An international plan for disability organisations and others to invest in producing a refreshable Braille device hugely cheaper than current systems on sale has obtained initial approval from the international DAISY consortium for information standards, E-Access Bulletin has learned.
The project is being led by the RNIB, which now has until the next DAISY board meeting in June to flesh out the plan. If this “charter” is passed, investors will be sought to identify and back a new device.
Refreshable Braille devices are made up of individual plastic “cells” with a grid of tiny holes through which a small rod rises and falls, triggered by an electronic current. A line of cells forms into a line of Braille as a computer reads across text.
As their production process is complex, cells currently cost around 100 US Dollars each, and mark-ups are high among the few firms which manufacture displays. With typical displays carrying 32, 40 and even 80 cells, overall costs soon spiral into thousands of dollars.
Kevin Carey, chair of RNIB, said this month there are already currently as many as 34 technical ideas in outline or prototype format at universities worldwide, any of which might lead to the desired goal of a cheap Braille display roughly the size of a stick of rock that could plug into the side of an e-book player.
“We need to narrow these 34 down to two or three – and ideally go down to one – and get massive investment in to bring prices down below 25 US Dollars per cell”, Carey said. At the moment, no business model had been ruled in or out for investment, production and sales, including models requiring mass pre-ordering and the involvement of existing major incumbent players in the Braille display market.
Carey first floated the plan in an address to last year’s “Braille21” congress hosted by the World Blind Union in Leipzig, Germany.
He told the congress a cheap display would “save massive amounts from hard copy Braille production which can be ploughed back into expanding the range of files on offer and into providing displays cheap or free to individuals.”
Anticipating complaints about market interference, Carey told the Leipzig conference the high prices operated in a similar way to a cartel, requiring intervention. “There are some who say that organisations of and for the blind should not become involved in the access technology market but the current cartel does not have an automatic right to exist. For the last 30 years of its operations the price of Braille displays has fallen slowly when most other consumer electronics prices have plunged.”
Ultimately, the very survival of Braille as a language could be at stake, he warned. “If Braille is to survive into the 21st Century, it will have to re-invent itself as a mass medium, simpler, cheaper and easier to render… unless we face up to these challenges, Braille will die”.