Interview: Ed Rogers, Director of Bristol Braille, the company changing the face, and feel, of braille

4th February 2015

Ed-Rogers-bristol-braille-technologyWith over 2 million people in the UK alone suffering from a loss of sight, it is incredible to think that there is so little technology in place to enable blind or partially sighted people to continue leading normal lives.

One obvious aid for people who cannot see is Braille, a written language formed of raised dots that can be read by running your fingertips along them. However, few places use Braille, even on important signs, and even if they did, Braille literacy is startlingly low.

Out of an approximate 365,000 people registered as blind or partially sighted in the UK, only around 18,000 can read Braille. This is partly down to the age at which they lost their sight, but it is also due to the prohibitive cost of teaching people to read Braille. As for refreshable Braille display technology, a device that can produce just a single line of Braille costs in the region of £1,400. Far too much for most families to afford.

“The long term goal is to make an affordable, refreshable Braille machine that can help reverse the decline in literacy amongst blind people”

 

In a bid to combat the decline in Braille usage, and dramatically reduce the cost of Braille technology, one Bristol-based startup is working on a series of devices that could retail for as little as £100. The company’s admirable efforts even earned them a place in the running for this year’s “Good Award” at The SPARKies. We spoke to Director of Bristol Braille Technology, Ed Rogers (pictured above), to learn more.

TechSPARK: Tell us a bit about Bristol Braille. How did it get started?

Ed Rogers: It began as a personal project for me in 2008 while I was studying at the Bristol School of Animation. People often ask if I have a blind family member, but in truth it was just a cause that I took to.

The company, Bristol Braille Technology CIC, was founded in February 2011, but it only really took off in late 2012 when Matt Venn joined as Chief Engineer. Since then engineers Eric Cauneze, Russ Couper, Steph Tyszka and Nic Marshall have all had a big role in our progress.

TechSPARK: What are your long-term goals, and how have they changed (if at all) since the company was founded?

ER: The long term goal is to make an affordable, refreshable Braille machine that can help reverse the decline in literacy amongst blind people. People tend to assume most blind people can read Braille, whereas, in fact, the medium is in serious trouble. That would be OK if text-to-speech was a like-for-like replacement, but it’s not. Sighted people wouldn’t give up print for computerised voice synthesis; blind people shouldn’t have to with Braille. This goal hasn’t changed since 2008.

TS: What is Canute, and what makes it so different to existing Braille readers?

ER: Canute is BBT’s main project at the moment. It’s a Braille e-book reader that uses a matrix of mechanically driven pins in a board to simulate embossed paper Braille.

“Unlike existing refreshable Braille Canute will cost hundreds rather than thousands of pounds”

 

Unlike existing refreshable Braille it will cost hundreds rather than thousands of pounds, will be multiline and will be manufacturable and repairable anywhere in the world.

TS: Your other project is Midas, a glove-based Braille reader. Being able to display Braille on any flat surface sounds fantastic. How is this achieved?

ER: Midas is tackling the same goal from a very different angle and being developed by BBT’s sister company, Babel Technology CIC, run by Sam Betts. It doesn’t try to reproduce traditional Braille at all. It’s a glove that simulates the feel of Braille as one moves over a surface. But rather than just using the fingertip’s sensitivity, which is very difficult for people past their mid-twenties to learn, it uses the sensitivity of the whole hand. Midas will cost something like £100 – revolutionarily cheap.

TS: Your software and firmware are all open source. What are the advantages?

ER: The advantage to the community is two-fold. Firstly, from a practical perspective, it allows the device to be quickly adjusted to local requirements. Secondly, from a more theoretical perspective, it changes the relationship between the Braillist and the provider. Too often, accessible products seem to reinforce the idea that blind people are passive clients who need prescriptive provision.

canute_team

Kings of Canute: The team hard at work (from L-R) Russell Couper, Ed, Sophie Tyszka and Nic Marshall 

And it goes both ways. We’ll be saying, “we’ve done what we can with the resources available to us. If you want more features you’ll have to help us with that.” Shared ownership implies shared responsibility. We already know a lot of Braillists who will jump at that chance.

TS: Does this mean consumers can adapt or reproduce the software according to their individual needs?

ER: Yes. Users will be able to hack the firmware of their machines to make them work as they want them to, or load in custom software that others have designed. While intellectual property on the hardware itself is more complex (and changing the hardware design is far more complex and less practical than changing the software) we hope to be able to make similar provisions here too.

TS: Is there anything you’ve learnt along the way that you wish you’d known when you started?

ER: Well I wish I’d had the idea for Canute in mid-2008 rather than late 2012. That would have saved a few years of buggering around with ultimately unsuccessful prototypes! In reality, of course, you can usually only come up with a good idea after learning how not to do it first.

“In reality you can usually only come up with a good idea after learning how not to do it first”

 

I do wish I’d known just how big the task was. Years were wasted because I refused to accept the scale of the project. If I’d known that, or admitted it to myself, I could have concentrated on research for the first year, rather than jumping straight into half-baked prototyping.

TS: What are the advantages of being based in Bristol?

ER: The Bristol Hackspace has been instrumental in Canute’s successes to date. There’s no way we could otherwise have access to all the tooling we need. There are Hackspaces all over the place these days of course, democratising access to machines and workshops. But some Hackspaces are more equal than others. We’re lucky in Bristol.

More generally it is relatively easy to get introductions to almost everyone you need to help you get started. Places like the Pervasive Media Studio are an example of that.

TS: What do you consider to be Bristol Braille’s greatest triumphs so far?

ER: In September of last year we demonstrated a 4-line Canute for the first time to a group of a dozen Braillists. They were very taken with it, which was a relief. I’m personally very proud of the Braillists user-group that has emerged from our work over the years.

What started as twenty or so blind people who got in contact with BBT to find out more about Canute has grown into an independent Braille technology advocacy group with over 60 members. There have been four meetings in Bristol. Next year it’ll be holding meetings in Bristol, Dublin, London, Aberdeen, Vienna… It’s great to see it take on a life of its own.

TS: Where do your projects stand currently, and what are your plans moving forwards?

ER: Canute is just about to start development of the first limited batch of machines for daily use and testing by Braillists. We expect that to happen in April of this year. After that, we’ll have to see what kind of feedback we get and whether we’re able to raise the necessary funds to go to wider manufacture.

“There are Hackspaces all over the place these days of course, but some Hackspaces are more equal than others. We’re lucky in Bristol”

 

Midas is poised to make the second prototype. To get that done, we need to raise £8,000 of private money to match Government/EU investment to date. Once raised, we should be able to finish the prototype in a couple of months and move on to running a crowd-sourcing campaign.

TS: How can people learn more about your work or get involved?

ER: If you’re interested in either project you can look at the website or email us. We’re always happy to chat about our work, especially if you’re considering getting involved in some way, be it mechanical or promotional.

If you’d like to join the Braillists in order to be kept up to date with our future announcements and meeting dates then email the Chairman, Steph Tyszka.

Right now we’re also very interested in taking on sponsorship from companies and groups with an interest in promoting literacy or provision of accessible technology. This year is going to be very big for Canute and Midas, so now is the time to ask us about partnership.

Many thanks to Ed for taking the time to speak to us. To find out more head over to the Bristol Braille Technology website or give them a follow on Twitter. And for all up-to-the-minute South West tech news, follow us here at TechSPARK.