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Reprogrammable braille could shrink books to a few pages

Elastic bits with memory could eliminate the need for gigantic volumes.
Jon Fingas, @jonfingas
July 24, 2018
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Braille displays have made the digital world more accessible to those with vision issues, but readers who prefer the portability of a book haven't had that upgrade. Even a typical book might require over a dozen volumes of braille paper, which rules out reading during a summer vacation. Harvard researchers could soon whittle that down to a far more convenient size, though, as they've crafted reprogrammable braille that could eliminate the need for unique pages without the bulk of a display.

The concept is straightforward. The team compressed a thin, curved elastic shell using forces on each end, and then made indents with a basic stylus (similar to how you print a conventional braille book). Once you remove the compression, the shell 'remembers' the indents. You can erase them just by stretching the shell. It sounds simple, but it's incredibly flexible: in its tests, Harvard could control the number, position and chronological order of the indents. There's no lattice holding it up, and it works with everything from conventional paper to super-thin graphene.

This is still rudimentary. While you can store memories in the shells, you can't perform computing tasks with them. You'd need a more sophisticated platform to control page changes. If that happens, though, braille books could be considerably more accessible. That could be helpful for long trips where you're searching for something to read, but it might also be incredibly valuable for schools that could easily send braille literature home with students.

Harvard's concept for reprogrammable braille

Bottom image credit: L. Mahadevan/Harvard SEAS

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