Frequently Asked Questions

Work in progress, questions or corrections welcome.

Section 1 - About Braille

What is Braille?

A tactile system for reading and writing used by blind people. Braille characters occupy small rectangular blocks called cells. Each cell contains patterns of raised dots to represent: letters, numbers, punctuation and even entire words. The number and arrangement of these dots distinguish one character another.

Traditionally Braille was embossed on to paper, but in recent decades has also been represented using pins raised and lowered by a single line refreshable Braille display.

Where Did the Idea for Braille Come From?

Braille was based on a French military code called night writing, designed by Charles Barbier for Napoleon as a means of silent communication that would work under the cover of darkness. Night writing used sets of 12 dots to represent different sounds. It proved too complicated and was rejected by the military.

Barbier introduced night writing to Louis Braille in 1821 at the Royal Institute for the Blind in Paris. Braille found two major problems. A fingertip could not cover an entire 12-dot symbol and so could not move quickly from one symbol to another. Plus, by representing only sounds, the code was unable to show spelling, capitalization, emphasis and punctuation. Braille’s solution was to use 6-dot cells and to assign a specific pattern to each letter of the alphabet. Following these optimisations, Braille has been used successfully by millions of blind people for reading and writing in almost every country for 200 years.

Hasn’t Braille usage declined?

Yes. In 1960, 50 percent of legally blind school-age children in the United States were able to read Braille. This figure is now believed to be closer to 10 percent. The main reasons for Braille’s decline are reported to be:

  1. The advent of text to speech software means that blind people now have cheaper and more portable ways to access information and entertainment.
  2. The costs of producing hard copy Braille and digital refreshable Braille displays have remained relatively expensive and unaffordable for many blind people, especially in developing countries.
  3. The vast majority of blind students are now educated in mainstream schools where Braille expertise is much less abundant than in the specialist schools for the blind.

Why Do Blind People Still Need Braille?

For the same reasons that sighted people need the written word. Braille supports the development of literacy skills: spelling, punctuation, layout etc. Braille is also about the pleasure and power of reading, rather than being read to. Braille also frees ears to listen to your surroundings. Some blind people report reading Braille makes information easier to retain. Braille literacy also correlates with higher employment rates amongst blind people.

Surely Braille is outmoded…

We have previously been asked questions like;

“Braille, isnt that yesterday’s solution? I guess there is the blind/deaf market still.”

— Anon

There is still a market for those who are blind-but-not-deaf too.

Text-to-speech doesn’t work any better for blind people than it does for sighted people. Braille works as well for many blind people as print does for sighted people.

There are many circumstances when one wouldn’t want to have to listen rather than read, such as in a meeting, or giving a speech, or reading a book to a child, or learning correct spelling and grammar.

Braille is in danger of being yesterday’s solution not because of its innate limitations but because of technical stagnation. We hope to address that."

Section 2 - About Canute

What is Canute?

The world’s first low-cost multi-line Braille reader. Demonstrated publicly since mid 2014, Canute displays 9 Braille lines each with 40 characters, or cells, suitable to showing multiline content such as: page layout, calendars, word searches, mathematics and music.

Canute is a tabletop device much like a flat-bed scanner and is designed to be used as a standalone reader.

Canute will eventually be battery powered and more portable, like a Kindle for blind people.

Who is Canute for?

Anyone who wants to read books in Braille and cannot afford existing Braille technology.

Public access environments where information needs to be displayed and updated from time to time: libraries, theatres, bus and train stations etc.

How Much Does Canute Cost?

BBT hopes Canute can be sold to individuals for less than the price of a Perkins Braille Writer which currently retails in the UK at £667.49 (inc VAT).

Canute is still too Expensive for me, can I borrow one?

BBT hopes to find suitable partners who can make Canute available on an extended loan. Much like borrowing a book from a private library.

Why is Canute so much cheaper than most other Braille Products on the Market?

Canute is made with actuators and other components that are much cheaper to produce and replace. These actuate Braille cells indirectly, reducing the number of motors needed, meaning the Canute will cost hundreds rather than thousands of pounds. Most Braille displays are made with expensive piezoelectric crystals that directly actuate levers that move pins up and down. Plus Canute is being developed by Bristol Braille Technology CIC, a community interest company not seeking to make a profit for share holders.

Who will buy Canute?

Individuals who previously could not afford the cost of traditional Braille displays. Libraries, local blindness charities, schools for the blind, Braille enthusiasts.

Organisations obligated by disability equality duty to make reasonable adjustments for making information publically accessible.

Where can I try Canute in Person?

We recommend you come along to a Braillists meeting where Canute is often demonstrated. Join the Braillists mailing list to hear about upcoming meetings. Plus, Canute can often be seen at Sight Village events across the UK. If your organisation is interested in hosting trials of Canute, please contact us.

When Will Canute be Available to Buy?

We have yet to finalise the date, but the Canute is expected to go on the market during 2017.

Where Can I Order a Canute?

The Canute is not available for individual purchase. However contact us if you are interested in funding trials of prototypes, or if you would like to be kept informed of when it goes to market.

Due to our relationship with the Braillists their members will be given priority ordering, so consider signing up to their newsletter.

How do I Get Books and Magazines on Canute?

Canute’s display is comprised of nine lines of forty refreshable Braille cells each, and incorporates menu, index and navigation functionality. Canute uses open source software, running within Linux, to display braille e-books in either .PEF or .BRF format.

The process of transferring a book to Canute is simple and intuitive.

All existing Braille files can be loaded directly onto the Canute.

Regular e-books can also be converted to work with Canute:

First, a regular e-book is downloaded by the user. A free software converter is then used to convert the e-book into a file that can be read and displayed by Canute, and the Braille e-book file is then transferred to Canute’s memory using a regular USB memory stick.

Canute incorporates hardware menu, index and bookmark functionality, and once a Braille e-book file is loaded into Canute it can be navigated using the built-in buttons in much the same way as a physical book. Canute’s 8 or 16GB memory allows thousands of Braille e-books to be stored at any one time, and as such makes a complete Braille library accessible to the individual user, taking up minimal space, at an affordable price.

How do I get books and magazines onto the prototype Canute Mk10 I’m testing?

Canute displays PEF or BRF Braille files that are 40 characters per line or less. So you must first convert the text to PEF or BRF. There are several ways of doing this. One is to use RoboBraille online. Another is as follows;

  1. Download the book to a Windows computer and save it as an html file.
  2. Use the free HTML2PEF converter to produce a PEF file.
  3. Copy your PEF file to a USB memory stick.
  4. Plug your memory stick containing the PEF in to your Canute before switching it on.
  5. As Canute starts up, any PEF or BRF files on your USB memory stick will be imported into Canute’s library.

How Many Books Can be Stored on the Canute at any one time?

Thousands! Although it will depend on the size of each book, Braille files are typically quite small. Canute’s internal memory is 8 or 16GB, of which 1.5GB is taken up with a standard distribution of the Linux Operating System. Unlike your tablet or smartphone you will not need to share this space with apps, music or video.

N.B. If you are testing the Canute Mk10 then your unit may have a partition size limited to 500MB. This can still store around a thousand books in BRF format.

Will Canute Remember My Place in My Book?

Yes. By default Canute automatically returns to your last reading position when you reopen a book.

Can I Save Multiple Bookmarks/Search for Text/Make Notes/Look up the Definitions of unfamiliar words?

Yes, you will be able to in the final Canute.

At time of writing these features are planned but not yet implemented in the Mk10 prototype. However, Canute’s software is Open Source, so if you have the skills you can submit new functionality.

Can Canute Display Tables?

Yes. Although the BRF or PEF file will need to be formatted appropriately to show 40 cells by 9 lines. If you use a BRF file from a library which has more than 9 lines per page, or no page breaks at all, then the Canute will split the file automatically.

Can Canute Display Diagrams or other Images?

It is possible to format a PEF or BRF file to show simple chart or diagrams. However, Canute is not designed as a tactile graphics tablet so cannot show graphics that depend on a uniform grid of pins.

Can I develop software or add-ons for the Canute?

Absolutely, we are keen for people to do this. The Canute software is Open Sourced and the hardware will be published after Canute is available to buy.

Where is Canute’s Documentation?

Where Can I Find Support with using Canute?

You can find support for using the Canute on the Braillists’ forum.

Can I Use Canute as a Braille Display for my Computer/Smartphone/Tablet?

Not yet. Screen reading software typically used to drive refreshable Braille displays are designed to show one Braille line at a time. Plus, the Canute’s refresh rate make it unsuitable for editing text. We are actively working with OS developers to integrate Canute support and expect screen reader plug-ins will become available to send a document or screen of text to the Canute.

“Printed books are plentiful and affordable, however, Braille books are presently scarce and expensive. A reliable, affordable, and universally useful electronic Braille book reader has eluded researchers and manufacturers for decades.”

“Braille for the New Millennium” by P. Duran, D. Gipson & L. Jenkins