piezzo seems the only workable technology for refreshable braille, especially if you want acceptable refresh times. Piezzo does up to 20 Hz, which is really nice when scrolling along indented code for instance. The proposed alternatives I know of all were in the range of 1-2Hz, which is totally unusable in practice. But they were marketed like a revolution, everytime one came out. It is easy to promote something as the "new big thing" if you manage to prevent actual users telling what they think :-)

It basically boils down to the fact that the bussiness around assistive technologies is pretty small. However, I am baffled by this fact as well. I really would love to own a Optacon, but cant buy one because nobody is manufacturing them since more then 25 years :-(

Was this the device that Whistler used in the movie Sneakers? I guess that was more of a keyboard or monitor though...

No, Whislter used a Braille display. Those utilize the reverse piezzo effect to implement "refreshable" braille.

Kind of sad. It would be much easier and cheaper to build this with today’s equipment and computing power.

I am not sure if that is really true. It might be cheaper to build, but it will probably not last as long as the 1980-product. We see this in refreshable braille displays too. The newish models tend to have about half the lifetime compared to pre-2000 models. Making things smaller and cheaper doesnt help if you are dealing with a shitload of moving parts. It is really sad to watch. While technology has clearly improved around us in the last 20 years, quality of refreshable braille display has gone down notably. I miss the times when I bought a $12k refreshable braille display with 80 cells and could be sure that it would last for at least 10 years. These days, you can be happy if you can still use it after 6 years.

Could you share info about some of the models you used so far ? As someone who lives with a blind person, I can see how quality of product is important for life quality. Equipment always seems expensive at first, but then you realize that piece of tech is used almost 24h a day and gives so much back...

I refuse to talk to non-blind people about blind people. That is such a patronizing move. They can write me an email if they are interested to talk about different products. mlang@blind.guru

This story exemplifies why we need open source software and open hardware.

A video from 1967 showing it: https://youtu.be/z47Gv2cdFtA?t=1600

“Bob Stearns – A blind computer programmer working at SRI. Bob used the Optacon in his work writing and de-bugging computer programs.“

I want to know more about this guy

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