Bristol Braille Technology’s aim: A worldwide abundance of Braille

By developing revolutionary new Braille technologies that will retail for hundreds rather than thousands of pounds, we at Bristol Braille Technology are attempting to transform the lives of blind people around the world by providing access to reading matter which the vast majority do not currently have.

Braille Literacy

The absence of affordable Braille seriously restricts opportunities to become literate, even damaging the value of literacy itself.

While education is becoming increasingly reliant on computers and technology, Braille technology has stagnated. Today only 4% of blind or visually impaired children in the UK are Braille literate, thereby limiting spelling, grammar, mathematics, the sciences and programming. Only 12% of maths and 8% of science GCSE textbooks in England are available in Braille or other accessible formats.

Our projects will help reverse the decline in blind literacy, making a huge difference to the lives of thousands of children who would otherwise be critically disadvantaged.

Our ultimate goal is to have refreshable Braille that is affordable for every blind child and adult, anywhere in the world, and to see a measurable improvement in literacy as a result.

The Company

Bristol Braille Technology is a not-for-profit organisation* dedicated to serving blind communities through invention and the provision of Braille devices.

The great majority of our work to date has been and continues to be done on a voluntary or part-voluntary basis. We operate out of the Bristol Hackspace, which is a part of the international ‘Maker Movement’ of co-operative workshops.

Refreshable Braille

Existing single line Braille displays are pretty good, but far too expensive for most people, costing in excess of £1,400. We aim to produce new classes of devices for hundreds rather than thousands of pounds.

Piezoelectric motors which individually drive each pin in the machines are the reason for the high prices. We will get around this by using entirely different technical solutions.

One of the primary challendges is to ensure that our Braille display technology is not only reliable but rugged under challenging conditions such as, for example, a primary school classroom.

Our Approach

Our approach to the problem has always been the same.

There may, indeed we hope their will, at some point be a marvelous new material that can transform perfectly into Braille. But until that day comes, and until it becomes affordable, there has to be a ‘low-tech’ solution that does not require a million dollar lab to implement. This is not low-tech for the sake of it; avoiding huge research overheads reduces the final price for Braillists, increasing the number and geographical range of people who can benefit.

We therefore concentrate on two mechanical principles. Firstly, there must be be a disconnect between the pins themselves and the cost. In other words, the pins must be cheap and increasing their number should not significantly increase the cost of the whole unit. Secondly, we use off-the-shelf actuators whereever possible, concentrating complexity into a small number of components.**

We create Braille ebook readers that can be manufactured and repaired in ordinary workshops all around the world. By operating in such a manner we shall create a class of machines equivalent to the common bicycle; uncomplicated & universally repairable designs, ubiquitous within blind communities for decades to come.

History of Bristol Braille

Our various projects have been on-going since early 2008. In the early years we investigated a number of different designs, including those based on continuous loops, ticker-tapes, dot-matrix printers and biometals.

Prior to the 6th of January 2011 this was a purely personal endeavour by Ed Rogers. Since then, and since our official formation as a Community Interest Company a month later, we have flourished into a small but active and committed team. You can read our news items from this period here.

In August 2011 we started development of the Quixote, based on the principle of slider-encoders and parallel actuation.

In September 2012 we looked into different design, which became the Canute one month later. This began in parallel development to Quixote as our all-new full-page Braille ebook reader, Canute. Once we realised how much potential Canute had we dedicated ourselves to it entirely.

Sometime in Autumn 2013 we began investigating a very different device. In January 2014 this became the separate Midas project, under the care of our sister company, Babel Technology CIC. Midas development is currently postponed until after Canute has gone to market.

For more information on Midas and Quixote visit our archive page.

Footnotes

* We are a Community Interest Company, a Social Enterprise under English Law. This is not a charity as it lacks a board of Trustees, but is constitutionally and legally committed to acting in the interests of the community.

** See the Natesan Display by Vidya Vrikshah, lead by N. Krishnaswamy, for another example of a mechanical device based on these principles.

Fig: Side view of the Canute Mk8 prototype, with wood panel finish, the word Canute engraved in print and embossed in steel in Braille.

Fig: Side view of the Canute Mk8 prototype, with wood panel finish,
the word ‘Canute’ engraved in print and embossed in steel in Braille.

It is vital that the decline in Braille literacy amongst blind people over the past few decades is reversed. It is vital that blind students have equal access to digital resources.

(N.B. this small selection of quotes are from an out of date list and are being revised.)

“Reading Braille is a freedom which breaks through the barriers created by my disability that I have had since birth. Braille is freedom … My only complaint is the severe limitations of Braille books that are available. only 7% of printed books are available in Braille, large print or audio titles. Of those less than roughly 2% of all printed books are available in Braille alone.

… Braille frees the mind and the spirit”

‘TAS’, May, 2012

“I had the opportunity this year to teach four people who have recently lost their sight to read Braille … Truly an amazing thing to watch these individuals who thought they’d never read again, reading, truly reading, not listening, not hearing a synthetic voice … If there could be a Braille display which would serve their needs, it would be a miracle.”

‘Ann P.’, May 2012

“My biggest frustration is the cost of Braille displays. The only reason I have mine to use is because of my job at the university. Were I to leave this job, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to get one of my own. As someone who trains others in the use of assistive technology, I can attest to the fact that many of the people I work with would love to have access to a Braille display, but cannot due to their cost.”

‘Keith’, May 2012

“I cannot find the words to say how great the work is that you and your colleagues are doing to make a Braille unit that it is accessible to everyone … It will make such a huge difference to so many, many people.”

— Gaela Benn, October 2012

“First off, as someone who has been blind all my life, let me say that I fully support your goal of cheap Braille. I hate to see Braille literacy plummeting … anything to reverse that troubling trend is wonderful.”

— Alex Hall, January 2013

“I have been a Braille reader since 4 years of age. I am now 23. Unfortunately, I must say that I do a lot less Braille reading these days. This is because I do not have access to a working Braille display. And I find paper braille to be cumbersome to load around. Why read my paper Braille books when I have loads of them on my computer thanks to Bookshare?”

— ‘Rose’, March 2013

“ I now volunteer at a place where I answer phones, and I use my laptop muted, with braille, to take notes on calls … At the same time I started coding … I find using braille for both these tasks pretty invaluable. My main problem with the displays on the market now is their price. They are horribly expensive, and I certainly couldn’t afford to replace mine.”

Chris Norman, May 2013