The People Technology Left Behind: Creating Better Products for the Blind

Developers are working on a tablet for the blind.


When advancements are made in consumer technology, the people they benefit tend to be the general population. The autonomous car is one innovation that benefits every demographic — it provides more independence for aging and disabled community members who are often afterthoughts in Silicon Valley. But there are still many who are left behind in the latest innovations.

A team of researchers from the University of Michigan is working on a way to update the braille display, so it's fit for the 21st Century. The technology could help create an accessible and affordable way for the blind to read braille.

The proposed mechanism uses liquid or air to pneumatically raise the dots on the screen. This development would allow for a Kindle-sized page of text to be displayed all at once, expanding the possibilities for tactile visuals and deeper learning among the blind. 

It's not the only electronic braille device. The Dot smartwatch helps act as a translator for your smartphone, doing away with the need to employ impersonal text-to-speech functions in order to read a text message.

“Until now, if you got a message on iOS from your girlfriend, for example, you had to listen to Siri read it to you in that voice, which is impersonal,” Dot CEO Eric Ju Yoon Kim explained in an interview with Tech in Asia. “Wouldn’t you rather read it yourself and hear your girlfriend’s voice saying it in your head?"

These and other developers working on advancing refreshing braille displays are hoping their devices will help boost braille literacy among the blind, which has seen a steep decline. Part of this drop is due to the current state of braille technology.

What's currently available are refreshing braille displays that only displayed one line of text. The reading process is limited, slow, and tiring. Also, these refreshing braille displays cost around several thousand dollars. On the flip side, text-to-speech and audio materials have become quite affordable — these features come standard on many mobile devices.

But there's some concern that the blind are becoming limited by the scope of what they can hear. Deeper learning requires visual understanding — the impact of a pie chart may become lost without a tactile visual.

“Anything where you want to be able to see stuff written down, like coding or music or even just mathematics, you really have to work in braille,” Sile O’Modhrain, a collaborator on the tablet project, told MIT Technology Review in an interview. “That just means for a lot of people, these things are not accessible or not available.”

This latency in innovation for more affordable ways to access braille has attributed to the drop in literacy. Less than 10 percent of blind children were learning braille in 2009; compare this to the 50 to 60 percent of kids who were taking up braille in the 1960s, according to the National Federation of the Blind. But it seems like developers around the world are stepping up to the challenge.

The developers from Michigan are hoping to offer their braille tablet for less than $1,000 and believe it will be another year and a half before the product comes to market.

***

Natalie has been writing professionally for about 6 years. After graduating from Ithaca College with a degree in Feature Writing, she snagged a job at PCMag.com where she had the opportunity to review all the latest consumer gadgets. Since then she has become a writer for hire, freelancing for various websites. In her spare time, you may find her riding her motorcycle, reading YA novels, hiking, or playing video games. Follow her on Twitter: @nat_schumaker

Photo Credit: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / Getty Staff

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.