OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Researchers May Market Their Printer for the Blind

09/16/1996

CORVALLIS - Oregon State University researchers have invented an innovative new product to make science education more accessible to blind people, but now are having to fight through roadblocks to get it marketed.

Lacking many alternatives, they'll just build it themselves.

Faced with what they believe is a pressing demand for these high-tech products among people with a range of disabilities, and the apparent lack of interest by established manufacturers to produce or market them, the OSU scientists say they will soon create a private company to begin direct manufacture.

"There's the old saying that if you want something done right, you should do it yourself," said John Gardner, an OSU professor of physics. "So we will. I expect these products to be very successful commercially."

OSU in recent years has become a leader in the development of new technology to make mathematics or science instruction available to the blind, and people with other types of physical or learning disabilities. The work has been largely coordinated by Gardner, an internationally recognized professor of physics who lost his eyesight in mid-career.

One of the most recent inventions - and one of the most promising, according to Gardner - is a specialized computer printer that produces raised embossed images of graphs, charts, symbols, numbers and other specialized forms of written communication that traditionally have been almost inaccessible to blind people.

This invention, primarily the work of one of Gardner's graduate students, Peter Langner, is so unique it recently won $7,500 in awards from the sixth annual BFGoodrich Collegiate Inventors Program. It was one of only three such inventions in the nation to receive this honor.

"If you want to learn about computer science or physics or mathematics, words are not enough," Gardner said. "But there has been nothing on the market to produce high resolution graphics in a raised image form usable by blind people. This does that very well."

Losing his eyesight, Gardner said, helped him gain special insights into the barriers that too often in the past precluded blind people, or those with other types of disabilities, from pursuing careers in math and science.

Determined to change that, a string of inventions have emerged from his laboratories and research programs in recent years. These include: -"Dots Plus," a new raised-dot system conceptually similar to braille but far more effective in conveying the mathematic equations, scientific symbols and other research tools of the trade.

-A computer program called "Triangle," which helps translate graphs into auditory tones that rise or fall, allowing a blind person to "hear" and better visualize a mathematical graph.

-A "table browser" that allows data tables to be broken into smaller components and read sequentially, in ways that are easier for people who are blind or may have other disabilities.

Some of the innovations such as the Triangle computer software, Gardner said, are already complete and being given away freely to anyone who wants them. They all evolved from frustration in gaining access to a complete range of written, mathematical and scientific literature.

"What we're trying to help people understand, however, is that these innovations can help many types of students, not just the blind," Gardner said.

"They will find application in helping dyslexics," he said, "or people with other learning disabilities, and even normal students who may better absorb information one way than another. We don't all learn the same way, or at the same speed, and this technology can help address that."

But in some cases, Gardner said, the reluctance of private industry to produce technology for what they feel is a limited market has forced alternative development.

Such is the case with the new graphic printer. After it was created through university-sponsored research, OSU applied for a patent on it, and in turn will license production of the product to Gardner's new company.

Gardner says the machine should be simple, inexpensive, able to use his Dots Plus system and many other graphic images, and find a ready market.

He hopes for production to begin by 1997. The start-up company is still receptive to venture capital and potential investors, he said.

"We hope this new company will be able to produce a variety of products for people with different types of needs," Gardner said. "Knowledge is one of the things that should be accessible to the disabled. This is a growing new field and there should be a high level of demand."