The Touch of Genius Prize: Recognizing Braille Innovation

By Hannah Ransom Canning, Executive Assistant

When I first started in September 2016, I received a full breakdown of tasks that I would be fulfilling in my new position as Executive Assistant to the President. One of these tasks was taking on the role of the Program Administrator of the Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation. It seemed a little intimidating that I would be managing all of the coordination for submitters and calls and meetings for our Adjudication Committee.

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However, having now worked with the team to bring this competition to its fruition, I couldn’t imagine a more understanding and helpful group of people who are dedicated to fulfilling the meaning behind this prize. The Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize was developed to inspire innovators to support tactile literacy. After putting out a call for applications, we received 18 submissions from around the world that displayed their best efforts and ideas to continue supporting braille or other tactile literacy innovations. After careful deliberation, the Adjudication Committee decided our winner was John Hudelson, for his submission of BELLA. BELLA is the Braille Early Learning and Literacy Arcade, a programmable, educational software and hardware gaming platform using audio, visual, and tactile feedback to teach pre-braille skills, braille reading, and braille writing. By inserting a card with a barcode on it programmed for one of the four games or story option, you can interact with the device to use BELLA in a variety of teaching methods. The games KeyCrush, Whack-A-Dot. Cell Spotter, and Alphabet Cards are used to teach the chords of the braille alphabet, finger dexterity, and letter association between letters, braille cells, phenomes, and words by following prompts on the brailed barcode cards. The committee tested all of these features and were impressed by BELLA’s responsiveness and ability to program different cards for some of the games.

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The committee also selected Mandy Lau’s Reach and Match Learning Kit and Inclusive Learning Program for an honorable mention. This kit and its accompanying curriculum is designed for children with vision impairment as well as those with multiple needs to develop braille literacy and communication & social skills through tactile strategies and play-based activities. The kit contains mats that are differentiated in a variety of ways. On one side, they have a color: red, blue, green, or yellow, with a corresponding raised-line pattern. On the opposite side, there is a large brailled and large print block and an indented line to follow this “Braille Trail” to learn the braille alphabet. The Reach and Match Kit’s curriculum includes many programs to help preschool and kindergarten teachers.

From this competition, I have discovered how many creative individuals there are who are researching and developing new ideas. The submissions we received showed much promise and ingenuity, and the committee encouraged many of the submitters to improve their designs and consider submitting an application next year. Administering the Touch of Genius Prize gave me the opportunity to get my feet wet in the world of braille literacy, and I am looking forward to learning even more.

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

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.

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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

How a Braille Software Company Was Born

By Anne Ronco

It was July 4, 1975, and I was doing what most kids do: eating hamburgers and swimming in a friend’s pool. In another room, Bob Gildea, Anne Simpson, and my father, Joe Sullivan were signing papers that would establish a new braille software company called Duxbury Systems.

My father had become infatuated with braille while working with Bob Gildea on a project at MITRE. He wanted to make braille easier to produce and he felt he could succeed.

Early news story photos of Duxbury Systems

Top: Reid Gerhart and Joe Sullivan examine a proof printout. Bottom: Vito Proscia, MIT, and Robert Gildea check the product of the Braille embosser

I think back to the enormous risk he took. With six children, he left a good-paying job to pursue an idea that had never been attempted. The start was rocky. Without a steady source of income, our family had to watch every penny. Even though a braille system cost tens of thousands of dollars back then, only one or two would be sold each year. I remember each customer had our home phone number, in case of problems. One Thanksgiving my father was on the phone for three hours with an overseas customer who was unaware that it was an American holiday. And dad traveled often, which left mom alone with six kids.

But my folks were resourceful. Right after the company was founded, we packed up a trailer and all of us headed off to the NFB and ACB conferences.

We camped in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, and finally reached St. Tammany, Louisiana, outside of New Orleans where the first conference was held. 1970's camping pictureThe drinking water smelled of sulphur, it was 104 degrees and HUMID, tiny mosquitoes could fly right through the screen, and my brother, Peter, got a horrible case of poison sumac. Despite it all, we still remember those trips fondly.

As we got older, my siblings and I started to get interested in learning the business. I entered addresses into a database and learned how to generate a mass mailing. I think I was the only kid in high school who could use a word processor. Peter taught himself programming. Some of it was less useful. When we got our first talking terminal, Peter and I spent hours trying to trick it to say naughty words.

But the most important thing was that my father did succeed. Despite the odds, the company is thriving 40 years later. With the help of many others, the Duxbury Braille Translator now produces braille in more than 130 languages.

That isn’t the only success. My father has passed on his love of braille to us, his family, and to many thousands of others around the world. Nice going, Dad.

 

In loving memory of

Robert (Bob) Gildea

1924-2015

 

Apple Keeps Us Moving Forward

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. You would cry, too.

After spending a year plus editing Larry Lewis’s book iOS Success: Making the iPad Accessible,multi color apple store it had a pregnant shelf life of exactly nine months. That’s because Apple pushed out a new baby shortly thereafter. And did I mention NBP edited, transcribed, proofed, pressed, and designed Larry’s book in seven different formats?

And now it’s happening again. After spending ten months with the remarkable Janet Ingber on her new book, Learn to Use the Mac with VoiceOver: A Step-by-Step Guide for Blind Users, an email arrived in my inbox: Will Janet be updating her Mac book this fall when Yosemite is released?

I didn’t reply. Instead, I went out and bought myself an oversized, anti-viral, ultra soft, aloe-soaked box of Kleenex and had myself a cry party. And then… sniff…

I got a tweet from that rascal Jonathan Mosen that he was already working on version 8 of his book, iOS 7 Without the Eye, which we transcribed last year. I stopped mid-sniffle and dashed off an email: Johnny, same deal as last time? You bet, came the reply. And then the incomparable Anna Dresner phoned: Will we want her to update Getting Started with the iPhone? Yes, please.

Not a word of complaint from Larry or Janet or Jonathan or Anna.apple new products Our indomitable authors (and consumers) are already moving on. It’s the way things are. Our authors, who are also consumers, have been “in the game” since 1984, when NBP published “A Beginner’s Guide to Personal Computers for the Blind and Visually Impaired.” I haven’t calculated how many technology books have shipped out since then, but I do know we’ve sold 11,844 iOS books alone.

James Baldwin said, “People can cry much easier than they can change.” It appears some do; others move on.