Bristol Braille Technology is one of 10 Inventor Prize finalists, with their product Canute 360. Here, their head of publicity, Liam Smyth, tells us more about why their product is so important and their experience of the Inventor Prize so far.
Ed Rogers, Founder, Bristol Braille Technology
What is the inspiration for your product, and how do you think it will help people across the UK?
For the 18,000 adults in the UK who read Braille, the tactile alphabet - developed in 19th century France by Louis Braille - can offer the key to literacy, employment and independence. The code, which is comprised of six raised dots, can represent music, maths and scientific notation alongside literature. Braille allows blind individuals to access information on the same terms as their sighted peers.
Unfortunately, technologies for people who choose to access their information in Braille have not kept pace with those for sighted people. While sighted people might now take reading a PDF or an e-book on a mobile phone or tablet for granted, electronic Braille displays currently on the market can only display a single line of text, of between 12 and 40 characters. While the price of these displays has come down significantly in recent years (20 cell displays are now available for less than a thousand pounds), they cannot display information with context. A good example for a sighted reader would be to imagine trying to read a novel or a bank statement through a calculator screen.
Canute 360 from Bristol Braille Technology is the world’s first multi-line Braille e-reader. By using a completely unique mechanism to electronically actuate the Braille (which admittedly draws as much influence from old-fashioned clockwork technology as an Amazon Kindle™) we have been able to design and build a truly affordable nine-line electronic Braille reader. While existing electronic Braille displays can show one line of text, we have nine lines, each of forty characters. This means we can display information with context intact: for the first time a maths problem, a bank statement or even the premier league table can be shown electronically in Braille with correct formatting, for a price comparable to a high-end smartphone or mid-range laptop.
This is especially important in an education setting. Research tells us that blind people who read Braille are more likely to be employed than those who do not, but paper Braille is bulky, and only the most popular works are transcribed. Only 8 per cent of STEM A-level textbooks, for example, are currently available in Braille format. This can represent a significant barrier to access for blind and visually impaired students.
Why did you apply for the Inventor Prize?
Applying for the Nesta inventor prize has allowed us access to mentors and professional contacts who have been able to support Bristol Braille Technology through our final prototyping stages of development. This mentorship has proved an enormous help to the company, with the support offered by Barclays Eagle Labs team being particularly useful. Applying for the prize has also provided invaluable opportunities to network with other individuals and organisations who are applying technological solutions to complex social problems. This, even more than the headline prize funding, is the value of initiatives such as the Nesta inventor prize: bringing together inventors, business people and experts to collaborate and share ideas, insights and expertise.
This is an exciting time for Bristol Braille Technology. Alongside our participation in the inventor prize, we are currently running our final pre-production testing period before we enter full production later this year. We currently have Canute 360 prototype units with three organisations in North America, conducting detailed testing with real-world users. Feedback from these tests is influencing on-going design changes to ensure Canute is the best product we can produce.
What are you most looking forward to about the Inventor Prize?
We are looking forward to continuing our partnerships with NESTA and the team at Barclays Eagle Labs to produce the world’s first multi-line Braille e-reader, for a genuinely affordable price.
Braille can offer the key to literacy, employment and independence, and at Bristol Braille Technology we are committed to developing radically affordable technologies with the potential to dramatically increase access to Braille for blind people.
Liam Smyth, Head of Publicity, Bristol Braille Technology