CORVALLIS - A research program that began when an Oregon State University scientist lost his eyesight in mid-career has created an important new technology that will help visually-impaired readers study and work in the complex world of mathematics and science.
This new "graphics embosser" computer printer can produce a combination of Braille and tactile graphics directly from most Microsoft Windows computer applications. Sales of the product have begun and the system was unveiled this month at the 14th international conference on "Technologies and Persons With Disabilities" in Los Angeles.
Called the Tiger Advantage, the basic research was done in OSU laboratories, patented by the university, and licensed to ViewPlus Technologies, a Corvallis, Ore., technology firm created specifically to bring this and other new learning technologies to the marketplace. A Small Business Innovative Research Grant from the U.S. Department of Education supported the process.
It's the latest success story in what began more than a decade ago as a personal tragedy.
John Gardner, an internationally-recognized professor of physics at OSU, lost his eyesight in 1988 as a result of complications of glaucoma, and soon found that his familiar world of advanced mathematics and science - with its array of symbols, equations, flow charts and graphic diagrams - was largely off limits to blind people. Gardner struggled to continue his own career - and also observed the different challenges facing people with disabilities such as deafness or dyslexia, and the normal students who were alienated by classes with antiquated teaching techniques. He resolved to do something about it.
The evolving world of computer technology, new educational approaches and Gardner's personal quest in directing OSU's "Science Access Project" is now addressing many of these issues.
Inventions that have emerged from Gardner's work include Dots Plus, a new type of braille to more easily convey mathematical equations and symbols; new systems to display graphic images from the World Wide Web; improved computerized speech synthesis programs; and teaching techniques that make "professor lectures class" an outdated anachronism.
The new printer is the latest advance.
"This product is such an important technology," Gardner said. "Graphs, charts and diagrams are a critical part of understanding math and science, and before this they were rarely available to blind scholars in any useful form. The Tiger Advantage should change that forever."
The Tiger Advantage computer printer was actually invented by Peter Langner, an OSU student at the time who, working with Gardner, created it as his master's degree thesis at the university and is now vice president of the company that will manufacture and market it.
"The Tiger tactile graphics embosser is a revolutionary step forward in making graphical information available to visually impaired readers," Langner said in a company announcement of the new technology. "It is the first embosser than can print directly from standard Windows applications, permitting easy one-step production of braille text and tactile graphics."
The huge expansion of information produced in graphic formats has created an "information gap" for people with visual impairments, Langner said. The new printer-driver can solve that problem, as it recognizes text characters, translates them into braille, and reproduces graphics in a tactile form.
The technology has received the B.F. Goodrich Award, was a finalist for the 1998 SAP-Stevie Wonder Award, and was nominated for a 1999 Smithsonian Computerworld Award.
ViewPlus Technologies officials plan to sell the device for about $5,000, which they say will be competitive with the cost of existing braille printers that have poorer resolution and range in cost from $4,000 to $8,000. It should be ideal for personal use and in schools, colleges or centers that prepare tactile materials for clients who are blind, they said, and can easily be made part of a computer network accessed by many different users to further reduce the cost of using the technology.
Information about this and other products can be obtained from ViewPlus Technologies at (541) 754-4002, or on their web site at www.viewplustech.com.
Any tactile graphics in the past were almost invariably hand-made and prohibitively expensive, company officials said. By tapping into modern computers and the World Wide Web, this new approach will provide blind computer users with a wealth of information never before available to them, all without the assistance of sighted helpers.