Braille e-books: Why can't you buy a budget e-reader?

Concept Braille e-reader This concept image of the Anagraphs e-reader was released before the project ran out of funds

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A budget-priced Braille e-reader seems like an obvious, uncontroversial idea that should be relatively easy to pull off.

That's certainly how it appeared to Pera Technology - a Leicestershire-based firm that coordinated a consortium of European firms to create a working prototype, called Anagraphs, last year.

It uses software-controlled heat to expand paraffin waxes in its screen, turning the material from liquid to solid and in turn controlling which of its 6,000 Braille dots are raised.

Yet the project has effectively been mothballed and the prototype left to gather dust despite one test user describing the machine as "the Holy Grail for the visually impaired and blind Braille users".

The problem is that a £1.2m grant from the European Union has run out. Unless the engineers source more cash, their efforts may have been in vain.

"Let's just hope we can get over the finishing line by securing the final stage of funding we need to bring the project to fruition," says project manager Peter Fowell.

Gap in the market
Concept Braille e-readers These images of Braille e-readers caused a stir when they were published five years ago

It's five years since four South Korean designers sparked interest in the idea by publishing a mock-up of an affordable Braille e-book reader.

Images of Yanko Design's device quickly spread across tech blogs, with Engadget going so far as to say the "concept can't be far from reality".

Refreshable Braille displays do exist, but they are expensive, bulky and typically designed for use at a desk. They also tend to offer only a single line of characters.

Scott Wood, from the charity Action for Blind People, says that the advantage of a Braille e-reader would be the ability to scan back and forth across many more words at a time.

Braille Sense U2 MINI Portable refreshable Braille readers exist but are not cheap - for example, the new Braille Sense U2 Mini supports Excel, Twitter, YouTube and Dropbox, but costs £2,900

That would not just be useful for backtracking while reading a book or article, but could also help visually impaired people study algebra and scientific formulas, which typically run longer than single-line displays can manage at one time.

Which raises the question why is there the gap in the market?

More than audio

The Royal National Institute of Blind People estimates 96% of books published in the UK aren't made available in alternative formats.

How Braille works

Examples of Braille alphabet
  • Invented in 1821 by Louis Braille, who had been blind from age three
  • Each character made of up to six dots, positioned in two columns of three
  • Read by passing fingers over each character, which represent letters of the alphabet and punctuation marks
  • Key benefit is the ability to recognise each letter using a single finger tip, without need for repositioning

Production costs for large print, Braille and audio, often four or five times that of a normal book, mean that a lot of publishers simply can't make them commercially viable.

Scanning technology, OCR (object character recognition) software and the rise of the smartphone have made more on-the-move listening material available to blind people, but is that really "reading"?

Start Quote

Existing single line Braille displays are pretty good, but far too expensive for most people”

End Quote Ed Roger Bristol Braille

Over-dependence on audio can also make it harder for blind people to become familiar with spelling, punctuation and paragraphing, which in turn can make writing more of a challenge.

Mechanical readers

Part of the reason Amazon, Apple, Sony, Samsung, Kobo and others have invested in e-ink and LED-screen e-book tech is because they see it as a growing market.

But while 285 million people are estimated to be visually impaired worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, only a fraction use Braille and the number is on the decline.

The Royal National Institute Of Blind People (RNIB) estimates that only 4% of visually impaired children and young people in England currently use Braille, some of whom are unlikely to become fluent in it.

It makes what might already appear to be a niche market an even less attractive proposition to the major brands.

That's left it to smaller players to explore the idea.

Bristol Braille Technologies is another UK-based organisation trying to bring a device to market.

Man reads e-book reader UK consumers bought 80 million e-books for existing e-readers in 2013, according to research firm Nielsen

"We are working to reverse the decline in literacy amongst blind people by making radical new and more affordable Braille e-book readers, or be-book readers," Ed Rogers, director at UK-based Bristol Braille Technologies, tells the BBC.

"Our project, Canute, will provide access to tactile digital reading to the vast majority for the first time."

Most existing refreshable Braille displays rely on electromechanics. The machines exploit the piezoelectric effect of some crystals, whereby they expand when a voltage is applied, moving a lever that then pushes plastic pins through a series of holes.

It's this complexity, however, that makes the cost of such devices prohibitive to many.

Mr Rogers is cagey about revealing exactly how Canute will work but does say it involves using two types of small off-the-shelf motors to create an eight-line display.

"Existing single line Braille displays are pretty good, but far too expensive for most people, costing in excess of £1,400 for 40 characters," he adds.

"We aim to produce a new class of device with 224 characters for as little as £300."

But Bristol Braille is a not-for-profit organisation that relies on volunteers for most of its work. That means it can't develop the product as quickly as a deep-pocketed tech firm would be able to do.

Braille being used at a school in India A Braille e-reader could offer a cost effective alternative to books
Educational aid

If a budget Braille e-reader ever makes it to sale, it could find untapped demand in developing economies.

Dr Paul Lynch, of the University of Birmingham, works alongside the Sight Savers charity in Africa teaching Braille to children who have lost their sight or been born blind.

"You simply can't expect the same levels of literacy from someone who has never learned how letters and sounds interact with each other to create words," he says.

"When young blind people learn to read, it's the same part of the brain that's being used to form the relationships between understanding and reading.

"It doesn't matter if it's using your fingers or your eyes, the information is being translated in the same way.

"Cheaper devices would be a fantastic way to ensure Braille doesn't die out as an educational aid."

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