September 30th, 2014
An international project to build a low-cost refreshable braille display for computers is reaching fruition, with new plans announced for a technology retailing at less than 20% of current prices.
Refreshable braille devices are formed of plastic “cells”, small grids of holes through which rods rise and fall, triggered by an electric current using a technology known as “piezoelectric”. A line of Braille forms as a computer reads across text.
Product mark-ups are currently high among the few specialist firms who manufacture the cells mainly in the far East, with each cell costing around 100 US Dollars and full displays reaching thousands. However the new project is being supported to the tune of $1m by the Transforming Braille Group (TBG), a global consortium of organisations of and for the blind, led by RNIB in the UK. Other members are American Printing House for the Blind; National Federation of the Blind; and Perkins School for the Blind in the US; The Norwegian Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted; Sightsavers, Mumbai, India; Association Valentin HAüY, France; Blind Foundation in New Zealand; Vision Australia; and The Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
The group has commissioned Orbit Research, an engineering company based in Delaware, US to develop and manufacture a stand-alone 20-cell refreshable braille display which would then retail at $300 (£200) – less than 20% of the current market price.
The display will be designed to work as a plug-in device through USB and Bluetooth connectivity with smartphones and tablets. It is intended primarily to bring e-books to a wider audience, but not to compete with more permanent, high-specification displays used in education and employment.
The investment plan was first hatched more than two years ago by Kevin Carey, chair of RNIB and TBG president, in a bid to bring refreshable braille within the reach of children in developing countries and provide libraries in all countries with a viable alternative to hard copy braille (see “Global investment plan for cheaper braille displays”, EAB issue 144, 23 January 2012).
Many groups in both the developed world and the developing world are currently spending large amounts on printed materials for Braille libraries, Carey told E-Access Bulletin this month. But if they were able to buy displays at £200 each, they could “massively reduce” the costs of bringing literature to braille readers, he said.
Group action to invest in a new solution was needed because of long-term market failure in the sector, Carey said. “My single aim has always been to destroy the floor price of refreshable Braille”, he said. “At the moment, almost all people buy Braille cells from a small number of suppliers at a fixed price, and mostly get their equipment funded by the public sector. The major suppliers have had their own way for the last 40 years, since piezoelectric cells were introduced in the 1970s. The market was just stuck.”
The move could also stimulate innovation by other major suppliers, leading to greater competition and even lower prices, Carey said. “It is immensely exciting for Western libraries but even more exciting for third world kids, who are currently using smartphones – having something read out or spelled word by word is not genuine literacy: it is much better to have kids read symbols than hearing them spoken.”
The group plans to launch the new product in 2016.