Description: Three Canute braille devices sitting on one another in a pyramid shape. The Canute has a wooden perimeter, and a black surface. On the front, along the left wooden section, is the Bristol Braille logo, and on the right is Canute in all caps.
Photo credit: Bristol Braille, reprinted with permission
The Canute is one of the devices in line being heralded by media as the “kindle for the blind”. Among assistive technology developers, there is a race to see who can design and build such a device first, but so far no one has succeeded. Canute, built by Bristol Braille located in Bristol, is working on the first multi-line braille display—and it is nearly ready for distribution.
Unlike many products that are built intended for blind users, every feature of Canute is designed with the needs of a blind person in mind. It is the first multi-line display coming to market, and consists of 9 rows of 40 cells (or 360 cells total). These numbers are significant because the average braille file, which has the file type BRF, is 27 lines long. In other words, one page on Canute is 1/3 of a page in a BRF document. This allows the device to keep any formatting inside of the document without disrupting the document design. Current single line displays do not allow for clear indications for line breaks and indents. This is particularly problematic for children learning about writing fundamentals and grammar, whose only experience with written text is on a single line of braille.
The Canute is 14” from left to right, 10” from front to back, 1.5” thick, and weighs about 8lbs. It’s size, weight, and the fact that it does not have a portable battery that can hold a charge, kills the idea of it being a “kindle for the blind”. However, that was never the intention of the device. Bristol Braille’s Managing Director, Ed Rogers, had a far more nuanced vision of what he hoped the gadget would be able to accomplish. “It’s maybe not as fast or small or portable [as other displays], but it opens up new possibilities,” said Rogers in an interview, “we want to make sure that when paper is gradually cast aside, that braille doesn’t get cast aside with it.”
Physical braille books take up a tremendous amount of space, and are simply not practical to keep in storage at schools and in residences. Alternatively, digital braille is wildly expensive. This leaves many schools and educational institutions in a lurch. Rogers explained that “eBooks are a convenience for sighted people, but a necessity for people who read braille.” This is also an issue for individuals. When technology costs go beyond a certain threshold, it becomes necessary for programs—be they privately funded charities or government institutions—to assist with the cost. Rogers kept this in mind during his construction of Canute, “Right from the start, one of the important things about the price was about a sense of independence,” he said, “By reducing the cost, braille becomes another item for consumption and the market becomes healthier.”
This approach to the braille literacy crisis is something that braille advocates have been throwing around for some time—cost is itself a barrier to access. It’s simply less expensive for schools and institutions to buy audio equipment and give it to students. This is leaving children who are blind and visually impaired left out of future educational opportunities, especially in math and science careers. It is also a facet of braille technology that most developers remain unaware of when attempting to create ‘products for the blind’.
This level of awareness did not develop overnight, or through osmosis of working on a braille display. During the process of creating one of the earlier prototypes in 2014, the team recognized that they needed input from individuals who would be using the device in their everyday lives. “It started out as a group of 12 people in Bristol who wanted to help test Canute,” Rogers stated, “And we realized that this could be a bit bigger. and we ended up expanding, and now we’ve got 300 people subscribed to our newsletter.” The group is called Braillists and it consists of members across the UK and Ireland, with some members in the US and Spain. Along with helping Rogers and his team, the Braillists have moved on to begin working on other braille advocacy projects. This devoted team of individuals, who want to see braille used in the classroom, helped to steer the project in a direction so that it could truly serve the immediate needs of the blind community.
To accomplish this, cost was a huge factor during development. The team needed to work in such a way that it minimized all unnecessary overhead in order to achieve the cost of £667. This limitation led to several unique design elements. The first of which is the braille display itself. While ordinarily displays have six pins per cell, Canute instead has two slits for each half of the cell (each 3-dot row arranged vertically). Underneath the display face, is an octagon containing every possible three-dot combination of one side of the cell. While this set-up would be far too slow for your average display that needs to be able to edit in real-time, it is perfect for an eReader like Canute. “Because we’re doing a device which is for reading, the important thing is not how fast it can refresh,” Rogers clarified, “It’s can it refresh as fast as the user can read.”
When users get to the end of a line on a single row-display, they push the panning button to load the next group of cells, and move their hands to the first cell. Canute is slightly different because it does not refresh row-by-row, but rather by an entire page. The first row loads quickly enough for readers’ hands to move from the bottom row to the top and begin reading again while the rest of the rows continue to load. The goal is to take 6 seconds for the full page to load, but they aren’t quite there yet. Consequently, Canute cannot be used as a traditional display to drive a screen reader, though it can read BRF files from a computer.
To load a book, one need only to insert a USB memory stick into the back of the device, and load the BRF document and it will be displayed in full. There is no need to be concerned with whether a document is in the new Unified English Braille (UEB) or the older system, or even whether it is in nemeth (the braille code for mathematics). Canute only understands what is in the file, and what dots to display. Though there is no internal transcription, which is why it is not able to read files from Microsoft word.
Another technique the team used to lower costs, was to make everything open source. “Originally it was more ideological.” Said Rogers, “One of the barriers of braille coming down in cost was proprietary stuff.” Meaning that having it available for anyone to create patches for, could potentially open the market. It could also lead to some innovative uses of the hardware.
The team also only used materials that can be commonly found. Since they work out of a hackspace, which is a community workshop, they don’t have access to materials that are highly unusual. Currently when individuals purchase braille displays and they break, they need to be sent back to companies which might not be in the user’s home country. While this is a frustration for those in Canada, the United States, and Europe this is a tremendous barrier to users in developing nations. The goal of Canute is that anyone can work on it, anywhere, without needing to ship it out for expensive repairs. It is made with inexpensive technology that can be easily be acquired.
The biggest challenge for Canute, according to Rogers, was the lack of funding and the constant redesigning. “There were a lot of moments where we’d been working down to the wire.” Rogers remembered, telling a story about a time the team worked until 3am to finish a prototype, and then walking onto a plane with the newly finished device at 5am to take to a demonstration.
However, what he considers one of their greatest successes is not the completion of any single device. Rather it was, “The way we work with the Braillists.” Rogers said, who truly attributes the success of the product on the group of braille enthusiasts.
Canute is everything you want in an assistive technology product. It serves the needs of the community it is intended to help, not simply the ideological goals of the developer. But Canute’s footprint goes beyond simply providing a service. Through its development, a movement within the blind community itself was born. Not because of either the developer or the community, but rather through the collaboration between the two groups. Canute is a shining example of what we need from developers: to be listened to, to be valued, and to have our communities mean something beyond just being people who need to be helped.
You can subscribe to Bristol Braille’s newsletter on their website and receive updates on their devices, and if you’d like to make a contribution to their work you can do so on their donation page. You can also follow them on Twitter.
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