Taiwanese boffin lets the blind "see" photos

A graduate student in information management in Taiwan has seen the future for the blind, and he has come up with a way to allow them to “see” photographs.

Yu-shuan Peng, a recent master’s degree graduate from Chung Cheng University in southern Taiwan, says he came up with the idea in a roundabout way. Realising a year ago that specialised computers and software packages designed for use by the blind were very expensive, he decided to try to build a better model.

Brainstorming with his professors and fellow students, Peng, 25,decided to use a cellphone camera as a platform to develop a special type of software for the blind. His idea? Let blind people use free Android software. The result is impressive: “Dark Angel” transmits a photograph via Bluetooth to a receiver on a tactile board. The image then takes on a three-dimensional form, so that users can feel it.

The software takes flat images and transforms them into three-dimensional photographs. Says Peng: “This is my gift to the world.”

“It’s like what people do when they can tell what a mahjong tile is without looking at it, just by stroking it with their thumbs,” Peng says, using the example of a popular parlour game in Taiwan.

The result of his creation is a raised surface that can be felt. Blind people can also take pictures of their surroundings with their mobiles and then develop a tactile version of what places they frequently go to look like, and can even share them with sighted people.

A doctoral student at the university, who is completely blind, has used Peng’s software and told local media that he believes it can be improved even further. So now he is continuing to develop the software app, from the perspective of a blind person.

Peng’s idea has gone worldwide. After the software was uploaded to the internet, he said, a number of users both in Taiwan and overseas downloaded it. In addition, he logged in e-mails from blind people and sighted people, expressing their satisfaction with it. Peng says: “I feel I did something useful here.”

What’s next? Peng says he plans to continue work on developing the software. Since Braille books and books-on-tape are still not very readily available, he is now working on a text-to-voice application that will read text that is photographed.