A British startup plans to debut a Braille e-reader for blind people this year that should greatly enhance their reading experience and spare them from lugging around hefty print volumes. Since it was developed by Louis Braille in the 19th Century, the alphabet of raised dots has brought the joy of reading to millions of blind and partially-sighted people. But in its printed form it's not exactly convenient or portable: A Braille copy of the Bible can take up about 5 feet (1.5 metres) of shelf space. British firm Bristol Braille Technology hopes to help the blind read while on the go. Canute 360 is the world's first multi-line Braille e-reader.
In recent years, it has become easier for blind and low-sight users to read text from computers and tablets, thanks to advances in accessibility technology that have greatly improved the standards for refreshable Braille displays. But physical Braille books have lagged behind. An average book takes up several volumes of thick Braille paper, which are a pain to carry around. For example, the Braille translation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix spans 14 volumes and takes up a whopping 1,000 pages of Braille paper, compared with the standard printed version, which is a single 766-page volume. The heft of most Braille books makes it challenging for students to take literature and textbooks home, and experts have warned that the inaccessibility of Braille books and the prohibitive cost of refreshable Braille displays have contributed to a "Braille literacy crisis."
Braille displays have made the digital world more accessible to those with vision issues, but readers who prefer the portability of a book haven't had that upgrade. Even a typical book might require over a dozen volumes of braille paper, which rules out reading during a summer vacation. Harvard researchers could soon whittle that down to a far more convenient size, though, as they've crafted reprogrammable braille that could eliminate the need for unique pages without the bulk of a display. The team compressed a thin, curved elastic shell using forces on each end, and then made indents with a basic stylus (similar to how you print a conventional braille book). Once you remove the compression, the shell'remembers' the indents.
With just a few hours left to build a groundbreaking gadget, things weren't going as smoothly as planned. Six young women, all undergrad engineering students at MIT, had established a lofty goal: to create the first-ever affordable device that immediately translates printed text into Braille. The idea could prove revolutionary for the blind community, transforming how they read while also creating sorely needed opportunities for children with low or no vision. But throughout the hectic, 15-hour MakeMIT hackathon last February, the women -- competing as Team 100% Enthusiasm -- were running into snags. The lines for hackathon participants to use the 3D printers were taking forever.
Marcus Johnson, a 12th-grader at the Tennessee School for the Blind, takes a timed test on interpreting charts and graphs, typing his answers into his Braille writer. Marcus Johnson, a 12th-grader at the Tennessee School for the Blind, takes a timed test on interpreting charts and graphs, typing his answers into his Braille writer. But it's become one for Braille readers because of a lack of excitement about Braille. Right now, the Los Angeles-based Braille Institute is putting on regional competitions like this one in a classroom at the Tennessee School for the Blind. A braille reading competition actually looks more like a typing contest.