Understanding Braille Technology
Steve Kelley CRC, CVRT
Unless you’ve grown up with braille, you may not realize that braille technology has been in the electronic world for many years. Braille is far more than dots on paper! Many computer or tablet users who have an acquired vision loss may not even be aware of the value or use of braille in the technology we use every day—computers, tablets, smartphones, and e-readers. Many of these devices can readily connect to braille displays, so that text on the screen can be read as tactile characters on a display, read by touch. Historically, these displays have been pricey, and not often found in many workplaces, libraries, or homes, so it is not at all surprising to have never seen an electronic braille display This may be changing very quickly!
In vision rehabilitation, braille can be a tricky subject to broach, particularly with a recently acquired vision loss, or with a low vision reader, regardless of whether it is being used in technology or not. It is not uncommon for someone with a recent vision loss to be unwilling or reluctant to try using braille, for reading, or even simple labeling. Given the high cost of some current braille technology, or the unwieldy size of some embossed paper braille magazines or books, it’s not difficult to see why this can often be a challenging discussion to have with someone new to braille.
What’s really needed is an affordable, portable device that lures readers into the braille world…a sexy, braille Kindle-type of a device that says, “Touch me!” the moment it’s picked up!
What’s Changing in Braille Technology?
Traditionally, braille is embossed on paper of heavier stock than printer paper, and a book or magazine in braille is much larger than its print counterpart. Braille is a representation of the alphabet, numbers, and some commonly used characters made from “cells” of dots. There are 6-8 possible dots in a cell, and a cell makes a single character.
For example, imagine a domino that has the potential to hold either 6 or 8 dots on it. One dot is painted in the top left corner. This is how the letter “a” is represented in braille. On paper, of course, it is much smaller, and the dots are small bumps made in the paper that can be seen and felt. Braille is not another language, it is simply the existing alphabet, numbers, and symbols represented in a way that can be read by touch.
On a smaller scale, braille is easily produced using a Perkins-style brailler. This is a device that looks like a manual typewriter, from years ago, with fewer keys. Even more portable, a slate and stylus, which will easily fit in a pocket or purse, can be used like a pen or pencil, to record a a simple memo or phone number on a sheet of paper. Braille is also found on adhesive label guns, like Dymo-style labelers, for creating tactile labels for food, clothing, CDs, file folders– you name it.
On a larger scale, digital text documents are sent to electronic braille embossers, for larger scale printing. Like printers, the faster the embosser, the more it costs.
In the tech world, the first braille displays appeared in the mid 1970’s, and the first commercially produced braille display, the VersaBralle was released in 1982. Five years later, the Braille ‘n Speak was released as the first portable notetaker that used a Perkins style keyboard for inputting data, instead of a QWERTY keyboard [For a more complete history of refreshable braille devices, see Deanne Blazie’s post on the NFB website]. Electronic braille notetakers are nothing new, they’ve been commercially available for longer than most of us have had access to a personal computer at home!
Electronic, refreshable braille displays create the dots in cells by raising and lowering plastic or metal pins to correspond to the dots in the characters being represented. Little has changed in this technology, almost since the technology first appeared, and this design contributes to the cost. Typically displays offer anywhere from 10-80 cells in a linear display, and the cost goes up dramatically as the number of cells increases.
Although the cost of personal computers has dramatically declined over the years, the decline in cost for a device with an electronic braille display has not. As manufacturers, like Humanware, Freedom Scientific, and HIMS are quick to point out, the braille market is a small, specialized, low-incidence market. As a result, until recently, even a small braille display that will fit in a pocket, and connect by Bluetooth to a computer, tablet, or smartphone costs nearly $1000, and a notetaker with a small braille display, that includes the other features you might expect in a tablet, like a word processor, wifi, email, etc., can start at nearly $3000!
Electronic braille has been disproportionately expensive, from the outset, and the Holy Grail of braille displays has been reducing the cost of the technology behind the display without reducing the durability of the display, or the feel of the dots.
Recent Braille Technology Projects
To this end, the Orbit Reader 20 will become commercially available this spring 2017, from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH), at a yet-to-be-determined price, in the range of $500. This dramatic reduction of cost for a 20 cell braille display (a braille cell includes 6-8 dots comprising a single character of braille) is due in large part to The Transforming Braille Group, an international consortium of groups and agencies, whose mission was to locate a manufacturer willing to design and produce a utilitarian braille display reader for commercial resale, under $500.
The Orbit Reader 20, is a bit more like one of the braille notetakers, in that it offers a Perkins-style keyboard, in addition to the braille display, a SD slot for transferring files, and a basic editor for note taking tasks. The Orbit Reader 20 is primarily a braille-reading device—think of it like one of the original Kindle readers—designed specifically to read, with a few secondary add-ons. The built-in text editor does not have the bells and whistles found on more full-featured word processing apps or software. The file management software permits saving, deleting, renaming, and moving files to the SD card.
For more robust word processing, email, web surfing, etc., it will need to be connected to another device, such as a smartphone, tablet, or computer, and serve as the braille display only. For a more extensive look at these features, be sure to check out Deborah Kendrick;s review of the Orbit Reader 20 in Access World.
The University of Michigan’s School of Information’s Sile O’Modhrain leads a project called Holy Braille, to develop and create a full page braille and tactile graphic display device. Imagine for a moment a flat screen tablet, coming alive with a full page of braille or a bar graph that users could touch on the screen. For braille readers, like print readers, the ability to have more than 12, 20, or even 40 characters on a line, at any given time, makes reading much more efficient. Imagine trying to read a printed page through a device that allowed you to see only a few words at a time—sure it can be done, but more words would be better, and a whole page of refreshable braille, would truly be the Holy Grail of this technology.
A large part of this project has been to reinvent the braille “dots” or movable pins used on current electronic braille displays to a model using a pneumatic system of bubbles and fluid to raise the surface of the screen. Alex Russomanno, PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering working on this project reported in a recent interview with Access World that one of the goals was to create a device with multiple lines of braille that could be read with two hands, the way embosses braille on paper is usually read, and to keep the cost of the device down.
Greater Braille Availability
These are just two of the projects that have gotten a significant amount of press in the past year and a half. Other companies creating innovative new braille devices include BliTab, which like the Holy Braille project, offers a device with multiple lines of braille and insideOne, a hybrid tablet with a 32 cell braille display built into the bottom of the screen, and a Perkins-style keyboard as part of the touch screen.
All of this braille innovation, much of it designed to reduce the cost of braille displays, will ultimately increase the accessibility of braille to a great many more users. In fact one of the members of the Transforming Braille Group was the National Library Service (NLS). Imagine the opportunities for access to braille if a braille reader became available from the NLS, the same way the Talking Book Player is?
Finding braille in the world of technology is really nothing new, but finding it in a relatively affordable device will be very new. Projects like the Orbit Reader 20 and the Holy Braille full tablet braille display promise to make braille more accessible to a greater variety of users. Greater access to low cost braille readers may ultimately make braille a more viable alternative for all existing braille readers, and those readers who are on the fence, just waiting for an affordable braille reader to entice them back into reading again!