Bristol Braille Technology

A year in Braille

append delete Ed Rogers

Its been an interesting twelve months for both the Canute and the Midas projects, and for the wider cause of affordable refreshable Braille.

:: Firstly, Bristol Braille Technology CIC and its sole project, Canute:

(A brief reminder: Canute is our attempt to build the world’s first affordable, multiline Braille ebook reader, retailing for a few hundred rather than a few thousand pounds.)

For Canute 2014 has been a year of very hard fought battles won by the skin of our teeth. We have reached the end of it pretty well exhausted as a team, but more financially secure, more confident in our technology, with a demonstrable 4-line prototype Braille ereader, better known, regarded and connected, and sure of the course we need to take in 2015. I think its fair to assume that the project wouldn’t survive another twelve months like the last, but that the team’s efforts have ensured it won’t have to.

Here are a few of the changes that occurred over the course of 2014;

* In February we successfully tested a two cell prototype with 100% accuracy over 5,000 cycles.

* In June we completely redesigned the parametric designs that generate Canute. The results were blueprints (called ‘the split design’) that could scale to any number of characters per line, any number of lines, with reassembly time during prototyping several orders of magnitude faster than before.

* In September we completed a functional 4-line prototype that was successfully demonstrated to a dozen members of the Braillists usergroup.

* Since September we have been catching up with all the changes made to the model in the rush to hit our September deadline, integrating them into the blueprints and building a replica machine, sans-bodges.

* The electronics for the board were formalised for the first time (no more breadboards) and have since gone through several revisions to make them modular and much faster to assemble.

* The project now has a Project Manager distinct from the Director and a project management system that has hugely increased our overall productivity.

* The team was much larger this year. Matt Venn, Eric Cauneze, Russell Couper, Steph Tyszka and Nic Marshall (the team from late 2013) were joined for periods by volunteers Jon Pillai, Dave Borne, Simon Large and Paul Johns, and Bristol University interns Kevin Lind and Alex Wiatrowska.

We managed to do all that despite a fairly severe drought in funding, often due to the understanding and generosity of the team, who volunteered much of their time.

While in previous years we have found it tough but not impossible to persuade funders of the importance of Braille literacy, in 2014 we have been met with the constant refrain that Canute falls just slightly outside of their areas of interest. Naturally there is much to learn from this about how we target our fundraising efforts in future.

However we were able, with one day before the holidays, to secure enough to deliver the next prototype by mid-2015. Without this is is unlikely the project would have been able to restart in the New Year.

This figure is around one fifth of what we thought necessary to get Canute to market. But, as ever in Braille-land, there is great benefit to be got from scarcity if you’re looking for it.

The past few months have caused us to review our aims and conclude that we have been going for too conventional a model to get to market. In 2015 we will therefore be adopting a Lean Startup approach whereby we release models fast, with the minimum functionality needed to test our technology and assumptions about Braillists’ requirements.

In other words we’re scrapping our long term goals until we’ve had some feedback on our work to date.

What will happen to Canute in 2015? Well, we’re going to go hell-for-leather towards an extremely small batch release of 3+ 28-character by 4-line ereaders. After that, who knows?

:: Secondly, the newly incorporated not-for-profit Babel Technology CIC, BBT’s sister company, and its sole project, Midas:

(A little more verbose reminder, as many of you will be less familiar with this project: Midas started off as a side project in BBT to simulate Braille directly on the hand, thereby avoiding having to emboss any dots at all. It has become a glove which turns any flat surface into a Braille display of unlimited size, and will cost something like a ton.)

For Midas 2014 was mostly concerned with preparation. As a far smaller project than Canute it was always intended that it be conducted differently; keeping costs low, outsourcing development, with two Directors managing between their other work. We went into the year having just tested the mk.1 prototype. We leave it poised to build the mk.2. Here’s what happened in-between;

* During the spring we did various experiments within BBT to decide the mechanical design of the next model based on the feedback from the mk.1.

* The new company was incorporated in the summer. This allowed us to form agreements with two Bristol companies to prototype it on our behalf (unlike BBT, Babel is without a workshop or in house engineering team).

* By autumn we had set out the exact specification for these two companies to follow.

* At the end of the year we have the glove under construction and important groundwork on the electronics completed.

* Original designers Scott Wood, Russell Couper and myself were joined by Sam Betts, who has since taken the lead role in the project, and Bristol University intern Jou Lin Ng.

What will happen to Midas in 2015? To finish a batch of 4+ mk.2s our funds from HMG and EU sources need to be matched by £8,000 of private or charitable money. Once this is raised we will immediately begin planning a crowd sourcing campaign on Kickstarter or IndieGoGo.

:: Thirdly and finally, other developments towards affordable refreshable Braille:

During my personal involvement in the wider movement to find an affordable Braille technology over the last 6 years I have noticed a gradual increase in underground rumblings on the subject. 2014 was no exception. The following list (heavily slanted towards that which we’ve had some connection with) are just a few things that happened in 2014;

* In the spring the Braillists usergroup was founded as an advocacy group dedicated to furthering the development of Braille technology. It now has 60+ members many of whom have met 4 times in Bristol. The Braillists is due to dramatically spread its wings in the New Year with meetings in Dublin and Vienna, not to mention various towns across England and Scotland.

* In the middle of this year a joint British-German project called Anagraphs announced that they had run out of funds and were shelving the project. The parallels with Canute are interesting; Anagraphs would have been a ‘full page’ display, they began in late 2012 and aim to help reverse the decline in literacy. The differences are also interesting; they were using a high-tech solution that relied on heating paraffin with lasers and they received £1,250,000 (approximately 30 times as much as Canute over the same period).

* There was an announcement of a 20-character by 1-line display to plug in to mobile phones from Transforming Braille and Orbit, sponsored by the Daisy Consortium, the RNIB and many others. They expect it to cost $300 and will demonstrate it next summer. This could be one of the first really pivotal developments in Braille technology since the 70’s. We’re going to try and get there first with Canute and Midas of course, but in truth all three are likely to be complimentary.

* A professor and his student in MIT have proved that Braille can be learnt through sensations across the whole hand, not just the fingertip, even by those normally unable to learn it. The Midas team had already proved this to our internal satisfaction, but its good to get academic confirmation.

* A new Braille technology from India is currently being tested. Its not my place to give any further details, nor do I know much yet, but apparently its showing promise.

Is it possible that in 2015 we could be looking at Braille literacy being taken seriously outside of its own niche? Lets hope so.

I wish you all a very happy New Year

Yours Sincerely

Ed Rogers
(Director of Bristol Braille Technology CIC and co-Director of Babel Technology CIC)

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