Blindly Reading

Audio books

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If reading is to be for everyone, there really should be no barriers for anyone to be able to pick up and enjoy the knowledge and creativity a book has to offer. That may not always be in the conventional way we imagine but still the opportunity should be there and the process needs to be made as easy and enjoyable as possible. Sometimes however this may seem like an impossible task, particularly for those that are blind.

One of my grandparents was registered partially sighted and she was a regular member of the RNIB’s Talking Book Service. Having partially lost her eyesight later in life this provided the ideal solution for her to continue her enjoyment of stories. So without fail every night she would go to bed and put on her headphones to listen to the latest crime or romance novel she had picked. Having already developed a passion for reading when she was younger, for her it was more about finding new ways to continue doing the things she had loved doing before her visual impairment. Reading was one such thing she strived to maintain as a normal part of her everyday life but imagine you are a child who has never been able to see? How can reading be a natural part of your life now?

Braille is a system which has been around for nearly two centuries and is still widely used as a means for individuals who are visually impaired to read and write through touch. It was invented in 1819 by Louis Braille in France and whilst it was highly innovative in its time and continues to make many lives much easier, in today’s technological world it has proved slow and limiting for its users. It is like learning a foreign language with three levels of coding so it takes skilled tuition and time to learn which may not be readily available. Due to its complexity it is usually learnt at a later age than children traditionally learn to read in many countries which can result in a delayed education. The user also always requires some sort of output device to convert the digital or printed text into Braille. A screen reader is a software application designed to do exactly this for digital text by linking it to a Braille printer that embosses the Braille translation onto thick (heavyweight) paper. However Braille printers are currently expensive to buy and maintain so tend not to be purchased for general use in schools or at home. How many libraries or schools do you know with a large selection (if any) of Braille books? The time and money required for such a project would be impractical.

Well perhaps this could all be set to change? Recently a 13 year old boy called Shubham Banerjee from California developed a prototype for a low cost Braille printer out of Lego and has attracted the interest of the company Intel who plans to assist with bringing it into production. If this was to be made compatible with a screen reader for example this could potentially become a realistically affordable option for general use.

To date, despite some developments, Braille as an alternative reading strategy has struggled to keep up with the speed at which technology is advancing and the new set of challenges this constantly creates. For example children with sight loss have largely been unable to play apps, search the web or read some books without additional help. However in recent years 3D printing (one of my great fascinations) looks primed to enable more people to reap the benefits of independent reading. It has often come up in the news or been featured in well known TV dramas like Grey’s Anatomy that 3D printing has enabled human organs to be replicated and used to save lives but maybe a lesser known advancement is how 3D printing is aiding those with sight loss to read traditionally printed books and search the web.

So what new options are there? The FingerReader, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a 3D printed device shaped like a ring which reads printed text aloud to individuals with sight loss. It is placed on the user’s finger whilst the small attached camera scans and reads the words out loud as the user follows the text with their finger. This development could dramatically increase the choice of books available to those with sight loss as it would enable them to pick up and read any book rather than being limited to the ones converted to audio tapes or Braille. So what about children’s picture books? Trying to recreate what is visually missing perhaps is a little trickier.

Tom Yeh directed a project at the University of Colorado which converts printed picture books into 3D printed pages so children can feel the raised illustrations for an enhanced story experience. There are other tactile books on the market but they are currently time consuming and expensive to make unlike these 3D printed pages. The video in the link above also shows Braille being used in conjunction with some of the 3D printed pages yet for the most part they still require someone else to be present to read the story aloud and any large scale production could pose storage issues for many schools and libraries.

So this just leaves the internet. Which devices out there can make the web a viable reading tool for those with sight loss?

Currently a refreshable Braille display device is able to assist with reading from a computer. Rows of metal or plastic pins move up and down to display in Braille the characters that appear on the screen. It also has the ability to change as the user moves the curser around the screen although the user still requires assistance in finding the information and the device cannot translate or explain digital images.

The Hands on Search however is a half computer, half 3D printer hybrid device created by a Japanese Creative Agency Hakuhodu Kettle in collaboration with Yahoo. This can search Yahoo for the requested image through voice activation then prints out a tiny 3D version of the result. Whilst I can see the enormous potential in this I still think it has many obstacles to climb before it is of any practical use. However like all great inventions it has to start somewhere and we desperately need technology in this area to catch up and cease relying on a near 200 year old method. 3D printing has certainly opened many more doors for those with sight loss so does it hold the answers? What do you think?

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