It sounds like a joke: What do you get when you put two engineers together in a room and then add a percussionist? At U-M, you get the quest for The Holy Braille, an interdisciplinary collaboration that aims to improve responsive surface technology for digital percussion instruments — think electric drums — and electronic Braille readers. It may seem like an odd and unlikely partnership, until you think about what they have in common: Both projects rely on a nuanced sense of touch.

“It fascinates me that people without sight who use Braille have developed a highly refined sense of touch,” says Michael Gould, an associate professor of music with joint appointments in LSA’s Residential College and U-M’s School of Music, Theater and Dance, who is among those spearheading The Holy Braille project. “As a drummer, I have that kind of sense of touch, too.” And it makes him an ideal ally in finding The Holy Braille along with his collaborators from the School of Engineering, Brent Gillespie and James Barber. Funding for The Holy Braille project has been provided by MCubed, a U-M research initiative that gives funding to teams of faculty from different disciplines.

A Better User Interface

Currently, e-Braille readers can only display one line of Braille at a time. It’s the equivalent, for sighted people, of watching one line of text plod across a computer screen leisurely followed by another. The alternative — assistive, screen-reading software that translates written text to speech — is widely available, but listening to text is not reading. Listening does not develop literacy skills, and these skills are a significant predictor of academic and professional success in people, both with and without sight.

The MCubed team believes a better Braille reader boils down to its actuators, which are, generally, mechanical devices that convert energy into motion. Existing Braille actuators are bulky and lack the agility to support multiple lines of Braille. Instead, the MCubed team is working to develop microfluid actuators whose lithe, fluid components give the actuators the dexterity to raise a cluster of dots quickly against a single, flat membrane. And these refreshable dots will be legible and responsive to fingertips.

The same technology would enable drums to be more responsive to the way the drummer plays them. “If you’re playing electronic drums now, you only get one type of response, regardless of how you interact with the drum pad, so it doesn’t influence your playing at all,” says Gould. The final frontier would be one where technology enables both the musician and the drums to respond and adjust.

“Much of the technology we use doesn’t allow us to think and learn through our bodies,” explains Gillespie. “The programmable surface technology behind both the electronic drum pads and the Braille e-reader is a step toward creating a user interface that uses our bodies and our brains’ capacity to think.”

Sile O’Modhrain, an associate professor of performing arts and Gould’s colleague in the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, is another member of the team. An expert in human-computer interaction, she’s shaping the fit between the microfluidic technology and its application in human-computer interaction through Braille. O’Modhrain is a musician who has known Gillespie since graduate school. She is also blind, giving her a unique perspective on the changes the team faces.

“The collective will make it work,” says Gould. “Not the individual. It’s hard to wrap your head around — that something you researched your whole career might end up being just a part of something bigger. I find that amazing.”