January 2013 Issue  Volume 14  Number 1


Connecting the Dots: A Brighter Spin on the Future of Braille

Even if you don't use braille, you'll want to read this article. Let me amend that. If you are interested in people who are blind or who have low vision, their future, and the commitment of leaders of organizations around the world involved with literacy for people who don't read print, you'll want to read this article.

In the interest of clarity and full personal disclosure, I am more than a fan or aficionado of braille. I would go so far as to say that my life depends on it or, at the very least, has been centered soundly upon it since the age of six.

Because of my rapid inhalation of braille into my DNA, I was the first in a working class family to graduate high school, first to go to college, and the only one to pursue graduate work.

The merger of braille with technology (which technically began in the early 1970s, and started for me with the acquisition of a tape-based Versabraille in 1985) resulted in an exponentially rapid growth in access to information for people who are blind. With early databases and online services, braille readers could consult encyclopedias, newspapers, and a variety of information sources.

The parade of personal braille-aware notetaking devices with multiple functions began in 1987 with Deane Blazie's groundbreaking Braille 'n Speak and has continued through an overabundance of complex devices capable of managing all types of information, allowing the user both to input braille and read it on refreshable displays.

Personally, I have never used a computer without an accompanying refreshable braille display, a device which enables the computer user to read information from the computer screen on lines ranging from 18 to 80 braille characters.

Braille in my home and office is ubiquitous. Braille is present in almost every aspect of my life, from the braille hardcopy versions of magazines like Harper's and Cooking Light I read, to the simple labels I place on bottles of shampoo and herb-infused olive oil, and from the braille device I use to read text messages on my iPhone, to the notetaker that manages every aspect of my life (from conference notes and contact lists to e-mail messages and downloaded books).

The future of braille, however, has been a concern of many who care about the future of people who are blind. Some remarkable projects are under way to put a brighter spin on the future of braille and those who use it. Again, whether you read braille yourself or not, these projects are ones that AccessWorld readers may want to follow.

The DAISY Consortium and Transforming Braille

Since 1996, the DAISY Consortium has been recognized as the international not-for-profit organization committed to making digital materials accessible to people everywhere and ensuring that all developed standards are international, so a person in one country can access materials developed in another. While focus has been primarily on the development of standards with regard to audio or "talking" books, DAISY leaders have also recognized that tactile reading represents an integral element in information access and literacy for people who are blind. Under its current president, Stephen King of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), and the RNIB chair, Kevin Carey, in partnership with several other organizations, the DAISY Consortium launched a tremendous project in 2012.

Calling the project Transforming Braille, the aim is not so much to transform braille itself but, rather, to transform the availability of braille to people everywhere who are blind. Two realities guided the creation of the project.

First, hardcopy braille is costly and requires considerable time and labor to produce. Secondly, while refreshable braille devices afford instant access to far more information than that which is available in hardcopy braille, such devices typically cost around $6,000 and are, consequently, usually only available to people in prosperous countries where, more often than not, funding is provided by the government for use in educational or employment settings.

The goal, then, of the Transforming Braille project is to identify a refreshable braille device that is dramatically less expensive than existing products, a device that would be within the reach of all people who are blind, including those in developing countries. Rather than the complex multi-featured devices currently on the market, the pursued holy grail of braille in this project is one that would simply deliver braille into the hands of its users. Libraries could provide electronic copies of texts simultaneously to many patrons at a fraction of the cost of providing those same texts in hardcopy braille to a relative few.

Project Orchestration

Steven Rothstein, president of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA, was brought on board as the Transforming Braille project director. (In the interest of clarity, it warrants pointing out here that Kevin Carey of RNIB is chair of the project with regard to organizing and conducting meetings. Steven Rothstein's role as project director involves the hands-on orchestration of technical reviews of those projects being considered, gathering related data, and the general nuts and bolts of moving the project forward.)

The first phase of the project was funded by the RNIB and was completed in July of 2012. It involved identifying as many existing projects designed to produce refreshable braille as could be found around the world. Over 50 projects were identified, Rothstein explained, the efforts of entities large and small, including colleges, corporations, and not-for-profit organizations. Those 50-plus identified projects were drawn from 15 different countries. How many ways are there to incite pins to move up and down? How many ways are there to send the electronic messages required to tell those various types of pins to do their moving? Obviously, Rothstein and his colleagues found an impressive variety of answers to such questions. Along with a variety of materials, the search also unearthed a variety of price points. Through independent and rigorous testing, the number of projects was ultimately reduced to a final seven, three of which were identified as "promising" and four "to watch."

Regrettably, albeit understandably, there is no specific information regarding those final contenders to be shared as yet. All participating organizations have signed nondisclosure agreements concurring that no specifics of individual projects being considered will be discussed outside the circle of those directly involved. Rothstein did say that, at this point, the focus is on single-line displays with the assumption that, once the desired affordable and effective technology has been identified for a one-line display, employing it at a later date for multi-line displays would follow. For the impatient and/or insatiably curious among us, however, the wait for additional information may not be long. Phase 2 of the project, the phase during which the final contenders are rigorously tested and an ultimate "best solution" is to be determined, is scheduled to complete very soon.

Phase 2 has been funded by organizations from around the world, which comprise the Transforming Braille project board. The list of funding partners for the project is, of course, an ever changing one. Spearheading that list, along with the RNIB, are four US organizations: the National Federation of the Blind, National Library Service, American Printing House for the Blind, and Perkins. Other funding partners include Canada's CNIB as well as leading blindness organizations in Australia, New Zealand, India, France, and elsewhere.

What about that Phase 3?

The organization's wish is that Phase 3 will be under way by the spring of 2013. When it does arrive, Phase 3 is, of course, the most exciting stage of Transforming Braille. That phase will focus on actually producing and marketing the resulting product, the dramatically less expensive piece of technology that will deliver braille into the hands of people everywhere who are blind. To complete Phase 3, Transforming Braille still needs money. Many notable organizations from around the world have literally and figuratively bought in to this groundbreaking initiative, but there are many more that have not as yet done so. To read more about the project, learn how to contribute, or to submit a refreshable braille project, visit the DAISY website.

Meanwhile … in Boston

A discussion of quests for a better future for braille and the people who read it would not be complete without the inclusion of the effort begun three and a half years ago at National Braille Press (NBP) in Boston. When Brian Mac Donald joined NBP as president in 2008, an early order of business was to establish the Center for Braille Innovation, which convened in 2009. Innovative and affordable ways of getting braille into the hands of more users was essential, Mac Donald realized, and he set about building a team to make that happen. One of the first people he contacted was Deane Blazie, inventor of the renowned Braille 'n Speak, the first personal notetaking and organizing device for the blind. Blazie came out of retirement and has volunteered his time since that first call to develop the as-yet-only-imagined piece of technology. Also invited to the table was Mike Romeo, another pioneer in access technology (who started working for Blazie Engineering and its forerunner Maryland Computer Services) and who has been an engineer on the NBP staff since the project's inception.

Over the last 25 years, many complex devices enabling users to read and write with refreshable braille have been in this small market. Typically, such products cost around $6,000, which puts them beyond the reach of many consumers. The goal of the Center for Braille Innovation was to develop a multi-function product, a "braille tablet" for the blind, but to keep its price thousands of dollars beneath the current standard.

Three and a half years later, the B2G (Braille to Go) device is almost ready to come to market.

An Android-based device, the B2G is a 20-cell, 8-dot braille device with cursor routing keys and a braille keyboard for input. Blazie and others selected Android as the operating system because, particularly in its latest Jelly Bean iteration, it offers accessibility mixed with an open source approach that greatly enhances possibilities. The device will offer the customary notetaking features along with a music player, GPS receiver, compass, camera (that can be used for OCR applications, currency or color identification, or just taking photos), voice input, speech output, and 32GB of internal storage along with onboard slots for SD and USB media storage devices. It will offer not only WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity but cellular connectivity for use as a mobile phone and the flexibility of downloading the myriad Android apps that users might want to use.

The goal, Brian Mac Donald said, is to graduate the B2G from prototype to marketable product by the summer of 2013. A final price tag has not yet been determined, but it will be considerably less than any similar products currently available.

And There's More…

National Braille Press and its Center for Braille Innovation are working on other truly groundbreaking products to revolutionize the future of braille and technology, and that work will be highlighted in future issues of AccessWorld. This article is intended to serve as an introduction to exploring the work that is under way to secure literacy and learning for those who read and see pictures with their fingertips. As we anticipate the culmination of the work conducted by the DAISY Consortium's Transforming Braille and the NBP's Center for Braille Innovation, it seems safe to say that something definitely good is on the horizon. All of the organizations pursuing new, affordable solutions are working cooperatively and collaboratively, a kind of icing on the proverbial braille cake. When, for example, I asked Brian Mac Donald, "What happens if the Transforming Braille project comes up with something so wonderful that your projects aren't necessary?" he answered without hesitation, "Then we all win."


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