Optacon

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Deep Gratitude For Dying Developer Of Machine That Aids The Blind

The Optacon allows blind people to "read" complex visual material through their fingertips.

Dr. Bliss:
As so many on this list have already said, the Optacon changed my life…I thank you for your tremendous contribution and may God be with you.
— G.

This week, James “Jim” Bliss announced he is dying.

In an email message Bliss, an MIT Ph.D. electrical engineer who developed technology for the visually impaired, wrote that he has “terminated all treatment” for his multiple myeloma and “joined Hospice” after battling cancer for eight years.

Bliss developed a life-changing device for blind people that few outside that community have ever heard of. The Optacon, which Bliss created with Stanford Professor John Linvill (who first dreamed up the idea to help his blind daughter, Candy, read) looks like a clunky, 70s-era tape recorder with a cable attached not to a microphone, but to an optical sensor.  By enabling users to gather visual information through touch, the machine has been a game-changer.

Many report the Optacon is the single best device that allows for a life of independence, to learn foreign languages, become an engineer, read music or simply peruse one’s own mail.

Indeed, Bliss’s posting about his terminal cancer on a listserve devoted to the device, Optacon-L, generated scores of responses from blind people all over the world describing how the device transformed their lives by allowing them to “read” complex visual information through their fingertips, rather than with their eyes.

In contrast to Braille (which expresses letters as simple raised dot patterns) or speaking machines (which perform optical character recognition and read text aloud), the Optacon, (or OPtical to TActile CONverter) senses dark-and-light areas of ink and paper, converting them into a vibration pattern that can be felt with the fingertip and, with experience, interpreted by the brain.  Continue reading