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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 February 2013 Issue  Volume 14  Number 2

Braille Technology

More than a Line: What the Future Holds for Refreshable Braille

Refreshable braille displays have been an integral piece of the access technology landscape for people who are blind and deaf-blind for more than three decades now. Some have taken the form of simple peripherals, "dumb" add-ons that display the text appearing on a computer screen in braille. Others have been far more complex, enabling text input and manipulation as well as relaying vast amounts of vital information regarding the appearance of text.

Still other displays have the built-in features for highly sophisticated personal digital organizers, enabling easy and efficient braille input and output for creating documents, reading books, Web browsing, database management, and a host of other functions.

Braille displays over these 30 years have been available in various weights and sizes (from a few ounces to 15 pounds or so) and have offered as few as one braille cell and as many as 85. Most widely used braille displays, however, have been those peripherals and stand-alone devices featuring between 18 and 40 eight-dot braille cells.

Whether a refreshable braille device features 12 cells or 80, however, one common denominator has been that all cells are arranged in a single horizontal line. While the notion of reading full screens, full documents, and indeed, entire books on a single 18-, 32-, or 40-character line strikes the uninitiated as hopelessly cumbersome, users of braille have found it an easy enough adjustment to make. For braille users, the independence and control afforded by refreshable braille has been so truly extraordinary that accessing desired information in a continuous linear fashion has been a welcome adjustment considered well worth any inconvenience. Any braille user who grew up prior to the advent of refreshable braille clearly remembers the scarcity of braille material and the difficulty of carrying even a few braille books around all day.

With the advent of refreshable braille machines, we braille users could suddenly carry hundreds of books, create and edit our own documents, read and write e-mail, browse the Web, manage databases, maintain calendars, and more and this all in a device less than half the size of a single hard copy braille volume. To have such access to and command of written information in the familiar environment of braille makes that single line, albeit sometimes only long enough to hold a few words, easy enough to tolerate.

Reaching for More

Meanwhile, alongside the celebration of such a revolution in information access, the human imagination stretches to embrace future possibilities. Delicious rumors of a someday, someway, perhaps maybe possible multi-line refreshable braille display have circulated and been on the dream lists of avid braille users for just about as long as braille displays themselves have been in our hands. While countless individuals who read and write braille have adapted to (indeed, sometimes prefer) reading books on a single refreshable line of braille cells, the notion of more than one such line on a display is tantalizing. For reading certain types of material (science, mathematics, or poetry, to name but a few), the availability of more than one line to provide context can, quite simply, enable a reader to comprehend concepts and formats that are, at best, elusive when presented as one continuous braille line.

Center for Braille Innovation

When Brian Mac Donald assumed the role of president at National Braille Press (NBP) in Boston five years ago, he spent a year or so getting the lay of the land, restructuring, stabilizing existing operations, and looking at the future of braille. Already, National Braille Press was offering its materials in electronic as well as hardcopy paper formats, but Mac Donald recognized that more efficient methods for promoting braille literacy were needed. The Center for Braille Innovation was formed to explore and develop ways in which technology could be used to promote braille literacy.

Deane Blazie, renowned pioneer who introduced the first personal notetaker designed for braille users, the Braille 'n' Speak, in 1987, immediately became involved as did Mike Romeo, another access technology pioneer and past employee of Blazie Engineering. By pooling the talents of Blazie, Romeo, and dozens of others contributing input and research, the Center for Braille Innovation has seen two significant projects emerge.

First, a braille tablet called B2G (Braille to Go) is a multi-function robust Android device with a 20-cell braille display, ergonomic braille keyboard, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, onboard microphone, speakers, and the flexibility of installing Android apps to do anything from reading your junk mail to mapping your route to the library. The B2G is expected to be available by summer 2013 and at a price significantly lower than other braille notetakers currently available.

The other project occupying the Center for Braille Innovation has been the pursuit of a multi-line refreshable braille display. National Braille Press is a leading producer of braille textbooks and proficiency tests at all educational levels, where the need for tactile graphical representations is particularly important.

By 2015, Brian Mac Donald explained in a recent phone interview, most educational testing (state proficiency tests and others) will be presented to all students in electronic formats. Thus, students who are blind will need an electronic equivalent, a means of accessing both text and graphical material in a real-time digital environment.

The major stumbling block for individuals and organizations worldwide attempting to address the multi-line refreshable braille issue has been cost. Mac Donald cited, for example, a device funded by the German government that could display a full page but at a per-unit cost of 45,000 euros! Most of that obviously prohibitive cost sprang from the braille cells used.

Piezoelectric cells, the braille cells typically employed in refreshable braille products, are readable, resilient, and expensive. Currently, an 18-cell braille display sells for around $2,000 and a 40-cell display from $3,000 to $6,000. Following these examples, then, a four, five, or six-line display might cost in the range of $25,000 to $40,000, prices which are clearly beyond the reach of most braille users.

Welcoming Nitinol

The Center for Braille Innovation has explored a variety of braille cell construction possibilities, from polymer to rubber bands as Mac Donald puts it, and has finally found what may be the answer.

Nitinol, an alloy comprising roughly equal parts nickel and titanium, is known for remarkable shape memory capabilities. When heated, nitinol wire contracts, but when cooled, it still retains its shape. It is also relatively inexpensive.

In 2012, a prototype display using nitinol for its tactile representation was developed by the Center for Braille Innovation. The display features 5 lines of 40 braille cells, each with an array for a tactile graphic above these lines. The possibilities of such a display, particularly in the realms of science and mathematics, could represent an entirely new paradigm in accessing information and visual concepts for children and adults who are blind.

At this point, no one knows for sure what the resulting unit will look like. Will it have four lines or ten lines or somewhere in between? Will it have a mechanism for depicting bar charts and illustrations above, below, or beside the text? To what extent will the user be able to manipulate the information that the unit displays? These and countless other questions regarding the final product are issues yet to be resolved.

What we know for sure is that Brian Mac Donald and the NBP Center for Braille Innovation are determined to find a solution for presenting students who are blind with digital information, both text and graphics, in an electronic environment equivalent to that of sighted students and at an affordable price. Whether the resulting braille display will be in the hands of users this year or next is still unknown, but what does seem clear is that there will be a multi-line braille display that includes a space for tactile graphical representations, and its cells will be made from nitinol.

The refreshable braille display that is "more than a line" is finally looming in our foreseeable future.

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