When Pigs Fly? A Full Page Braille Display with Real-Time Tactile Graphics

One of these days a blind or low vision person will be able to read on their device a periodical like National Geographic or Newsweek, or even a textbook or standardized test, and not only will the information be translated into braille and displayed in full page format, but the device will also instantly produce tactile images or graphics. ‘When pigs fly’ some of you say—but the response shouldn’t be ‘it’s impossible,’ it should be, ‘when will it happen?’

Every year National Braille Press produces thousands of pages of braille for tests and textbooks including hard copy raised tactile graphics for students. Unfortunately, the ability to render tactile images in real time on a device has not yet come to fruition, at least not with the affordability or resolution that is really needed to be effective. However, that long search for the ‘Holy Braille’ is finally starting to show some exciting promise.

Amazing advances in technology are leveraging new, affordable approaches to raise a braille pin or to render an image in unconventional ways, and we at NBP have created the Center for Braille Innovation (CBI) to act as a global information broker and champion for just such breakthroughs in engineering design. We want blind students and adults in the workplace to have the same tools as their sighted peers, and to be able to compete and experience the ‘Internet of Things’ like everyone else, so we build the partnerships needed to keep us on the cutting edge.

Through the CBI we have built relationships and partnerships with the University of Michigan,  MIT, IBM, Google, Northeastern University, India, China, and others to find the right mix of components and features that can be leveraged to create a tablet for the blind—and that can be manufactured affordably. Economies of scale are a critical fact of life in the affordability of a product, and if it can be built into existing, mainstream products with a universal design, everyone wins.

Through a relationship with an Indian company founded by two MIT doctoral engineers, we launched the Tactile Caliper, a low cost, mechanical, refreshable braille ruler that allows accurate measurements to the 1/16th of an inch (a metric version is also in the pipeline).

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Photo: Tactile Caliper measuring object

And in partnership with the innovative Deane Blazie, we launched the B2G earlier this year, our first refreshable braille consumer electronic product.

The B2G uses a conventional piezo-electric method to raise braille pins, but our design also allows for OEM options for any future successful methodology. We developed it for two reasons: First, we wanted to lower the price for consumers so that more people could afford this indispensable tool. Second, we wanted consumers to have control over customization; our B2G allows them to add or delete the apps they want and to change user features to suit their own, individual needs. For example, customers can use the Echolink app to turn the B2G into a ham radio station.

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Photo: Green and Gray B2G’s

 

Last week an Anheuser Busch semi-tractor trailer delivered 2,000 cases of Budweiser beer on a 120-mile journey without a human at the wheel. This robotic delivery of beer shipped through Denver to Colorado Springs and was called “uneventful.” The technology revolution is in full swing and unfortunately the blind and low vision world has not been top of mind for many designers. Yes, driverless cars and trucks will be an indirect and valuable benefit for BVIs and PWDs, but that wasn’t the motivation to create them. We believe that access to information, especially e-braille outputs, must be included in all products and we will never stop advocating for and championing new technologies that have the potential to serve the blind community.

So, one of these days you may be zipping down the road in a driverless car, and reading a story on your accessible braille tablet while feeling the raised tactile image of that pig flying after all.

By Brian Mac Donald, President, NBP

A Blind Voter’s Story

For my last birthday, my two daughters presented me with a truly awesome and thoughtful gift: a contribution to National Braille Press. In their note, they recalled the wonderful bedtime reading rituals with their dad. We all loved NBP’s children’s braille books, and as they’ve grown up, they’ve hung onto those books. Perhaps someday I’ll get to read those (and new NBP books) to grandchildren, but that seems a good way off yet.

Now, what does this have to do with voting? Like reading, our participation in this most wonderful civic activity, voting, is a family affair. I remember the four of us walking into our local polling place a few years back when our youngest daughter came of voting age. By the way, it was a primary election in a non-presidential year. As you likely know, mid-term primary elections have woefully low turnout, but there we were, showing up to welcome our daughter as she joined the electorate for her first vote. Oh yes, her older sister is most assuredly a dedicated voter too, and she was lucky enough to be in school in Ohio when Bruce Springsteen was doing campus shows to energize young voters, and she taunts me to this day about getting to stand within 15 feet of him while he played acoustic guitar. Ugh!

I love voting, always have. For years, people with vision loss usually had to request some kind of assistance to cast their ballot. But, after widespread voting problems in 2000, advocates, including me, worked to get the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) passed. This law included accessibility requirements. As a result, I remember excitedly casting my first truly independent vote in the 2002 primary election in Maryland. I practically skipped out of the booth. The only thing that rivaled it was getting to mark a ballot to vote for my wife for school board back in Illinois.

OK, so, what does this have to do with braille? First, individuals who use braille as their reading medium should be provided an absentee ballot in braille, if requested. Braille ballots never really emerged as a practical access solution for voting at the local polling place, but braille is a critical tool for research and learning about voting and candidates. When independent access to newspapers and candidate information became possible for me with the emergence of online information in the 90s, I was thrilled to be able to prepare my own braille guide listing candidates and a bit of background. Thus armed, I knew I could vote independently, even spelling the names of my preferred candidates if for some reason that was necessary.

Just recently, I requested a braille sample ballot from my county Board of Elections. This is something I encourage everyone with a need for accessible media to do. The braille document is on its way, and just like my sighted family members who received a print sample ballot, I’ll have mine in my preferred accessible version. Then, I plan to show up at my polling place, and with an audio interface to the ballot, make my choices independently and privately.

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Photo: Massachusetts Information for Voters, 2016 Ballot Questions, Braille Edition

Of course, the four of us Schroeders will all be voting in November, though alas, with the daughters away at school, we’ll not be able to go to the polling place together.

As I prepare to vote, and as another birthday comes around to remind me of my daughters’ gift to me and NBP last year, I’ll be using braille as one of my key tools for independence, and I’ll be thanking NBP for making braille widespread, commonplace, and yes, even, cool.

Our friends over at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) have assembled a very nice newsletter about voting at the following web link:

Sources:

http://www.afb.org/info/blindness-statistics/research-navigator-a-quarterly-series-on-research-in-blindness-and-visual-impairment/research-navigator-voters-with-vision-loss-in-the-2016-elections/235

By Paul Schroeder

Galas Are Fun: Even Online

I have only been to two galas in my life: a law and disability rights gala and the NBP gala. The first was in person and the second was online. Both were equally, gratifyingly cool; and in some ways, my online attendance to the NBP gala was extra special to me.

Last year, I was serving my first year as a board of trustee on the NBP board. I wanted to attend the annual gala and participate fully. However, life happens and I was unable to attend. I made an extra commitment to myself to ensure that I was at the 2016 gala. I will be attending and hoping for warm weather in Boston.

For those who cannot make it in person (because I understand that life happens), I hope you consider participating in the gala goodness virtually. It’s not too hard to do and I know the experience will be even better than last year.

Although I was deeply saddened not to be present in person at the 2015 gala, I was excited to be a virtual participant. I had mixed feelings about virtually attending an evening gala with guest speakers, awards, fundraising, and of course, the dinner portion of the night. How were they going to keep my attention while steak and wine were being consumed?

The answer to all of my questions was easily provided by the wonderfully detailed and inclusive staff at NBP.

ACB Radio covered the gala and broadcasted all of the live portions online. It was easy to connect to ACB Radio and listen. I loved listening to all of the fabulous speakers—and even when a video was shown, I felt like I came away with just as much info about the video as I would have if I were there. During the dinner portion, and other portions that don’t translate well online, ACB Radio aired pre-recorded interviews with NBP staff. I loved this. In fact, it made me feel quite special to have access to these recordings while others were wining and dining.

California is three hours behind Massachusetts and the gala began during the end of my work day. It was super convenient to be able to leave work and listen to the gala while commuting. I prepared my own feast at home while listening. (Don’t ask what I made because I truly don’t recall.) What I do know is that I made my own personal wine selection that night and raised my own glass to NBP and all of the wonderful things it does to put braille into the hands of blind people across our nation.

The one part of the entire gala that I felt excluded from was the auction and fundraising aspect of the gala. I was so caught up in the excitement and I really wanted to give in any way I could. I very much appreciate how responsive NBP staff are to feedback and to ensuring that the mission of NBP can happen because this year they have figured out a way for virtual guests to give as well! You can participate in NBP’s silent auction from your home, whether it’s on your computer or your cellphone, from October 17th through the night of the gala at 9:15 PM. You can register here!

 

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Photo: Audience looking toward the stage and listening to a speech at the 2014 Gala.

So don’t fret. Can’t buy a ticket to attend or afford the plane flight out? Grab your favorite internet-browsing device, get onto ACB Radio, and tune in to the gala on October 28. I’ll be there and I promise to make an appearance on the radio. But I warn you, I might ask you to donate to NBP because it is the cool thing to do. After all, who doesn’t want a little more braille in their life?

By Lisamaria Martinez

What We Discovered In Bringing Picture Books to Life for Blind Kids

It started as a pretty straightforward concept: blind and visually impaired kids miss out on critical information that is conveyed through pictures in children’s storybooks. Many times, the illustrations in children’s books supplement the text and enhance the story, both in entertainment value and through additional information that helps move the story forward.

After observing a group of sighted kids laughing uproariously when shown the pictures as they were read the Dr. Seuss classic, Hop on Pop, a simple rhyming book, I knew that blind kids were also missing out on a lot of fun.

How could we make the act of reading children’s picture books more interesting for blind kids and spark a love of reading that would last a lifetime? This was the question that some NBP staffers, headed by former publisher, Diane Croft, asked after hearing Matt Kaplowitz of Bridge Multimedia, show parents how to describe pictures to their visually impaired child to make storybooks come alive.

Amazing Grace.png

How would you describe this picture? Check out the picture descriptions on our website: http://www.nbp.org/ic/nbp/programs/gep/grace/grace-picdesc.html

That was the beginning of the Great Expectations: Bringing Picture Books to Life for Blind Kids program. Not only does the program help parents and teachers tell the “whole story” by providing picture descriptions for each Great Expectations book selection, but NBP and a cadre of dedicated volunteers went even further. Now, the program takes a multi-sensory approach to literacy — songs, tactile play, body movement, engaged listening, as well as picture descriptions — all designed to promote active reading experiences for children with visual impairments and featured on our website, www.nbp.org.

This program has been well received by sighted parents and teachers but what we didn’t expect was how many blind parents absolutely love this program. The picture descriptions provide blind parents with information that was previously unavailable to them. Now when reading to their child from one of NBP’s print/braille GE books, they can engage in a dialogue with their child using information from the pictures that is rich with learning opportunities. They can also share in the laughter with their kids when pictures are silly or whimsical.

As a result of this discovery, the Great Expectations program tries to incorporate more elements that blind parents will also find useful. We welcome feedback from all parents — blind and sighted — on how to keep this program lively and informative.

By Kimberley Ballard

Follow the Great Expectations program on Facebook:
https://www.facebook.com/GreatExpectationsProgram/

 

 

Introducing the Braille Caliper at NFB

I visited the NFB National Convention 2016 in Orlando representing Squirrel Devices and the Tactile Caliper at the National Braille Press booth. It was the first time I visited a full scale convention on Assistive Technology and Rehabilitation. I have been to smaller, regional conventions in the United States and India, however, the size and scale of this convention set it apart from my previous experiences.

As an inventor of the Tactile Caliper, my primary objective was to meet and interact with users of the caliper. I stood around NBP’s exhibit and saw visitors specially seeking NBP’s table to buy books, jewelry, and the caliper! I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to several students and parents who had used the caliper earlier, or were looking forward to using the ones they had just bought.

caliper

 

New users are always surprised to find a braille display on the caliper. Their faces light up with the joy of refreshable braille on a device this simple and affordable. More familiar users continue to praise the device for its quality, simplicity, and usefulness. Users have invented several new applications of the caliper beyond drawing and geometry. Some use it along a triple beam balance to accurately measure weights. Others use it to teach new pupils numbers and fractions. One thing we have realized at Squirrel Devices is that the caliper has helped students not only learn and practice geometry, but also to appreciate and access braille itself. It has helped students have fun while they perform better in all STEM subjects.

Inventing the caliper and bringing it into the hands of users has been an exhilarating experience for me, and the convention was a high point in this unique journey. At Squirrel Devices, we continue to influence the future of STEM education through our devices and instruments. I look forward to more conventions like NFB in the future. They are the best opportunities for inventors and users to meet and learn from each other.

By Pranay Jain