Canute - a renaissance for Braille

Peter Abrahams

Written By:
Published: 14th February, 2016
Content Copyright © 2016 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

A renaissance in Braille? That is what the developers of Canute are hoping for.

Before Braille was invented anyone who was blind or vision impaired was unable to read or write and was hence illiterate. A privileged few might have people to read to them and to take dictation.

Braille changed that by enabling blind people to read and later to write independently. The creation of books in Braille was a slow, cumbersome and expensive process, and the books were big so storage was also an issue. So the range of books was limited.

New technology came along to alleviate the situation. Firstly recorded books which were easier to produce, simpler to reproduce, smaller and in addition had a market besides the visually impaired. This greatly increased the range available and reduced the cost. The one downside was that people listened but did not see the words on the page so could not improve their spelling, which made writing more difficult.

The second technology to come along was the computer.

Electronic text to speech meant that any electronic text was available to a blind person with the right technology. This once again greatly extended the range of information available especially with the advent of e-books.

Braille printers attached to a computer mean that Braille can be printed on demand.

Braille displays convert electronic text into a line of Braille on a refreshable display, giving the user an interactive experience compared to printing.

The availability of voice and Braille output made input via a keyboard, or voice recognition, useful. The user could input text and later retrieve it.

The computer and subsequent digital technologies gave the blind person access to a vast range of information and also enabled them to interactively communicate with vision impaired and non-vision impaired people alike.

Text-to-voice and voice-recognition became mainstream technologies used to some extent by all the population and this led to innovations and reductions in cost. This was not true of Braille technology. The technology is still expensive and limited in capability. In particular the Braille displays only show one line of text so it is a bit like reading a book with only one line visible at a time.

The cost, the limited technology and the apparent attractiveness of voice technologies has meant that the use of Braille is in decline.

However watching an experienced Braille user interacting with a page of printed Braille shows that the user experience is profoundly different to the linear experience of a single line Braille display or text-to-voice. The ability to feel the overall shape of the page, in a comparable way that sighted users see the overall shape without reading anything, the ability to reread a few lines back immediately, the chance to skip to the end of a paragraph or to a heading; all of these and more make the experience akin to a sighted user interacting with a page of text.

What is needed is a Braille page display. Given the high cost of Braille displays this seems like a pipe-dream, but if it could be done at an affordable price it should renew interest in Braille.

Bristol Braille Technology CIC was set up specifically to find a solution to this challenge. To produce a robust reliable Braille page display and sell it for about a third of the price of existing single line displays.

To do this required a complete rethink of the design so that it used fewer components and all the components were either cheap off-the-shelf products or easily manufactured parts. This has been accomplished, under the code name of Canute, and a 32 character-per-line by 16 line prototype is being tested. This will provide a true e-book experience to the Braille user.

When this goes into production it should herald a renaissance in the use of Braille across the world.

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