World's first multi-line braille e-reader for blind people wins coveted AbilityNet Tech4Good Accessibility Award

Canute multi line braille e-reader

Reading an adventure story with your child is perhaps one of the foremost pleasures of parenting. Dave Williams loves it when his eight year old son turns a page in his latest Harry Potter and asks him to do the Hagrid voice.

Without sight since his own childhood, Williams waits patiently for the relevant line to load on his single line braille reader before he can continue the story. The timing of the adventure can be lost and it can be frustrating to not be able to read a whole page at a time. 

The dad is the sort of person for whom inventor Ed Rogers has created the world's first refreshable multi-line braille e-reader, the Canute.

the Canute slim wooden box

The device means a person using braille doesn't have to wait for each line of a story or page to load one-by-one, and so offers mums and dads with sight loss a modern method for reading the bedtime tale; cooks a great way to read a recipe, and mathematicians an easier method for grasping a formula; some things just make more sense when presented on multiple lines, rather than on a single line.

Last month Rogers picked up the coveted Accessibility prize at the AbilityNet Tech4Good awards, supported by BT, for his invention. His wooden box e-reader is beautifully old fashioned with more than a thousand cogs and connectors. The invention which measures 14inch by 8inch by 2inch and weighs just under 3KG, works by a user uploading text via a USB or SD card from a phone or computer, which the machine then turns into the raised dots to make up the braille language. 

But, despite its old-skoolness, it still seems to be the only piece of kit around which produces a whole page of braille at a time - forty characters per line by nine lines; a sort of kindle for blind people. Plenty have attempted something similar but there appears to be nothing on the market as yet. He aims to price it at the £650 mark - around the same as a new iPhone or the single line Perkins braille reader.

Save the Braille

Williams is a member of a group called The Braillists who’ve worked with Rogers, founder of non-profit Bristol Braille Technology (BBT), to offer constructive feedback on the Canute for much of the six years BBT has been working on it.

The dad and assistive tech expert wasn't always a fan of braille though. “I lost interest in braille after school,” Williams admits. “I felt it made me stand out and feel separate from others. It’s only since I’ve started working and had a family I really see its value. It means I can do speeches and presentations easily at work and of course, I can read with my son.

Braille technology has been in stagnation since the 1970s, and few paper books, including school text books, make it to braille; braille literacy is in decline, which text-to-speech technology filling some of the gaps.

Advances in text-to-speech do have their uses, but they do not substitute the joy, skill and beauty of reading, Williams says. “Braille enables you to find own voice, a speech synthesiser is someone else’s interpretation. When you read yourself, you process in a very different way, you find the voices in the Harry Potter stories.”

Rogers' latest prototype, which he hopes to finally get on to the market by next spring, is the smallest and most adept yet; at about the size of a small computer. “It’s more accurate and quicker than previous versions (which haven't gone to market), according to Williams."

The Holy Braille?

The inventor knew no blind people when he started the project and himself is sighted. He was an animation student who simply found the technological challenge of producing a multi-line braille e-reader both fascinating and socially essential. “This is a labour of love. Braille literacy is very important, I don’t want it to be lost,” he says.

On winning the award, he adds: "It came just after an extraordinarily long stretch of work to finish the Canute Mk13 prototype (latest version) in time for a convention in the States. We certainly weren't expecting to win but we're very grateful for the recognition after so many
years' work."