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Mouse_webAs the world relies more and more on the internet – and its delivery device, the computer – the “technology gap” has widened, with organizations like One Laptop Per Child, for example, trying to ensure that even the poorest of the poor have a chance to get ahead in today’s techno-centric world.

But “technology gap” doesn’t just mean third world children unable to compete in an increasingly cyber-world; there are other gaps that have kept even some “first world” people from moving forward. Take the blind, for example. In a world where more of society’s information sources are being stored in computer hard drives, databases, and the internet, those who are unable to see computer screens are at a significant disadvantage – and are in danger of being left far behind as the computer revolution moves forward.

While there are methods for the blind to interact with computers, most of them are old and extremely expensive, designed for static screens, not the dynamic (and often graphical) content in today’s internet. What’s needed is a cheap, easy and up to date method of connecting the blind to the modern online world.

And that is exactly what Matthew Wohl, chairman of Tactile World, has come up with. Wohl’s researchers have developed the Tactile Explorer, a mouse that lets blind users interact with their computer screen much more easily and cheaply than they could with the alternatives.

The Tactile Explorer ingeniously uses braille principles to allow blind people to “read” the contents of the screen. The heart of the mouse are two tactile pads on top that with pins that go up and down. The combination of pins indicate letters – either braille or regular English – as well as graphics, making the Tactile Explorer the only system in the world that allows the blind to “see” graphs, charts, and even regular photos. “The graphic reading system enables blind people to understand charts and graphics using Braille, in a manner that they’re used to,” says Wohl. And, in addition to its text detection capabilities, the Tactile Explorer even has a built in screen reader, allowing the blind to hear the contents of the screen.

Besides graphics reading, the Tactile Explorer’s other major breakthrough is in navigation, enabling the blind to follow links on the internet. The mouse has two modes – reading and navigation – and in navigation mode, the mouse can winnow down elements on the screen, presenting users with links (differentiated from other elements on the screen) that they can “read,” deciding which ones to click on, as well as making moving between links and pages easier. Language isn’t a problem for the Tactile Explorer, either; researchers at the company are working on language packs, which will be included, along with all of the software needed to run the system, together with the mouse.

Currently, the most popular computer interaction system for the blind is the Refreshable Braille display, which allows users to read text on a computer screen using braille. But those systems are difficult to navigate with, very weighty (ie non-portable), very expensive (upwards of $5,000 for most models, not including software) – and can’t do graphics at all. The Tactile Explorer, on the other hand, is easy to navigate with, light (the size, weight and dimensions of a mouse), does graphics – and is far cheaper.

Although the product is still in development, Wohl estimates that it would cost $695 if produced today., “we expect the price to go down significantly when we begin mass producing it.” That could take place within a year of the company’s getting funding to complete development, Wohl says.

Wohl has been showing the Tactile Explorer to investors, many of whom have raved over it, he says – but with last year’s economic shocks still on the minds of VC’s and angels, Wohl is still looking to close an investment deal. But although nothing is a “sure thing,” the Tactile Explorer has many fans in the Israeli government – from Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who was impressed with the possibility that the device could help provide jobs for the blind, 85% of whom are unemployed, to the Office of the Chief Scientist, which just this month invested matching funds in the Tactile Explorer.

In fact, providing job opportunities for the blind is one major reason the government is interested in the Tactile Explorer. Wohl’s team is adapting the Tactile Explorer for use with the most popular CRM software packages to enable the blind to work as service reps and telemarketers. And, there is interest from several Israeli government organizations to purchase the mice for their offices when production begins.

Meanwhile, the device is being tested by students and adults at some of the country’s major educational centers for the blind, including Keren Or, the Hebrew University Center for the Blind, and the Weizmann Institute is using the mouse technology in a couple of research projects. “We have been developing other specific applications as well, and we are working to ensure that the mouse works perfectly with the programs commonly in use today, such as Microsoft Office, Outlook, and Internet Explorer,” says Wohl.

Although he’s had some exposure to working with blind people himself, Wohl says he bought the company that produces the Tactile Explorer because he knew a good thing when he saw it. The company had been producing educational games for blind children using its patented technology, but was unable to make a go of it. Wohl bought the basic technology and expanded it to develop the hardware and software system making up the Tactile Explorer; today the company has five  patents, all of which have gone into developing the first significant update to computer interaction technology for the blind in 25 years. “I have no doubt this is going to be the biggest innovation for the blind in decades,” says Wohl. “The blind are no different than you or I – they, too, want products that are better and cheaper, and that’s exactly what the Tactile Explorer does.”

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