RESNA 27th International Annual Confence

Technology & Disability: Research, Design, Practice & Policy

June 18 to June 22, 2004
Orlando, Florida

Talking Braille: Making Braille Signage Accessible at a Distance

David A. Ross M.S.E.E., M.Ed.
Atlanta VA Rehabilitation R&D Center of Excellence in Aging and Vision Loss
Decatur, GA 30033


A Talking Braille prototype was developed and evaluated in a pilot study. The purpose was to provide access at a distance to both the text and spatial information offered by Braille signage; and to accomplish this in a system comparable in cost to Braille signage. The goal is a ubiquitous indoor orientation and wayfinding infrastructure. Ten participants using an initial prototype showed significant improvements in their orientation and wayfinding performance in unfamiliar indoor settings. Performance measures included time and effort expended in walking through a variety of indoor settings with the objective of finding specific locations (e.g., exits) within these settings.


Vision Loss, blindness, Braille signage, orientation and mobility (O&M), wayfinding


There are approximately 11.4 million people with vision loss in the United States, ten percent of whom have no usable vision; and by 2010 these numbers will nearly double (1). Spatial orientation is the major mobility problem encountered by individuals with severe vision loss (2 ) . Spatial orientation is distinctly different from mobility in that mobility depends on skillfully coordinating actions to avoid obstacles in the immediate path, whereas spatial orientation refers to the coordination of actions to establish and maintain an awareness of one's position in space relative to landmarks in the farther-ranging surroundings and relative to a desired destination (3). Wayfinding is the ability to follow a select path through the environment so as to arrive at a specific location. In this regard, the tendency to veer from a straight path is a major problem (4).

Most orientation and wayfinding aids have one major weakness: they employ the Global Positioning System (GPS) to determine a person's location and heading; however, GPS can be unreliable in urban settings and is useless indoors. Further, the few systems that have been developed for indoor orientation (e.g., Talking Signs) have not been widely deployed, though they have been available for 20 years. VA investigators suspect that the cost of installation to building owners has been the major stumbling block. There is, however, one infrastructure that is ubiquitous: Braille/Raised Letter (BRL) signage, as currently mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). If BRL were made accessible—that is, if it provided access equivalent to that of visual signage—there would be no need to develop any additional infrastructure for orientation and wayfinding.

In these terms, Geruschat and Smith point out the advantage of visual signage: “In addition to the speed and volume of information obtained through sight, it is the distance from which the information can be obtained that is of ultimate importance. In a mobility context, distance means anticipation, the ability to preview the travel path… Distance, as offered through vision, also permits quick and easy orientation. For example, walking into an unfamiliar building, the sighted person quickly scans the area finding entrances and exits, offices, rest rooms, etc.” (5).


The investigators hypothesize that: 1) accessible BRL signage meeting the Geruschat-Smith criteria will provide a significant improvement in orientation and wayfinding as measured in terms of task performance time and expended energy, 2) the cost of mass produced Talking Braille signs can be comparable to that of BRL signage, and 3) solar cell-powered signs can be developed to eliminate the need for placement near an electrical power source and/or the need to replace batteries at regular intervals.


Talking Braille was conceived as the method for providing access to BRL signage at a distance. Talking Braille is an adaptation of electronic badge technology developed by Charmed Technologies. The Talking Braille infrastructure is comprised of tiny digital circuits embedded in the BRL sign. A Talking Braille “badge” worn by the person remotely triggers signs in the person's vicinity (See Photo 1). Using buttons on the badge, the person can request that signs respond by either 1) “voicing” their message, or 2) transmitting their message to the user's device over an Infra-Red (IR) beam. In a manner similar to that of using Talking Signs, the person can then locate and follow the IR beam to its source by turning their body to obtain the strongest signal. They may also simply use the received message as a reference point along their path. Unlike Talking Signs, Talking Braille stores text information, not speech information. This enables storage of a great deal more information (currently 2000 words) that can be quickly searched for relevant information. A text-to-speech chip on the badge voices the message through a small speaker (or a headphone). Before setting out, the person would plan their route using a home computer and download this route to their Talking Braille badge. The route is defined as a series of way-points. As the person moves along the route, the badge automatically queries each sign encountered to obtain the person's current location as well as directions to the next way-point. The person can select whether or not to listen to these updates. The person can also make impromptu requests for information in any setting using buttons on the badge and a badge menu system. Finally, the person may request that every Talking Braille sign within range (about 22 feet) announce itself either by verbalizing its short BRL message, or transmitting an IR signal.

Photo 1. Picture of Initial Talking Braille Prototype in Operation. (Click image for larger view)

The cost of Talking Braille signs will be minimized by integrating the final circuit onto a single chip that in the expected mass production quantities needed for ubiquitous deployment will be very inexpensive. To achieve solar-powered operation, a super capacitor will be employed to store energy from the solar cells. The assumption is made that Talking Braille signs will not actually be used for more than 1 minute out of each hour of the day. The energy collected by solar cells over an hour is more than sufficient to power the sign for one minute. The sign electronics will “sleep,” drawing miniscule power, until awakened by a passing badge. The sign will then transmit for a minute before going back to sleep. This should be sufficient time for the person to obtain whatever localized information they may need.

The initial prototypes were evaluated in tests involving 10 participants with either profound vision loss or no usable vision. Participants navigated a maze of hallways at the Atlanta VA Rehab R&D Center both with and without the use of Talking Braille. Their performance was timed. Further, the actual distance walked was measured as an indication of energy expended. After using the system, participants were asked to rate its usefulness on a scale from 1 to 7, and explain why it was or was not useful.


The cost of producing the constructed Talking Braille prototype signs was $25 in quantities of 100, and the cost of the talking badge was $450 in quantities of 5. The manufacturer estimates the cost of signs will be under $8 in quantities of 10,000 and under $5 in quantities of 100,000. This is comparable to the cost of installing BRL signage. The user badges are expected to cost $250 in quantities of 1,000.

Even though only 10 people participated in the initial prototype tests, the differences in performance times and distance walked were quite significant (see Table 1). As shown, when using the prototype average performance times were cut in half, and average distance was reduced to 75% of what it had been. Without the prototype they had to take time to stop and ask directions, or they walked much further than needed because they became lost and went the wrong way. The average usefulness rating was 8.33 out of a perfect score of 10 (95% C.I.=.77). All expressed enthusiasm for the concept, but felt the design needed to be improved to eliminate the occasional misdirection caused by reflected IR signals.

Table 1: Descriptive Statistics of Objective and Subjective Results




Std. Dev.

95% Confidence Interval


Significance (2-tailed)

Baseline Performance Time (minutes)







Prototype Performance Time (minutes)






Baseline Travel Distance (feet)







Prototype Travel Distance (feet)






Usefulness Rating( Out of 10)








Investigators were encouraged by these results, and learned much about the limitations of the current prototype. The badges will need to be adjusted to be more directionally sensitive, and a means must be devised to easily adjust the range and directionality of the signs to prevent confusing reflections.


  1. Goodrich G. (1997) Growth in a Shrinking Population: 1995-2010 . Palo Alto Health Care System. Palo Alto, CA.
  2. LaGrow S. & Weessies M. (1994) Orientation and Mobility: Techniques for Independence . Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind, Dunmore Press, pp. 9-30.
  3. Guth D. & Rieser J. (1997) Perception and the control of locomotion by blind and visually impaired pedestrians. Foundations of Orientation and Mobility, (Second Edition) , AFB Press, pp. 9-38.
  4. Rouse D. & Worchel D. (1955) Veering tendency in the blind. New Outlook for the Blind , 49, 115-119.
  5. Geruschat, D and Smith, AJ. (2000) Low Vision and Mobility. Foundations of Orientation and Mobility, Second Edition, AFB Press, pp. 60-101.


This study was funded by National Institute of Health grant # 1 R43 EY014747-01 .

Author Contact Information:

David A. Ross, MSEE, MEd,
Atlanta VA Rehab R&D Center,
Mail Stop 151R, 1670 Clairmont Rd.,
Decatur, GA 30033,
Office Phone (404) 321-6111 x6817.

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