This ALVA terminal demonstrates the basic mechanics of a refreshable braille display.

Braille technology

About 200 years ago, the invention of braille made it possible for people with sight loss to read, write and read back what they had written. During that time, braille became the literacy medium for visually impaired people throughout the world.

While there are other assistive technologies (like audio readers) on the market today, the benefit of braille has always been its close and accurate representation of the traditionally printed word. Line breaks, sections and chapters, footnotes, end notes, references and sidebars are all clearly represented. The same is true for mathematical and scientific material where everything is precisely reproduced in dots for the braille reader. That's why it comes as no surprise that there are still some loyal braille users out there today.

Cutting edge braille

Like conventionally printed material, the options for reading braille are changing.

Groundbreaking readers

If braille is your technology of choice, you can now read on refreshable devices. These devices, which are usually connected to a computer or integrated into a portable device, consist of a line or more of braille cells made up of pins that correspond to the six dots of the cells. These pins change position, rising and falling as the display refreshes to display new lines of braille text. So you can read an electronic braille file in a manner similar to reading print on a computer screen.  

This technology is vital since it ensures that you can work on an equal footing—especially in major technical companies—with your sighted counterparts. The fact that Google and Apple include built-in screen readers with braille support proves that these industry leaders recognise the importance of braille.

And not to be left behind, Amazon’s new Kindle app has opened up a whole new world of braille books. Amazon has a number of apps for computers, tablets and smart phones. All have magnification features, but only the Apple iOS app supports both speech and braille, while the Android and PC apps have speech output only.

But perhaps the most exciting new product set for distribution is the Orbit Reader Braille display which costs less than a fifth of the price of traditional displays. So along with any electronic device, providing you have screen reader software, which is included in all Apple Mac products, the Orbit Reader can produce instantly refreshable braille text at a fraction of the cost of previous braille displays.

Affordable printers

In order to work in document form, braille must be printed out. Up until recently, this has been very expensive. However, new technologies are making it more affordable.

Historically, braille printers could cost thousands of pounds; meanwhile, laser printers can be picked up for under £100. So wouldn’t it be great if laser printers could somehow print out braille and completely remove the cost of purchasing a special printer? That’s exactly what Samsung is doing with a new ink it is developing. The company collaborated with the Thailand Association of the Blind and a chemistry professor at Thammasat University to solve the problem in ink rather than hardware. The end result is called Touchable Ink. It’s a laser printer ink with embossing powder added to it.

Using it is simple: just switch out a standard laser ink cartridge for a Touchable Ink version. Then change the font of the document you want to print into braille and print the page.

The final step involves heat. Using a hair dryer or a microwave, simply heat the printed page so the ink can dilate and form the raised dots.

The beauty of 3D

Even more dramatic is the effect of 3D printing, which can have a real emotional impact on people with sight loss.

The Singapore-based company Pirate3D together with the Madrid-based agency Lola has come up with a solution that makes photographs come to life for people with sight loss. Photographs printed in 3D make memories tangible and let people preserve their favourite memories in a way that was impossible before.  

Pirate3D’s Buccaneer printer comes fully assembled and is, according to the company, very easy to use. It exemplifies Pirate3D’s belief that there is a demand for bringing 3D printers into everyday lives. The company sees 3D printing technology as a tool that can enrich people’s lives.

Braille technology in action

The best way to understand the effectiveness of any technology is to find out what a real user thinks of it after using it freely and impartially. One such expert is Mike Brace CBE.

Blind from the age of 10, Mike has served as a social worker for 30 years and has also chaired the Paralympic Association by participating in the Bid Team for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. 

Mike is a proficient grade 2 braille user and an experienced shorthand typist. He describes some of his favourite technologies, which he uses every day.

Portable data input device

For writing braille, Mike favours a portable unit (from Apex). This small device can be linked to a computer, so it can be used as a braille display. It can also be linked via Bluetooth to his mobile phone (an iPhone) or tablet (an iPad).   

This portable device can support the following:

  • diary;
  • chat room;
  • book reader;
  • word processing; and
  • database management.

In addition to connecting to the Internet for online access, it can also be linked to a GPS receiver and used for mobility and navigation purposes.

Desktop data input device

When sitting at his laptop computer, Mike uses a  cell braille display (the Brailliant BI 40).  This display can be used to input in braille and has the usual six braille keys, plus space bar and other control keys to help ease navigation.  

This simple layout is easy to use, since it reproduces all the standard key combinations. Mike can control the screen reader without removing his hands from the display. Then he can send the material he has created on his computer to a braille embosser if he needs a hard paper copy of the reports or notes.

Mobile phones

Mike has been an iPhone user for the past eight years. He feels that the ability to link his phone to a range of braille devices has been a massive advancement.

The phone includes braille options on the menu and can be connected via Bluetooth to all of his braille keyboard options. Mike uses his phone via his braille devices to send and read texts, read and send emails, get directions from the map app, use the calendar facility, and, possibly most useful, read the materials captured via the OCR app on his phone.

Reading devices

Mike is particularly excited by the ability now, for the first time, to be able to read books via Kindle in braille on one of his many electronic devices. Previously it was virtually impossible to read braille books while travelling, as they were so huge! Now with his 12 cell display in one pocket and his iPhone in the other, he can read any book anywhere! 

When working, Mike uses his portable (Apex) device to read agendas and documents at meetings. Word or pdf documents are copied to a memory stick, which is then plugged directly into the reader via a USB port. This enables Mike to read the documents in braille and search for sections or paragraphs. The Apex device has speech as well as braille output, so he can either listen to material on the Apex or read it in braille—or do both simultaneously! 

Mike said he loves using braille as his preferred method of communication and is excited about the many new developments in the pipeline. He is hopeful that the high cost of braille devices will eventually come down significantly to make this option more affordable for those visually impaired people who wish to continue to use braille as their chosen access method.

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