It seems to me that we should be able to resurrect the Optacon.
Simply returning to the Model D design won't do the job, however.
Making an Optacon that conforms to the wishes of satisfied Optacon
users will do very little to interest consumers who have
demonstrated little interest in this product in the past. We need
to take advantage of the experience gained over many years of use
to design a unit that is significantly better than the model D.
The question, then, is: Can we articulate what a new-and-improved
Optacon should be?
The Optacon continues to serve me well, in a few very specific
tasks, where nothing else works. I believe that there are a small
number of blind people who will tell you the same thing. Just a
small number, to be sure, not enough to sustain a manufacturing and
I have a model C and a Model D, both in good operating condition,
and neither have ever been back to the factory for repair. After
a few years, the battery supply in both units failed, loading down
the A.C. adapter to the point where the Optacons would no longer
work. I opened the cases, clipped a lead on the battery, closed
the cases, and they work just fine.
There are two engineering design changes that could make the
Optacon a much more useful device, and, perhaps a commercial
success. These two design changes would make it possible to read
much faster, and to read a larger variety of print fonts.
First, there must be signal processing that prevents any array pins
from vibrating that would not contribute any information to tactile
identification of alpha-numeric characters. Basically, this means
that there should never be more than one vibrating pin to represent
a point on a line, whether that line is very thin, very thick or in
between. In other words, letter shapes should always be
represented by tactile lines that are exactly one point wide. I
suggest that this would require a camera with ten times the
resolution of the model D camera, and robust software to optimize
the tactile image. With this one change, the Optacon user could
read large boldface print with the same ease as he now reads thin
line sans serif print. Don't tell me we can't do that. It is
simply a matter of thinning every image to the minimum number of
stimulator to present the letter and number (an punctuation)
Second, the Optacon should have a three-finger display. This would
more than triple the apparent field of view available to the
reader. It should be noted, that an increase in the field of view
would not help much, if the image being displayed has not been
preprocessed to optimize tactile presentation. However, with a
good tactile image, the effort required to identify alphanumerics
is greatly reduced, and a larger field could then contribute to
My experience as a braille reader has some relevance to this last
point. I was taught to read braille with the index finger of my
right hand and to use the index finger of my left hand to keep my
place. For most of my life, I struggled to read about 70 to 100
words a minute, depending on the subject matter I was reading.
Then, in my late sixties, I learned from the Braille Monitor how
the fluent leaders of NFB read their banquet speeches. And now,
when I don't revert to old habits, I read braille more than twice
as fast--and enjoy it a lot more.
And so I posit that eliminating redundancy in the tactile display
and tripling the field of touch, I could read print at a rate of
about 100 WPM. Some claim that they can do as well with the Model
D, but I never saw this confirmed by tests administered by an
objective laboratory, like the one I run.
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