Posted on Thu, Apr. 25, 2002


Revolutionizing a device that transmits in Braille
Temple students help refine contact for blind and deaf people.

Inquirer Staff Writer


Scott Stoffel, who is deaf and legally blind, put the palm of his hand onto a small black box and waited for a message from Temple University senior Jennifer Hanna.

A few feet away, Hanna typed on a standard computer-style keyboard.

As each letter was transmitted by FM radio signal to the black box, six buttons on the top of the box moved up and down, spelling out her message for Stoffel to feel in the Braille alphabet.

"This is a wireless," Stoffel said, reading the Braille with his palm.

With his words, the room full of engineering students and faculty erupted in applause.

The simple demonstration yesterday at Temple's engineering school marked what Stoffel and others say is a significant step toward commercialization of the Tacti-com, a device that Stoffel, 33, invented a year ago when he was a Temple senior.

For the last eight months, a team of current seniors in electrical and computer engineering had collaborated on making a wireless version of Stoffel's original, bulkier, plug-in device.

If it worked, the Tacti-com could become a $1,000 portable alternative to other communication devices available to the almost 100,000 people in the nation who suffer impairment of both sight and hearing. The existing devices cost up to $10,000, according to Stoffel and John J. Helferty, chairman of Temple's department of electrical and computer engineering.

Yesterday, the Tacti-com worked.

"Thanks for working on the project. It has potential," Stoffel, now an engineer for the Federal Aviation Administration, told the seniors - Hanna, 21, of Allentown; Okechi Ugoji, 19, of Nigeria; McGeary Brown, 21, of Providence, R.I.; and Christian Kaitell, 22, of Philadelphia. A fifth student, Carl Waitz, also helped with the project, but was not present yesterday.

The students said their device could be used by a sighted and hearing person to communicate with someone who is blind and deaf, without having to learn Braille or hand-sign language.

They said a future version might operate from a handheld computer.

Helferty, who oversaw both Stoffel's original work on the Tacti-com and the further development by the student group, said venture capitalists from Florida and California have shown interest in financing production of the device when it became ready.

"Now that this is done, the design is there, I'm going to say, 'Let's step up to the plate.'... I'm going to do my damnedest to make this a marketable, viable item," Helferty said.

The original device, he said, was patented this year.

Three prototypes built by the students will be tested at the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults in Sands Point, N.Y. Helferty said the center already has been using a prototype of Stoffel's original device to teach Braille, as well as to assist clients in communicating.

Stoffel, of Arlington, Va., has a degenerative neurological disorder that has robbed him of hearing and most of his sight. He can read large letters up close, and he completed studies at Temple by slowly reading huge-font text on a computer screen.

But reading Braille in the standard way with his fingertips has always been difficult for him because his disorder also causes fingertip numbness. Hence, his quest for a device to read with his palms.

Hanna said she decided to work on advancing Stoffel's invention because she wanted to "do a project that could benefit somebody. That was my main motive."

The students' version of the Tacti-com works on two 9-volt batteries. Its keyboard does not need to be connected to a desktop computer, as Stoffel's original did. And the wireless components have a range of up to 500 feet, the students said.

If the device ever garners a profit, it will be shared by Stoffel, Helferty and the students under a limited partnership they have formed.

But Hanna, who has a job with Peco Energy Co. lined up after graduation, said she was not counting on making money from the invention. "I expect to get a diploma," she said, "and that's about it."