I've come up with an insane idea after mulling over this link about modern dissatisfaction
with reading technology for the blind. I hadn't really been intending to come up with anything, it just sort of smacked me between the eyes while I was enjoying books on my iPhone.
I must admit that as I was reading through this article, my first response was "What a luddite! What difference does it make whether the blind listen to spoken words or read characters and symbols that mean the same thing?" As I thought more and more about it though, I realized that spoken word is very different to our brains from written word. Written word is by definition more organized, since we can go back and edit and correct, pause for as long as we wish to come up with the right word or phrase, and delineate much more clearly with symbols how our thoughts are meant to be understood.
As the days passed, I finally realized how much the blind really had lost when they stopped learning to read Braille. Braille, however, is an antiquated notion - expensive, unweildy, and unique to the blind. It's something that died out when we made the transition to digital, without creating any real replacement in blind repertoires for a lossless code with which to transmit the written word.
So here are my formulations, which explain the development and reasoning of my desired solution to this problem.
- Blind people, of course, would like to read. They would also like to write well. They would like to be familiar and comfortable with punctuation and grammar that is subtle to grasp from spoken text. According to the article mentioned above, this is a serious concern among blind students who have learned to "read" via the aid of devices which speak to them.
- The spoken word is a lossy medium. This is a given because homophones (and oronyms) sound the same when spoken aloud, spaces and periods are difficult to tell apart while listening, and without an excellent understanding of grammar, semicolons and other grammatical markers are nearly impossible to distinguish. Given this, it is difficult for a blind person to learn proper grammar and sentence structure in the manner that most literate people write. This puts blind people at a disadvantage when communicating with the written word.
- A digital solution for reading is desirable for the blind because braille books are costly to produce and store. Given that the size of the market for these texts will always be small, they are also costly to purchase. A digital solution for reading should allow blind people to read any text available in a non-lossy format, not just that which has been printed.
- It is desirable to have a reading system at which the speed of the observer can be changed at any point. This is my own addition to the ballfield - studies show that interacting improves comprehension. Slowing down, re-reading, and speeding up as desired is something every novel-reader takes for granted. It allows us to pontificate idly while ambling through philosophical text, race along with the hero of a fantasy novel, or plow through definitions in a medical textbook. Thus every symbol must be independent of other symbols. This further eliminates spoken words as the code language, as well as freshly eliminating spoken letters. The code system must be fast switching, and using the English language's extremely complicated character naming constraints would be ludicrous to listen to for any length of time.
- Building new hardware is expensive. This is obvious. Any device or application must be inexpensive to build and develop. This eliminates for the most part any blind-specific hardware because market size implies that the demand would always be minimal. Thus the solution must be done in software. This also eliminates any device that is required to change it's tactile structure because there is no such technology on the market that has been commoditized to the extent this experiment requires, and even if there was, requiring such technology would further the divide between blind and sighted people, which is precisely what we are trying to avoid. This eliminates using braille characters as the code words. It is desirable that blind people should be able to purchase the same devices as other consumers.
Thus, given that we have 3 senses that have not been eliminated: sound, smell, taste, we must consider that taste and smell also have no sufficiently developed technology with the required refresh rate to allow us to encode a sufficient amount of information, which leaves us with a sound solution.
If we are to encode the written word in sound we must consider the size of the input and output spaces. We also must consider what is distinguishable to a human ear. One should not assume that the listener has perfect pitch, however, it is a reasonable assumption to suppose that the human ear can distinguish between 1 and 3 tones being played at the same time. It is also reasonable to assume that the listener can distinguish intervals with some training and even octaves. Using markhov chains
with a clearly distinct set of code words, it would be relatively trivial to developer a code system which with some amount of training could convey a lossless translation of the printable characters of the ascii table
at minimum, likely even making the sound transitions sound decent for a typical sample of a given language. I am not going to belabor the point by developing this system at this point, because that is only half of the problem.
The other half of the problem is how to read it. I believe the best system would be in the manner similar to braille - that is, to run your fingers over the screen from left to right. This implies the device must have a touch screen. With the advent of phones such as the iPhone
, Google Nexus
, ebook readers such as the Sony eReader
and Entourage eDge
, and the (I'm sure to be seen) touch screen laptops showing up at CES, it is absolutely reasonable to assume that touch screen technology with speakers and/or headphone jacks will soon be readily available for purchase at a commoditized rate.
We should assume that the new reading "language" can be learned on the devices in question via games and quizzes progressing through more and more difficult texts. The system should be relatively simple to learn in this manner.
I envision this system being implemented in two stages - first as an application on any modern devices which have a touch screen and allow application development, and secondly as an accessibility library for these platforms.
In the application and library, everything sighted people typically take for granted must be questioned - that is, that we always know where we are putting our fingers down. The application must provide mechanisms for recognizing what line of text the finger is touch when it is removed from the screen.
This gives blind people an option they've never had before - the ability to "read" lossless text in a braille-like manner quickly and cheaply on modern affordable technology.
I suppose some sighted people might consider this system a bit contrived. The more I think about it though, the less ridiculous it seems. After all, sighted people have been "reading" strange lines, circles, and crosses for millenia. In addition, musicians read strange symbols, some filled, some open, with lots lines and markings all the time to delineate music. And those musical notes can be traced back to letters - so is this system really that unusual?
All I've really added to this very obviously needed system is a request for a discussion of which intervals and pitch combinations would provide the best coding system. And a note - that now is perhaps a unique time in history when this system can be used with efficiency by the blind due to modern technology.
Of course, I'm not blind. And I don't know anyone who is blind. I am tackling this subject merely from a logical and mathematical standpoint, and it may be that actual blind people would find this system to be insane. If so, I'm sure my idea will die in obscurity.