Deep Gratitude For Dying Developer Of Machine That Aids The Blind

The Optacon allows blind people to "read" complex visual material through their fingertips.
The Optacon allows blind people to "read" complex visual material through their fingertips.

Dr. Bliss:
As so many on this list have already said, the Optacon changed my life...I thank you for your tremendous contribution and may God be with you.
-- G.

This week, James "Jim" Bliss announced he is dying.

In an email message Bliss, an MIT Ph.D. electrical engineer who developed technology for the visually impaired, wrote that he has "terminated all treatment" for his multiple myeloma and "joined Hospice" after battling cancer for eight years.

Bliss developed a life-changing device for blind people that few outside that community have ever heard of. The Optacon, which Bliss created with Stanford Professor John Linvill (who first dreamed up the idea to help his blind daughter, Candy, read) looks like a clunky, 70s-era tape recorder with a cable attached not to a microphone, but to an optical sensor.  By enabling users to gather visual information through touch, the machine has been a game-changer.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]Many report the Optacon is the single best device that allows for a life of independence, to learn foreign languages, become an engineer, read music or simply peruse one's own mail.[/module]

Indeed, Bliss's posting about his terminal cancer on a listserve devoted to the device, Optacon-L, generated scores of responses from blind people all over the world describing how the device transformed their lives by allowing them to "read" complex visual information through their fingertips, rather than with their eyes.

In contrast to Braille (which expresses letters as simple raised dot patterns) or speaking machines (which perform optical character recognition and read text aloud), the Optacon, (or OPtical to TActile CONverter) senses dark-and-light areas of ink and paper, converting them into a vibration pattern that can be felt with the fingertip and, with experience, interpreted by the brain.

The device can also be used to "read" information directly from a computer display.

What's startling about the notes to Bliss is that so many blind people have relied on their Optacon devices for more than 30 years. Some recount having two machines on hand to make sure at least one is available when the other undergoes repairs. Many report it's the single best device that allows for a life of independence, to learn foreign languages, become an engineer, hold a job, read music, finally understand capital letters or simply peruse one's own mail.Here's a sampling:

Dear Dr. Bliss,
I'd like to add my voice to all of those many who have praised the
Optacon and its incredible life changing impact on all of us who use it...In my
opinion, not even the enormous impact that today's most proliferate and
productive technologists like the late Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and others
can in any way measure up to or compare with the positive good and many
blessings that your tireless efforts and the work of pioneer John
Linvill have brought about via the Optacon. This remarkable
an example of humanity at its very best.

Or this from a woman in Wales:

Yes, thank you for all you've done in promoting the Optacon. I taught myself
cursive writing in Russian and English using it; began transcribing books
into Braille; as well as studying New Testament Greek and Biblical Hebrew in
graduate school. Countless other things, too, but those stand out for me.
God give you strength, Dr. Bliss.

"As a software engineer," one man writes, "I have found it to be the
most useful tool I have to do my job."

Bliss apparently took his role as a creator of the Optacon quite seriously, according to Don Bishop, who writes:

I received my OPTACON in 1972 and your wife was one of my original Optacon training teachers at the motel on El Camino where the classes were held. At the time I lived just across the bay in Fremont and I distinctly remember that you personally carried the big box containing the OPTACON out to our car. How many CEO's do that?

I appreciate all you have done in the creation and marketing of the
OPTACON as well as your participation in our list here where you've
provided valuable input over the past few years.

One gentleman writes that the Optacon "still ranks as the best Enabling Technology
invention that has helped so many people around the world have the freedom to read the printed word," and another woman says the device "gave me my job at IBM." A New Yorker writes of seemingly small but astonishing breakthroughs:

Before I got my Optacon, I knew nothing about print.  Now, I know, for example, that often in books, the first word is written in capital letters, or the first letter of the word can be very big. I now know what italics looks like. Amazing.

And here, a user remarks on the dignity such a device offers:

Dr. Bliss, I have only one thing to add to all that has been said about the
Optacon and that is that it is the one piece of technology which I would
never give up. I could live without all the other gadgets, but giving up my
Optacon would take away one of the very few links we as blind people have to
the sighted world of print information. The Optacon is still the best device
in terms of its versatility and its reliance on the user's own intelligence.
Thank you for giving us a device that boosts our dignity by its very design.

Earlier this week I emailed Bliss to get his response. He wrote back saying that what surprised him most were the amazing things that long-time Optacon users said they were able to do with the device. "I suspect this is the result of rewiring of the brain to use parts normally used for vision," Bliss wrote. "That is why I've proposed a new Optacon be developed that has higher resolution, greater field of view, and displays more attributes such as color, intensity, etc."

When I asked for more details about Optacon 2.0 a day later, Bliss said he was too ill to write back. He expressed hope, though, that a new team of researchers working on a modern Optacon would soon find success.

This program aired on October 7, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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