Bristol Braille Technology

News Archive

append delete Ed Rogers

News archive (from before integration with the boards)

  1. 26/01/2012 --- The Future of Braille
  2. 01/01/2012 --- Drafting hand operated model
  3. 23/09/2011 --- Quixote v.1 chassis drafted
  4. 10/09/2011 --- Braille21 conference
  5. 04/08/2011 --- New mechanism conceived; named Quixote

The below news items refer to relevant work before conception of the Quixote design.

  1. 04/08/2011 --- Prototype
  2. 22/06/2011 --- Prototype
  3. 01/06/2011 --- RNIB
  4. 19/05/2011 --- OSHUG
  5. 13/05/2011 --- UnLtd
  6. 03/05/2011 --- RNIB
  7. 03/05/2011 --- OSHUG
  8. 22/03/2011 --- Aims
  9. 11/02/2011 --- Company
  10. 10/02/2011 --- OSHUG
  11. 01/02/2011 --- Aims
  12. 12/01/2011 --- Summary
  13. 11/01/2011 --- Minutes
  14. 19/12/2010 --- Meeting
  15. 01/12/2010 --- Meeting
  16. 29/11/2010 --- Support

The below news items refer to relevant work before Bristol Braille Technology was formally begun.

  1. 30/09/2010 --- Blog
  2. 10/09/2010 --- PM Studio
  3. 22/11/2008 --- Drobe
  4. 01/02/2008 --- Blog

26/01/2012 --- NK | The Future of Braille

This is an opinion piece by N Krishnaswamy, chairman of Vidya Vrishah and inventor of the Natesan Display

"Braille has had a great past. But does it have a future? The answer to this question turns on two more questions. What do the blind themselves need or want ? And how are the others, individuals and institutions, who seek to assist the blind, through services or through promotion of ideas, designs, equipment solutions and products for the blind, responding to what the blind need or want? There is mounting evidence of a slow decline in the demand for and the use of braille. The Service Providers are worried that this could be a terminal decline. The Solution Producers appear not worried. There is clearly need for meticulous introspection here ... "

(Read the full article as a PDF)

N Krishnaswamy's vision can be seen pracically implemented here

01/01/2012 --- Quixote Prototype | Drafting Hand Operated Model

The first half of this year will be spent developing a hand operated version of the Quixote display. This simplifies the development, allowing us to concentrate on what is truly important in the design. It is also a good position to work from from a power consumption point of view.

23/09/2011 --- Quixote prototype | Quixote v.1 chassis drafted

A much simplified (from the previous iteration) basic chassis has now been drafted and assembled. This will not be used within the final prototype, the Quixote: instead we will build around it, gradually replacing and adding. This draft, and a personal explanation of the design, will be available to be viewed during the Leipzig conference between the 28th and 30th of this month.

Photo of draft chassis

10/09/2011 --- Braille21 | Braille21 Conference

Ed Rogers will be attending the Braille21 international conference in Leipzig on behalf of Bristol Braille Technology. The conference runs from the 28th to the 30th of September. Of particular note at this conference will be a presentation by N. Krishnaswamy on the subject of the innovative new Natesan Display (See this explanation).

14/08/2011 --- Quixote | New mechanism conceived; Named Quixote

This Sunday I was struck by a simple optimisation which took elements from both the Mk.3 module and the very promising Natesan Display (N. Krishnaswamy and The Worth Trust).

The Quixote will decrease the number of motorised parts required three- or four-fold, depending on whether using six- or eight-pin Braille, from the previous design. It does this by presenting all the possible states for each column of pins on one rod per column. This pattern is then optimised so that each movement of 2.34mm from the rod presents an entirely different pattern under the column. As before we will be using the principle of high force / low force actuation to reduce the number of complex (and therefore expensive) actuators required.

04/08/2011 --- Prototype | Mk.3 components completed

The components for the 3rd iteration's singular module are completed and ready to be tested. The process threw up a series of complications such as a necessary change in actuator. We are therefore moving to take lessons from this and completely redesign the chassis before building upon it.

22/06/2011 --- Prototype | Prototyping begins on the Mk.3

In collaboration with the Fine Print Research Centre (University of the West of England) and Geeplus Europe we have begun the manufacture of a single module (two cells).

This module is not intended to be a part of a functional whole, but a sketch and a test of the design's viability. If it is successful then we shall make whatever adjustments are neccessary and proceed to the next stage of the production of the Mk.3 display.

The principle this prototype will be developed on is that of low force / high force actuation. All the pins are potentially actuated by a single high force actuator; which pins this appies to depends on one low force actuator per pin.

Although slightly late, this development falls broadly within the timeframe set out below and we are on target to have a functional prototype within six months.

01/06/2011 --- RNIB | The RNIB Report on refreshable Braille Usage

The RNIB has produced a very interesting report about how UK Braillists use their Braille displays. Although it is based on a limited number of participants, its contents are nonetheless important. Recommended reading for anyone in the field of improving upon refreshable Braille.

One of the most interesting things to come out of the report is the lack of consensus amongst participants---their needs, the habits, their likes and dislikes all differ. It becomes clear that a wide variety of displays must be available, and that they need be very different for different people.

Another interesting thing to come out was the desire for multi-line displays. This is not currently the focus of BBT; the authority on these matters is Lee Winters from Tactile Revolution.

We shall be looking at this report in more detail over the coming months and expect its finding to inform our future decisions when it comes to prototyping hardware.

19/05/2011 --- OSHUG | Open for Change, May 19th

The 10th meeting of the Open Source Hardware Group in London met today to discuss the use of technology when collaboration in the aftermath of natural disasters, the possibilities for hydrogen powered cars and the need for radically more affordable refreshable Braille. Our thanks go out to the organisers of the event and to the other speakers.

We outlined not only the needs, the aim and our work so far, but also our intention to begin work on a functional demonstration of the technology we are developing within a month---a commitment we fully intend to honour.

Of especial interest was the 40Fires experience of open sourcing hardware, and the problems that arise thereafter. I feel a blog coming on ...

13/05/2011 --- UnLtd | UnLtd Sponsorship

UnLtd, a London based grant making organisation, has decided to fund Bristol Braille Technology's immediate developments into refreshable Braille. We are very grateful for their support, both financial and otherwise, and are sure that this partnership will lead to a surge in productivity and invention.

03/05/2011 --- RNIB | RNIB---8-dot vs. 6-dot

We requested a clarification from the RNIB about their approach to 8 and 6-dot Braille. Tara Alexander, Senior Manager of RNIB Innovation, had this to say on the subject;

"8-dot braille provides for the one-to-one correlation of the ascii character set to a single braille cell, as well as allowing comfortable display and flexibility around cursor position, character attributes and extended symbols. By character attributes we mean bold, italic, underline, colour foreground and background, etc.

"Over some years, this methodology of using 8-dots has been developed to maximise on the fact that braille displays are a relatively small window (40 or 80 cells, and even less for mobile braille displays). Yet a key function that Braille allows is the assimilation of detail and format, especially in programming, spreadsheet work, or anything else that requires an appreciation of the layout of the text. In addition, the more advanced screenreaders have built high levels of support for this 8-dots.

"We are of course open to new propositions or concepts regarding the reduction of cells by two pins from 8 to 6. However, the ensuing relatively small budget savings but large losses in functionality would not on the face of it seem justified. By definition, and in addition, new six dot displays would not appear to be as "functional" from a user perspective unless new methods of displaying layout, etc, were developed. This could be done through stronger focus on the display of format mark-up etc (often used already where braille displays are displaying a grade 2 translation or abbreviated Braille) --- this would be at least a partial solution to the layout and format issues raised above. We would need to talk to screenreader manufacturers for implementation of clearly defined mark-up system preferably building on existing ones, and of course carry out user trials. At this stage it is not clear to us that we would be able to achieve the objectives that 8-dot braille satisfies however.

"We would be interested in how these issues might be dealt with in 6-dot implementation."

We in BBT understand there is the intention to flesh this out somewhat in the near future, but as it is it provides a clear indicator of the issues facing 6-dot implementations of refreshable Braille. We also intend to get some responses from people using 6-dot Braille for refreshable Braille.

03/05/2011 --- OSHUG | Open for Change, May 19th

BBT will be presenting at the Open Source Hardware Group's 10th meeting, in London, along side Nick Weldin and the electric car manufacturer, 40 Fires. We expect to have an important announcement to make public on that day.

See the OSHUG web site (below) for further details, including location and how to attend.

22/03/2011 --- Aims | The aims ...

"We aim to ...

  • Increase literacy amongst blind people by developing much needed assistive technology.
  • Produce a refreshable Braille cell display (BCD) that can be manufactured for a fraction of the cost of current models, and eventually distributed at a price affordable to institutions and individuals across the world.
  • Have no less than twelve cells of Braille on this BCD, which are capable of refreshing fast enough to allow fluid reading.
  • Ensure that this BCD, or other comparable assistive devices deriving from it, are available widely around the world.

"To reach these ends we shall ...

  • Operate on a not-for-profit basis as a Community Interest Company.
  • Open source as much of or work as is legally possible.
  • In so doing, encourage co-operative development with Braillists and engineers around the world so that our original design can be expanded upon to better suit a variety of requirements.
  • Work closely with pre-existing charitable bodies who share our vision."

11/02/2011 --- Company | BBT formalised as a Social Enterprise

Limited UK Community Interest Company; no:7518101

Our articles of association and other details will be published online in time.

10/02/2011 --- OSHUG | OSHUG meeting #7 in White City, BBC

Ed Rogers attended, on behalf of BBT, the Open Source Hardware User Group's 7th meeting, which included talks on The Computer Literacy Project, the Domesday project and the Arduino platform.

All things being well, we hope to present a talk of our own in a few months time on the subject of refreshable Braille.

01/02/2011 --- Aims | Discussion of our aim and IP

During the end of January we had a series of discussion about BBT's aims. The question of intellectual property (IP) was given some attention. As it may be of interest to others doing similar not-for-profit open hardware projects, we are publishing a compiled version of this discussion online.

The document (attached below) is quite lengthy, but for IP one can skip to the heading 3, 'Specifically regarding open hardware'.

12/01/2011 --- Summary | Summary of the meeting on the 6th of January

Meeting convened at 1 P.M. GMT in the Pervasive Media Studio, Bristol.

In attendance were representatives from the University of the West of England, Bath University, Action for Blind People South West (nee RNIB South West), Tactile Revolution and several other individuals. A total of ten attended. Several others, including from the University of Bristol, were unable to attend on the day.

Scott Wood, from Action for Blind People, gave the room an overview of the importance of Braille. He explained that the current state of refreshable Braille (cell displays) greatly hinders the teaching of Braille and reduces the incentive for blinded individuals to become proficient at reading it.

Lee Winter, from Tactile revolution, via conference call from New Hampshire, then gave the room an overview of the technical limitations of the current cell displays, the context in which they were developed and attempts to address these limitations.

After a discussion of the technical challenges to be over come and the various possible approaches to doing this, the meeting decided to convene again in approximately a month to set an exact specification for what is required. There was also agreement to begin experimenting with various promising approaches in advance of this date.

Meeting concluded.

11/01/2011 --- Minutes | Minutes from the first meeting on the 6th January

Meeting convenes at 1:15 P.M., concludes at 2:40 P.M. (GMT)

Download the minutes

19/12/2010 --- Meeting | Initial meeting of heads set for January 6th

On the 6th of January, in the Pervasive Media Studio attendees from Bristol University, University West of England, Bath University, RNIB Bedminster, and a few other individuals will attend the initial meeting. Any further notices will be announced via e-mail and on the Doodle poll. The PM Studio can be found opposite the AtBristol.

01/12/2010 --- Meeting | Initial meeting of heads planned for January

Our very first general meeting of Bristol Braille Technology is scheduled for sometime in early January, to be held at Pervasive Media Studio. The exact date is yet to be set, but should you wish to attend in the capacity of an interested engineer, Braillist, designer or other professional/keen amateur then please add you name and available dates to this online poll. Alternately, e-mail us your details and we shall add your details manually.

29/11/2010 --- Support | Tactile Revolution

The Tactile Revolution have been good enough to offer collaboration on several issues. As an aspect of this collaboration we shall be jointly running a survey amongst Braillists to answer a few questions related to current Braille usage.

Also worth noting is their list of similar organisations and chronology of the technology (see Braille section) which will be of interest to those looking for further reading.

30/09/2010 --- Blog | Possibilities for intelligent mobile screen readers

Why couldn't a screen reader do more than layer itself over an inappropriate GUI? Why, in this age of the smartphone, couldn't it intelligently manage the content within a flexible, independent container of its own creation?

Screen readers

The Bristol Braille Technology BCD will, when built, rely entirely on a software package for blind and visually impaired people known as a screen reader. It is the same for all BCDs. The screen reader interprets the textual and graphical output produced by other programs and by the OS itself, matches this against the user's key commands and then either speaks it aloud or feeds the resulting line of Grade 1 or Grade 2 Braille to the BCD. Some of these are hardwired into systems (such as the sonorously voiced Microsoft Narrator on all versions of Windows post ME), some are free (such as Orca) and some are stand-alone commercial products (such as the highly popular JAWS).

A screen reader's function is to provide an efficient way of navigating around the modern GUI by keyboard whilst simultaneously reducing the information therein down to the bare textual content. Perhaps they're missing an opportunity to do more than this. Or rather, perhaps the current trends within smartphone operating systems presents an opportunity for them.

A smartphone trend

Increasingly noticeable through the haze of the iPhone's two-finger-stroke-operated glamour, which has so thoroughly enveloped the rejuvenated smartphone market, is the trend towards seeing computing devices as a way of efficiently bringing together individual packets of information. Not necessarily information as it is to be found on a web browser, a sprawling mass of chaotic links though which the user floats; neither as a series of large lumpen files, dotted across the folder metaphor of a hard disc. Rather, it is a stream of distinct nuggets of information which, though quite possibly as closely related to each other in content as the paragraphs in a web site's homepage or Microsoft Word file, are intended to be far more flexible in the mode of their delivery.

The rapid patter of incoming texts, tweets, RSS updates, weather reports, Facebook messages, pokes, GPS directions, pictures of cats and, of course, e-mails from the Managing Director of the Bank of Nigeria is what defines modern smartphone usage. Not so much tools to aid the creation and consumption of complete and relatively lengthy forms of media (films, word-processed documents, PC games andc.) as traditional desktop computers usually are; the smartphones running iOS, Android, QNX et al. focus more on manipulating this stream to constantly present the user with whatever vital or utterly trivial nuggets they most want to see at that very moment. God forbid that your phone should do anything but fall over itself to present you with instant updates on the latest everything.

Getting to the point

The smartphone category, which has risen so rapidly in significance and popularity over the last few years with the renewed focus on slick GUIs, makes much use of this very modular approach to information. And as this approach is highly suitable to screen readers which, of course, put absolutely no focus on slick GUIs, it may be that the two types of product, superficially with little similarity between them, could in fact be well suited to each other.

Could it be possible for screen readers on mobiles to take advantage of this modularity? Perhaps so, by using it to populate unique, dynamic documents which represents everything a particular blind user is interested in and is participating in. A kind of XML file into which the screen reader inputs information, the user reads the information, the user enters information and the screen reader sends this new or altered information back to the app or system call responsible for that communication. This could sit on top of the file system and the network access, not obliging the user to interact with either but mirroring them, so that any changes are instantly relayed back from the dynamic document to the underlying system and visa versa.

By virtue of its absolute reliance on text (whether spoken or rendered in Braille) a screen reader of this ilk could make hay of current trends and introduce their users to an experience which may be so efficient in its focus and flexibility that for some forms of creation and consumption it surpasses even the methods available to the sighted user.

Caveat lector

How, exactly, would this work? I don't know. I don't even know generally, let alone exactly. It was a thought which struck me whilst I was being especially anal about the mark-up of a HTML5 web site I'm half way through writing, a thought which I've tried to put on paper in essentially the same form that it occurred to me. It is therefore largely unsubstantiated or researched, but, nevertheless, one which I feel might have some promise.

I'd be interested if anyone else has been thinking along similar lines, knows an existing solution or even (especially, in fact) some flaw, some unfounded assumption in this article which has eluded me. I can be contacted within the Studio most days of the week, or via

10/09/2010 --- PM Studio | The project now backed by Pervasive Media Studio

Under the title of Pachyderms' Picture BCD, this project will continue to operate largely from within the Studio. It is hoped that with the generous assistance and guidance of the Studio members it can prosper and develop from a personal interest into a fully fledged enterprise.

22/11/2008 --- Drobe | Prototype affordable Braille display in development

A low-cost computer-controlled Braille board has been prototyped by a RISC OS-using university student. Undergraduate Edward Rogers hopes to sell his completed units for as little as 200 quid each to schools and families to allow more blind children to continue learning Braille. And he said he wanted to launch his venture using RISC OS-powered kit before offering a package for other platforms.

Edward's mechanical Braille board, also known as a cell display, uses little motors to push Braille alphabet patterns onto a flexible surface that the blind can then read using their fingertips. A computer is connected to the display and software feeds text from web browsers and other applications to the motors. According to Edward, displays already on the market use complex mechanics and can cost between GBP3,000 and GBP10,000 --- a price tag that is too much for most parents to swallow, leaving the blind cut off from the Internet and other technologies.

As part of his degree with the Bristol School of Animation, final-year Edward produced a RISC OS and Windows driver for the Arduino interface kit, (pictured right), devised and built his motor-driven cell display and created the software to link it all together. A second prototype is due to be construction by June next year.

Revealing why he chose this particular project, he said: "My enthusiasm for somewhat Heath Robinson-style solutions to problems outside of the general public eye kick started my imagination for the cell display. It was designed solely by me."

Edward, who has had brief contact with a couple of RISC OS companies to gauge their interest in the kit, explained: "Braille cell displays are an electronic mechanical rendering of text from the screen of a computer onto a refreshable Braille board. The primary method used by most blind people to read off a computer is a screen reader with a voice synthesiser.

"Very few blind adults can read or are capable of learning to read Braille because most go blind during their adulthood. Braille reading is largely the preserve of those born blind or blinded during childhood. Therefore most children will learn. This is done with embossed documents rather than computerised ones.

"However when the child finishes the initial learning there is seldom the necessary facilities at affordable prices to allow their skills to develop and so instead it withers.

"Some schools will have a cell display for the student to occasionally practice on but there will usually not be any available for general classroom use. The ideal solution is the portable computers and cell displays known as notetakers, which have essentially the same functionality as a PDA --- but these retail for between GBP3,000 and GBP10,000.

"The aim of the GBP200 Braille cell display project is, unsurprisingly, to produce a Braille cell display hardware and software package that will retail at or under GBP200."

Mechanical Braille boards are not a new technology and a lot of time and research has been spent on the subject. Boffins at IBM and the Texas Institute and Stanford Research Institute have explored using electrical shocks, thermal sensing, fluids and other materials that stiffen in the presence of electrical current and similar magic --- all of which add up to a rather expensive bill for end-users.

Edward added: "These huge price tags are down to the mechanical complexity of current models. The core element of these cell displays, the piezo-electric pins, are what keep the prices so high as there must be at least 240 of them, costing over GBP4 each. While there has been various attempts in the past to upgrade the hardware so it can be produced more cheaply, thus far all attempts have failed to make it past either the patent or prototype stage.

"However, where they failed, my project expects to succeed. The simple reason being that the new technological solutions were more complex than the problem. By contrast, this project operates primarily off four electric motors.

"Cell displays require information to be fed to them via a screen reader, which takes the text off the desktop and open windows. There are several large commercial screen readers available for Microsoft Windows, most notably Jaws, but they are all extremely expensive.

"Therefore, while it is essential the reader be made compatible with Jaws, it will be released with a free or very cheap screen reader package. Currently the only screen reader is a simple text file reader and navigator programmed by myself on BBC Basic for Windows, purely for the purposes of testing."

In Edward's system, the blind person's computer talks to the Arduino electronics and sends it the text that needs to be displayed. The embedded microprocessor on the Arduino, programmed by Edward, turns the signals into motor movements. Edward has also started work on basic scanning and OCR support for his system.

He said: "I aim to have a package which runs off RISC OS, possibly through the ROOL ROM and emulator option if it becomes available or on second-hand RiscPCs, and can access the Internet, browse directories and read various types of text files. Running on RISC OS initially will allow it time to develop and iron out flaws before jumping into the Windows ring with the industry giants --- as well, that is, as promoting the platform. Early versions of the software will be aimed at schools willing to test the new system rather than personal usage."

The kit has been demonstrated at his university although a field test was halted when the material onto which the Braille is pushed was found to be unsuitable. It's hoped that his cell display will eventually feel as similar to paper as possible.

Edward said: "The initial prototype developed a fundamental flaw which, though it has now been rectified, meant all testing and feedback had to be cancelled, quite literally within the final hour.

"The machine, in its semi-functional form was demonstrated to my university colleagues. However it was due to be tested by a parents association, a teachers group and all the regional branches of the RNIB for the West Country. Where as the university was interested in how far the project had progressed, these other groups were going to test the actual readability of the Braille produced.

"The material used to emboss onto turned out not to be adequate --- so while the motors turned out perfectly readable Braille, there was nothing from which a blind person could read it. Therefore the tests were cancelled."

Edward also had to learn C++ in order to develop the program code for the Arduino board, which he had to learn as the project progressed. He said: "I'm not a natural programmer so learning even basic C++ was very difficult. On the mechanical side, the greatest challenge is keeping the machine as simple as possible while building in full functionality."

Asked if he felt his work was pioneering, Edward said: "I wouldn't feel comfortable assuming the work is pioneering. Many others have tried and failed with other more exciting and revolutionary concepts to reach a solution. Elements of these previous projects have been inspirational for me, but will be applied to far simpler technologies in this case. I am wary, when the machine is so far from completion, of putting too much expectation into those four motors."

Edward said he wanted to concentrate on completing his last year at university before completing the Braille board project.

01/02/2008 --- Blog | An inexpensive BCD

The aim of the this project is, unsurprisingly, to produce an inexpensive Braille cell display; ideally one that will retail at or under GBP300.

According to John Gill, head of the science division of the RNIB, There is an unmet need for an inexpensive easy-to-use reliable Braille display. And he's right, too. A quick meander around the market reveals the astonishingly high prices blind users are expected to pay in order to be able to read Braille from a computer.

These prices are consequences of the mechanical complexity of current models. While there has been various attempts in the past to upgrade the hardware so it can be produced more cheaply, thus far all attempts have failed to make it past either patent or prototype stage. And for a very simple reason. Technologies explored or sponsored by institutions such as Texas Institute, Stanford Research Institute and IBM include;

  • Electric Shock,
  • Thermal sensing,
  • Electrorheological fluids,
  • Electrorestrictive polymers,
  • Shape memory alloys.

The simple reason being that the new technological solutions were not simple, they were in fact more complex than the problem. By contrast, this project intends to use just four electric motors. In a box.

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