Kevin Carey delivered the following address to a packed audience at the 2016 CSUN conference:
As we passed from the 20th Century, the golden age of braille, to the 21st, the prospects for the beloved medium were grim: the non text competition which had begun with radio broadcasting and had gathered momentum with the cassette tape recorder, had come to its dominant position through the internet; braille continued to be anachronistically contracted, harking back to the days of plate making, which meant that it had professional teacher gatekeepers which made it an elite, expensive product; and, finally, whether it was produced in expensive paper or accessed through an expensive refreshable braille display, it was, whichever way you looked at it, expensive.
When I became Chair of RNIB in 2009 I therefore set myself a three-part braille agenda: first, to turn the digital competition into an asset for braille by making anything text-based available in braille; secondly, I determined to back UEB uncontracted braille as the braille transcription and publishing default of English, and uncontracted braille the default where other languages were used; and, thirdly, I thought that there might be scope to reduce the cost of refreshable braille.
Naturally, given the ingrained conservatism of the blindness sector in general and the special education sector in particular, progress was slow on UEB and it was difficult to get people to concentrate on refreshable braille because there had been so many false dawns.
But after the UK and US made strides towards the adoption of UEB, I turned my mind more concentratedly to refreshable braille.
Bearing in mind the history of the catalytic converter, that it was legislated for before it existed, I announced at the Leipzig Braille 21 Conference in September 2011 that RNIB would lead a global initiative to reduce the cost of refreshable braille by 90%. The incumbent piezo electric cartel said I was mad. Even some of my friends said I was mad. Today I have come to report on what has happened since I made that promise.
The first phase of the project was to gather some interested parties and consult on the user requirements for a simple, low-cost display which would, fundamentally, be a reader, with the facility to be upgraded to a simple note-taker, not attempting to compete with multi-feature note takers. What we were thinking about was the need of libraries to distribute far more titles in braille via digital means, cutting down on their use of expensive braille paper; but I was even more moved by a visit I had made to Africa where I had seen blind children using mobile phones to get information, deprived of the primary literacy medium of braille.
To that end, we consulted via the World Blind Union, the DAISY Consortium and the World Braille Council. The RNIB then agreed to put forward $50k so that we could establish a minimal structure and comb the whole world for braille display projects.
We hired PDT consultant engineers. When we had assessed over 60 projects, weighting and scoring each one against our criteria of price and design, we came up with a top three.
At that point we needed $250k to advance the project by funding potential successful projects. We received contributions from:-
Association Valentin HauY (AVH) – France
Benetech – USA
Blind Foundation (formerly RNZFB) – NZ
CBM – Germany
Celia Library – Finland
Library of Congress/NLS – USA
National Federation of the Blind (NFB) – USA
ONCE Foundation – Spain
Perkins School for the Blind (Perkins) – USA
Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) – UK
Sightsavers – UK/India
The American Printing House for the Blind Inc (APH) – USA
The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB)
The Norwegian Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted (NABP)
Vision Australia (VA)
World Braille Council (WBC)
We entered negotiations with our favoured candidates but two dropped out because we did not think they would reach the market and our negotiations with one of the big access technology players broke down over its refusal to commit to an ex-factory price. But then we found a new player in the market, Orbit Research, which was prepared to commit to a price for shareholders of $300 at the factory gate, so to speak, for a 20-cell refreshable braille display on condition that orders amounted to 200,000 cells.
We then formed the Transforming Braille Group (TBG) LLC to raise $1.25m to get the display from the drawing board, through three prototypes, to an ex-factory model.
These are the shareholders of $50k per share:
|Association Valentin HauY (AVH)||1|
|Blind Foundation (formerly RNZFB)||1|
|National Federation of the Blind (NFB)||5|
|The American Printing House for the Blind Inc (APH)||5|
|The Norwegian Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted (NABP)||3|
|Perkins School for the Blind (Perkins)||1|
|Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB)||5|
|Vision Australia (VA)||1|
The Shareholders elected me President of the LLC, a post which I have held since its formation.
Interestingly, even though the objective was a fairly dumb reading device, the controversy was never about the braille as we had an industry standard spec to meet; but we could have held a never-ending seminar to determine the size and location of the buttons!
In January this year Orbit delivered 27 Prototype 3 machines for user testing in shareholder countries in North America and Europe, with testers drawn from those who had experience of refreshable braille and those who had no experience of it. I am due to supervise testing in India and Kenya shortly.
We will publish all of the test data on our web site but here are the testing headlines:
- The refreshable braille is the best that experienced users have ever seen;
- The refresh rate is suitable for poor to average braille readers but not good enough for experienced users;
- Although the device makes a quiet, purring noise with the braille change, this issue was not raised spontaneously by testers.
I should say a very brief word about the refresh rate as this has been the most controversial topic during the development of the device. Those who have reported dissatisfaction with the refresh rate are very experienced users of high end refreshable braille note takers or braille bars attached to generic devices; but it is important to note that these are precisely the braille readers for whom the Orbit Reader was not designed. It may be that there will be a market between our basic device and high-end note-takers but we always need to remember what was our primary aim.
I say this because the Orbit Reader introduces a revolutionary principle in the sector:
In devising the Orbit Reader we can offer trade-offs in terms of performance and price.
We first encountered this idea when, in the development of the prototypes, we decided to add a Bluetooth facility and to improve the robustness and performance of the keys which is why the price has come out at $320 rather than the initial $300. In other words, we judged the improvements to be worthy of a higher default, ex-factory gate, price.
But, furthermore, customers buying in bulk can request, among other features, the following as long as they are prepared to recognise the quality/price trade-off:
- A faster refresh rate
- A lower noise level
- Choice of number of cells
- Choice of shape and location of keys
- Transformation of device into a simple note taker.
So, here is where we are:
To simplify the arithmetic, the 8-dot 20-cell device to shareholders at the factory gate will be $320, or less than $2 per braille dot, as long as the production batch is for 200,000 braille cells, variously arrayed in different devices.
Whether we have cut the price by 90% depends what your starting point was in 2011 and what price you pay Orbit for the device; but I am convinced that TBG has broken open the market. I do not expect 8-dot refreshable braille cells to wholesale higher than their 2011 price ever again.
It is important to emphasise that the TBG project was, in essence, a proof of concept exercise. We did not establish ourselves to become a marketing company and it’s up to Orbit to sell the devices; and if some manufacturers develop cells of the same quality that undercut the new price, I will neither be surprised nor worried. The future market depends on the competition which has been sadly lacking for the past forty years.
In closing, I want to thank all those who contributed to the early development, to my shareholders, to John Freese, our consulting Engineer from PDT and even our lawyer, Bob Rosenthal of Conn Kavanaugh. But particular thanks are due to our Executive, Larry Skutchan of APH and to our Treasurer, Jim Gashel of NFB; and, of course, to our developer from Orbit, Venkatesh Chari.