Orbit Reader 20 Details

Orbit Reader 20 Details

After the recent announcement and feedback at CSUN about the release of the Orbit Reader 20, a new refreshable braille display with an SD card slot and stand-alone functionality, it is clear the device warrants some additional description.

In brief, the Orbit Reader 20 combines simplicity, functionality, and connectivity in a unique and low priced package to make reading braille more practical in a number of situations. Blind mobile technology users enjoy increasingly better and less expensive speech output accessibility improvements, but braille is nearly always achieved by employing an external device. The device works much like a Bluetooth keyboard, except in this case, the peripheral is a refreshable braille display that sometimes includes a braille keyboard. This scenario works, but few can argue that one single unit that includes the braille components is a far superior setup. Here, the unfortunate truth of manufacturing products for a low-incidence population arises— currently, no large for-profit manufacturer can justify the low return on investment for refreshable braille technology.

The need for specialization, recognition of the importance of braille literacy, and the advancement of electronics technology was the motivation behind the production of electronic braille displays for several companies in the blindness business. Over the years, these electronic braille products evolved into three categories.

Braille Terminals—a refreshable braille device that connects to a host, with no additional functionality. It usually includes a USB and Bluetooth interface and sometimes features a braille keyboard. The user reads the braille from an app running on a phone, tablet, or computer (host) and then controls the host and/or types with the keyboard using the braille terminal.

Note Takers—works like a braille terminal and includes additional functionality, such as editing or a calendar, that is used without connecting to a host. These devices always include a braille keyboard.

PDAs—a note taker that uses a mobile operating system to provide all the services of a smartphone or tablet. Modern PDAs include Android and Windows applications. These devices could even be called braille tablets. This is the next best solution for the user desiring the ultimate experience of a single integrated unit.

One of the disadvantages of braille PDAs is the cost. While the user can obtain a well-equipped iPhone for about $800, or even use an Amazon Fire tablet for $50, the cost of braille PDAs is in the thousands. And while it is almost painless to spend a few hundred dollars every two or three years to upgrade to the latest device, spending thousands to keep up with braille technology hurts a lot more and is out of range for many users.

These disproportionate prices should not reflect badly on the manufacturers—it is expensive to design specialty hardware, and the traditional braille cells used to date are very expensive. Relatively low quantities for manufacturing also contributes to the problem. And there is a market for premium braille PDAs.

For most users, the note taker offers a middle-ground approach. It provides minimal, but essential, functionality in a stand-alone operation and lets the user connect to a host device for more demanding tasks, such as web browsing or streaming movies. The disadvantage is the inconvenience of having two separate devices with which to contend. However, this aspect becomes an advantage when it is time to upgrade to the next generation of phone or tablet.

The Orbit Reader 20 was designed as a braille reading device. It falls into the note taker category. Its stand-alone capabilities include reading, writing, and file management. For anything else, the user connects to a host device that provides those services. In this usage model, the Orbit Reader 20 becomes a terminal that displays the braille for the app running on the phone, tablet, or PC. It works via Bluetooth with iOS and Android devices and through USB or Bluetooth for Windows, Mac, and any other operating system that includes a screen reader with braille support. In the USB configuration, Orbit Reader 20 supports both serial and human interface device (HID) protocols. This means, if the screen reader supports it, no driver installation is required.

When using it as a stand-alone device, Orbit Reader 20 starts as a reader displaying the content of files stored on the SD card. The interface is simple, keeping the focus on allowing the reader to scroll through the text and select other titles. The youngest readers find it easy to get the next line of braille by pressing the panning button. For more advanced users, Orbit Reader 20 provides searching, bookmark, and note taking capabilities.

In addition to its use as a reader, Orbit Reader 20 lets the user create and edit text. Make no mistake, the editor is simple and works with about 15 pages at a time. But if more complex formatting or spell check is needed, the user utilizes a word processing program, such as Microsoft Word, on the PC with Orbit Reader 20 serving as the braille terminal.

Finally, Orbit Reader includes file management capabilities as part of its stand-alone functionality. The user can rename, delete, copy, and create files and folders as needed.

Along with these simple software features, Orbit Reader 20 boasts some noteworthy hardware. The most distinctive feature is the braille technology. Some compare it to the braille used on signage. The dots do not give when the user presses them. The dots on some braille displays using the traditional technology yield to pressure. Perceptually, this results in the sensation of pushing the dot down when the user applies deliberate force to it. The technology used in the Orbit Reader 20 does not exhibit this characteristic. Once the dot is raised, it stays raised no matter how hard the user examines it. This unique factor could have positive implications for beginning braille readers or those who suffer with some degree of neuropathy.

The Orbit Reader 20 was made possible by the Transforming Braille Group, LLC. Their goals for this device included increasing literacy by dramatically reducing the cost of refreshable braille technology.

In 2011, Kevin Carey, Chair of the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), announced that RNIB would find a technology that disrupts the braille display market by radically reducing the cost of refreshable braille. He convinced 10 world-wide blindness organizations to form the Transforming Braille Group, LLC (TBG). The organizations involved in TBG are listed here:

  • American Printing House for the Blind (APH)
  • Association Valentin HauY (AVH)
  • Blind Foundation (formerly RNZFB)
  • Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB)
  • National Federation of the Blind (NFB)
  • Norwegian Association for the Blind and Partially Sighted (NABP)
  • Perkins School for the Blind (Perkins)
  • Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB)
  • Sightsavers
  • Vision Australia (VA)

After a thorough examination of over 60 possible projects, TBG agreed to fund Orbit Research with $1.25 million to develop the reader for about $300 each, with a commitment of 50,000 units over a five-year period.

In March 2016, TBG and Orbit announced the successful completion of the project and revealed the prototypes at the CSUN conference.

While no organization has yet published an end user price for the Orbit Reader 20, it is fair to expect a price around $500 for North America. TBG members can get the device for $320, but this is just for the device. Individual member organizations must package, localize, support, and distribute the device. TBG members are all non-profit organizations, so determining factors toward an end user cost depend on the cost of the following described items.

Packaging might include an SD card (possibly with some content), a USB cable, large print and braille quick start guides, an AC adapter, and a box and packaging. Some of these components vary depending on the location; for example, translation of the quick start guides into an appropriate language and provision of AC adapters compatible with local plugs. Member organizations may choose to collaborate for lower packaging and accessory prices.

Another example that could affect the end user price is the use of a software utility that allows an organization to translate the user interface into any language, thus allowing delivery of a product directly to their customers that is already configured and preloaded with content on the SD card.

Organizations may also want to create software and hardware support systems. While the device is engineered for varying climates, eventually the battery, for example, needs replacement. Currently, it is user replaceable, but some organizations may wish to consider providing services such as battery sales or installation.

Some of the most important considerations for successful integration of such a breakthrough technology are marketing, support, and education. Individual TBG members are responsible for providing information to consumers and educational and government entities about the cost and literacy advantages. They also build customer support channels and create and distribute tutorials or localized versions of the user interface and documentation.

To date, CNIB, RNIB, and APH have announced intentions to distribute the device when it becomes available in the fall of 2016. Non-TBG members will also be able to purchase the Orbit Reader 20, but they will not enjoy the $320 price. Final price and timing details are forthcoming. Orbit Reader uses common off-the-shelf parts. Most of these parts are used in millions of other consumer devices, so it is expected that the individual prices will continue to fall.

The end result of a low-cost refreshable braille display is not magic. The TBG made a commitment, identified a technology, financed it, committed to quantities, and accepted compromises to achieve this remarkable cost breakthrough. In addition to the financial and quantity commitments, the new technology and compromises made between TBG members complete the successful formula for the significant price reduction. A look at some of the compromises helps explain.

The first difference from full featured devices is the lack of cursor routing buttons. What that means to individual users depends on how they use the device. These buttons, which are associated with individual cells, make the interface easier on modern operating systems. The cursor routing buttons were eliminated due to limited usefulness when used as a reader and to save on cost. Currently, there are discussions taking place about the introduction of models with additional features, and cursor router buttons certainly qualify as one of the more important features being considered.

The second difference from full-featured devices is that the unit refreshes differently from previously existing technology. The refresh rate is slower, and the user can just hear the slight tap as each pin rises from left to right. However, it happens quickly, usually in about half a second for the whole line—the left side is ready almost immediately. The refresh rate could be faster with additional cost, but initial indications show that many users are satisfied with this alternate technique.

The device is not intended to compete with high end PDAs. Its purpose is to get braille into the hands of more users. Now, parents can afford a braille reader to accompany the family tablet, libraries can reduce costs for those users that desire electronic distribution, and governments can provide inexpensive, easy to maintain devices on which to read.

For teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) in the United States, it means that schools can provide a braille display for every student that requires one, which should be available to the student for home use for evenings and weekends. The TVI can use it to provide high-quality transcribed electronic textbooks. At school, students can use it to read textbooks, write homework assignments, take notes, and interact with the school computer. At home, they can read books and magazines, work on homework assignments, interact with their iPad, and connect it to the home computer.

In short, the Orbit Reader 20 provides a simple, well built, inexpensive method to offer the prospect of literacy to more people who are blind and visually impaired by dramatically reducing the cost of refreshable braille technology. It is not the sleekest, most elegant, smallest, or most feature laden device available. It is, however, an incredible value for simple, reliable, electronic braille tasks. The Transforming Braille Group is optimistic that this combination will ease the literacy crisis among blind citizens the world round.

Orbit Reader 20 Launch

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

Sense 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:


Agency Shares
Association Valentin HauY (AVH) 1
Blind Foundation (formerly RNZFB) 1
  • The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB)
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
Sightsavers 2
Vision Australia (VA) 1
  • CNIB contributed the price of one share but chose not to become a full shareholder.


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.

Field Test Result Summary

If you are attending the California State University at Northridge annual assistive technology conference in San Diego, come to the session announcing field test results and next steps for the refreshable braille display and reader created by Orbit Research and Transforming Braille Group, LLC.

The presentation occurs on Wednesday, March 23 at 3:20 PM PST at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, Mission Beach AB, 3rd Floor, Between Harbor and Seaport Towers



Kevin Carey interviewed by Radio VOS

Transforming Braille President Kevin Carey was recently interviewed by Radio VOS, a Moscow based web radio station devoted to covering all aspects of life, activity, and adaptation for visually impaired people. Listen to the original program in Russian at the following link (the interview begins about 3 minutes and 20 seconds in):

Kevin Carey – Radio VOS (Russian)

Or, listen to the English version of the interview below:

Update from Kevin Carey, President, The Transforming Braille Group LLC

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/
Benetech, http://benetech.org
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
Sense, www.sense.org.uk
Sightsavers*, www.sightsavers.org
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.