[Image above] Dot, a smartwatch featuring a braille touchpad, can connect to a smartphone to help people with visual impairment better embrace all the capabilities of their phone. Credit: Dot Inc., YouTube
Until you personally experience an inconvenience, it likely never dawns on you how difficult different tasks may be for someone else. That’s especially true for activities that the majority of people take for granted, such as consuming information via written language.
It was really only in the past century that literacy became ubiquitous, yet writing is now one of the major ways of transmitting information. For people with visual impairments, however, this medium of communication can be exclusionary when the information is not available in other formats, for example, as an audio recording or in braille.
Braille is a system of touch reading and writing in which raised dots represent the letters of the alphabet. It was invented in the early 1800s, yet it wasn’t until the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 that braille signage became a requirement in certain cases (the guidelines for which were expanded in 2010).
For people with visual impairment, it can be frustrating when people who are sighted assume that providing information in an audio format is enough. Braille literacy is important for many of the same reasons that sighted reading is important—such as improving your ability to spell—and, significantly, it provides personal and private autonomy by which to express yourself.
Unfortunately, besides the signage required by the ADA, few technologies used in everyday life come designed with braille displays. You can buy a braille display as an attachment, but these typically cost thousands of dollars.
So there is high need for an affordable braille display that networks easily with existing technologies. Fortunately, the work being done by South Korean entrepreneur Eric Ju-Yoon Kim shows great promise to address this need.
About a decade ago, when Kim was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, he met a woman who was blind. “She was reading this giant, refreshable braille display, like a computer for the blind people. It was so expensive, like $5,000. So, I was very curious,” he says in an interview with The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation.
Kim began researching the market for braille displays and realized the price for the devices hadn’t changed in about 20 years. When he returned to South Korea, he decided to do something about that.
Along with two colleagues, Kim cofounded Dot Incorporation to explore creating a smartwatch with a refreshable braille display that could pair with a smartphone. They chose this format because “When we researched about this market, we realized that most of the blind people use smartphones in their daily life. But they use the smartphone in very limited format, only sound. So we wanted to create some wearable device,” Kim says in the Innovation Nation interview.
An article on The Korea Herald reports that Dot Inc. competed and won the second season of the Korean Broadcasting System’s start-up reality competition show “Golden Pentagon” in December 2013, which led to the company landing a spot in SK Telecom’s start-up incubator and funding from Kakao’s East Gate Partners. After competing in several more local start-up competitions, Dot Inc. turned to global competitions and Korean government-led overseas programs in 2015 to raise international awareness of their work.
Kim and his colleagues originally aimed to launch the smartwatch by the end of 2015, but they ended up waiting until 2017 to ensure they had everything right. In particular, the biggest challenge was identifying materials that would allow the tactile pieces to move freely and quickly without letting in water and debris.
The final smartwatch design, called Dot, uses a magnet to move and control all of the watch’s components. The watch face features four braille cells with six dots each, and the dots can be raised and lowered to produce any braille character.
Of course, one question likely on many reader’s mind is the price. Did Kim and his colleagues succeed in making the smartwatch affordable compared to other braille displays?
The answer is—yes! Depending on where in the world you live, the watch costs about $299–$333. (Shipping is included in the price.)
While smartwatches featuring braille displays is a big step forward to making the world a more inclusive place for people with vision impairment, it is only the first step for Dot Inc. The company plans to expand the braille touchpad technology into other applications as well.
For example, the company is working on developing the Dot Mini, which is a smart media device that translates any digital text into braille.
The company also partnered with the Busan Transportation Corporation to create accessible kiosks for a new mobility service called Dagachi Naranhi, or Side By Side, which uses GPS technology to provide localized directional information inside metro stations via a smartphone app.
Kiosks located inside the metro stations that are a part of the Dagachi Naranhi program feature refreshable braille touchpads based on the same technology developed for Dot. When users of the Dagachi Naranhi app approach the kiosk, they can access information about the station using the braille touchpad.
Bringing down barriers to mobility for people with vision impairment is not the only goal with this partnership.
“Non-disabled people don’t often see people with a disability using the subway. If this technology makes it easier for us to use public transportation, I think the overall all perception of people with disabilities will improve,” says Hyoung-bae Park, a user of the Dagachi Naranhi service, in a VOA article.