At the Braille 21 Conference in Leipzig, Germany in September 2011 I made a public commitment that the Royal National Institute of Blind People would lead a global campaign to produce a cheap, refreshable braille display. I had in mind a simple device that would cut the cost of displays on the market by at least 80%.
The reasons for advocating such a revolutionary approach are simple:
- Hard copy braille production is expensive and scarce
- There is a world of digital information but refreshable braille is prohibitively expensive
- Both technologies are beyond the reach of children in developing countries.
I therefore resolved to develop such a device to:
- Cut the cost and extend the range of material available via specialist libraries in developed countries
- Provide a cheap companion to the tablet and smart phone, providing blind people with the internet at their fingertips, not just in synthetic speech
- Open up education for hundreds of thousands of blind children in developing countries.
I had in mind a simple braille bar, like a stick of candy, which would sit next to or be cabled to a generic device and which would not compete with the more complex equipment used by blind children and adults for education and employment by blind people in rich countries, largely funded by the public sector.
In November 2011, As Chair of RNIB I gathered together a core group of colleagues from:
We constituted ourselves with a DAISY Charter. Together we:
- Raised $250k for the initial phases of the work
- Assembled a Project Board
- Assessed more than 60 refreshable braille display projects.
The Project Board consisted of the following organisations – those marked with an asterisk in bold are currently Managing Members of the TBG LLC, the remainder constitute an Advisory Board:
Association Valentin HauY (AVH)*, www.avh.asso.fr/
Blind Foundation (formerly RNZFB)*, http://blindfoundation.org.nz/
CBM International, www.cbm.org
Celia Library, www.celia.fi/english
International Council on English Braille (ICEB), www.iceb.org
Library of Congress (LOC), www.loc.gov
National Federation of the Blind (NFB)*, https://nfb.org
Perkins School for the Blind (Perkins)*, www.perkins.org
Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB)*, www.rnib.org.uk
Spanish National Organisation of the Blind (ONCE), www.once.es
The American Printing House for the Blind Inc. (APH)*, www.aph.org
The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) **, www.cnib.ca
The Norwegian Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted (NABP)*, www.blindeforbundet.no
Vision Australia (VA)*, www.visionaustralia.org/
World Braille Council (WBC)
** CNIB is a contributor but not a Managing Member of TBG LLC
By the middle of 2012 we had ranked all the existing projects and determined our top two choices and we were beginning to assess these carefully when we became aware of a breakthrough technology which would completely change the picture.
At this point the Project Board raised $1.25m for further development and transformed itself from a DAISY Chartered Project into the Transforming Braille Group LLC with the contributing organisations becoming Managing Members as shown above.
We investigated this new development until the beginning of 2013 when we opened negotiations with a project partner which, incidentally, produced a very fine prototype, but we were unable to reach a final, legal agreement. The obstacle was our need to secure a guaranteed market price within our 80% reduction objective.
Fortunately, just as these negotiations were breaking down in 2013 we came into contact with Orbit Research LLC www.orbitresearch.com with whom we have now signed an agreement.
If all goes to plan – and we have no reason to believe that it will not – we are hoping to organise a sales conference in September 2015 and to launch the product at CSUN in 2016.
Orbit have produced a business plan which will give us a refreshable braille display at less than 20% of the current open market price.