>COMPANY SEES MEMS AS SOLUTION FOR AFFORDABLE BRAILLE DISPLAYS
>April 9, 2002
>By Allen Bernard, Small Times Correspondent
>Development of a MEMS-based Braille display system may prove to be a
>miracle worker for the thousands of blind people unable to access
>In fact, Orbital Research Inc.'s
>computer display could
>actually raise literacy rates among the blind by making Braille displays
>"At a much reduced price, that would be a huge advantage," said Jay
>Leventhal, editor of
>Orbital Research Inc. uses pneumatic
>MEMS microvalves that inflate balloons
>of air to form the points of Braille characters.
>The result: A refreshable Braille display system.
>American Foundation for the Blind's
>Too many people have to opt for just speech output. This would mean the
>Braille device could compete with the speech device, and that would
>By packaging an existing technology, electrostatically actuated MEMS
>microvalves, that has been around since the 1980s in a new, more compact
>expects to lower the price of a Braille display from today's
>$70-per-cell cost to somewhere around $5 to $10 per cell, according to
>Fred Lisy, corporate
>vice president of Cleveland-based Orbital. A cell is the equivalent of
>one character, letter or number. At the same time, the company expects
>improve the reliability, usability and functionality of the devices.
>"Microvalves have been around for a while," Lisy said. "The problem is
>when it came to packaging these devices in a reliable way, that's where
>The reduction in cost would allow an average person to purchase a
>display that has many more rows and columns than today's displays, and
>display graphics. And, as a side benefit, by increasing literacy rates,
>Orbital would also be increasing the market for its displays.
>"It's a big advantage to have Braille," said Leventhal, who, on recent
>trip to Los Angeles had to decide what reading material to take by
>it. If a refreshable display were available that could be used with his
>laptop, for example, he would no longer have to go through this exercise
>time he went out of town. "(Blind people) would use more Braille if they
>At $5,000- to $7,000 each, most displays are well out of reach of the
>average blind person. Even less functional Braille PDAs, which show five
>to 10 words
>at a time, run between $3,500 and $5,000 and are useless for surfing the
>Internet or adding numbers on a spreadsheet.
>"Current technology is almost like closed captioning," said Marlene
>Bourne, a senior analyst with
>you really only get one line at a time. Theirs seems to be a real
>intriguing advancement in concept. From what I understand, it can go
>to being used in cell phones, pagers; any type of electronic
>Existing displays depend on little electric relays pushing little
>plastic pins against an elastic membrane to form the Braille character.
>What Orbital has
>done is replace the piezoelectric actuators with pneumatic MEMS
>microvalves that inflate bladders, or balloons, of air to form the
>points of the Braille
>This gives Orbital's devices some distinct advantages over today's
>displays. They can work at any angle, in contrast to piezo displays,
>which make use of
>gravity to drop the pins back into place; they are more power efficient,
>and, because up to 16 microvalves can be packed into a space the size of
>more rows and columns can be put in one display. The next goal is
>getting 24 valves into this same space.
>Although the worldwide market is only about $20 million per year,
>Orbital believes it can capture almost 5 percent of it within 24 months
>of shipping product.
>To do this, the company is looking to partner with one or all of the
>five California-based Braille display manufacturers that control about
>of the market. If the company can convince these manufacturers to use
>its technology it will make its numbers. If not, it still expects to
>of the market over time.
>But Orbital is still a startup, even though it's been around for 10
>years. While not quite standing around with its hand out, Orbital has
>on government funding, primarily through the Small Business Innovative
>Research program and the U.S. Air Force, to stay alive while it develops
>its new MEMS packaging technology. If the Braille display device takes
>off, the company will have a revenue stream around which it can continue
>the other eight or so products it has in the pipeline.
>"We are R&D. That's our strength. To make the thing successful we don't
>have the wherewithal internally for commercializing, for setting up the
>manufacturing to create these Braille modules," Lisy said.
>Lisy is also in talks with a bank and
>which manufactures automatic teller machines, about using Orbital's
>display technology in a new generation of ATM machines.
>But, in order to cash in on its newly minted Braille display
>which was issued in March, Orbital is in the process of licensing its
>MEMS microvalve technology - for which it has found at least three other
>uses - to
>a spin off company called iACTIV.
>In this way, Orbital can attract VC money for its MEMS work while
>protecting its other discoveries, which will still be owned by Orbital
>a paper division, but an important one if the company wants to
>capitalize on 10 years of research.
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