Sunday, October 23, 2016

#Reading Ramblings: Canute: Using #Braille To Make ‘Kindles’ For #Blind People

Extract of an interesting article that was brought to my attention a couple of weeks ago:

Canute is tackling the decline in Braille literacy - and everyone should care.

Being able to read is one of the most precious of skills: Books free the imagination and inspire creativity – they allow people to learn independently, and relax after a hard day.

But not everyone has that luxury.

This week is National Braille Week: a week dedicated to the raised dots that allow blind people to read letters, numbers, punctuation and words.

But Braille is on the decline.

In the ’60s up to 50% of blind school children in the US were able to read Braille, but this figure is now closer to 10%.

Today one company hopes to turn this around, with a device that’s fit for the digital age.

Get ready to meet Canute.

Read the full article here.

"National Braille Week" is obviously long since over, but I didn't want to interrupt all the "Battlefield 1066" stuff with this post. Plus, it was either over or almost so by the time I knew of this article anyway, so... *Shrugs*

Anyway, I expect some of you at least will be interested in my thoughts?

I think I heard something about this a little while ago, so it's nice to see evidence that there's progress on it, and that it's now being tested in schools and things. It really would be a shame if the number of braille users declined even more, and it's great to see efforts are being made to stop that happening. Modern technology is often a wonderful thing, but I think it's sad that most people aren't being taught how to do things without technology these days, and those still in school right now would be lost without their computers and things.

So, my thoughts on the device itself...

On the one hand, I think this is great, and look forward to when they make one a bit smaller, so it actually is portable, and I can maybe get one. Yes, I can read braille, as those who have been following my blog for some time know already. It would be great to be able to read a book without it announcing to the world what I'm reading, or the need for headphones. Also, see my comments above about not wanting the number of braille readers to decline further.

On the other hand, I hate that they consider the £600 price tag to be cheap and affordable, because that is not cheap, and is not easily affordable by most people. I mean, sure, it's cheap when compared to a lot of the devices, which come in at £1000 and above, but that's still a lot of money. I hope, when they bring out the more portable one, they also manage to do something to lower the cost a bit, otherwise it's going to be out of the price range of many. I get it being more expensive than your average Kindle, but since most Kindles are a third of that price, often cheaper again, you'd think they could knock the price tag down a bit. Especially if their aim is to encourage people to buy this option rather than relying on text to speach software (which, by the way, isn't always cheap... Just saying). Yeah, I know, I get it, it costs a lot of money to make things like this. Blah, blah, blah. I've heard that argument before, and I'll give you the same response I give whenever I hear it: they'd make their money back far easier selling several at lower prices that most people can actually afford, rather than struggling to sell more than a hanfful because most people can't afford to buy them. I mean, there's several pieces of technology I'd just love to own, but just can't afford, which is a problem plenty of others have too, and I wish they'd consider that before insisting £600 price tags are cheap.

Beyond that, the main thing I'm wondering is... Will this work for any books? Or will it be like text to speach is on my actual Kindle, where it doesn't work with some books? I think it's meant to be the former, which would be great, but if it's the latter, will something be done to make sure "text to braille" becomes more readily available on books in the future?


Jeanie said...

Isn't that the good thing about the internet? The article is there -- this week or next or the one after! I agree on the price -- it's really a shame that things like this are so very expensive and probably not covered by any kind of insurance. Still, wonderful that this device is there and sounding a little more manageable. And yes, curious about if it will work with all books.

Victoria Zigler said...

Yes, it's great that the information is usually there no matter how long after it's posted you go to read it. Of course, sometimes things are taken down or moved, but for the most part I could come back to an article I linked to several years back and find it right where it was.

If you're in school and it's something that will help you for educational purposes, or if it's something essential for your job, your school or the company you work for will cover it. However, for someone like me who is considered self-employed, or for someone who doesn't work at all for whatever reason, there is little to no availability of help for even essential tools, and those who decide if you qualify for what there is will make use of any loophole they can to avoid giving it.

Intense Guy said...

Being someone that likes to hold and read an actual paper book, I can readily understand why you want more access to braille materials.

Hugs. Hopefully the future will provide it.

Victoria Zigler said...

We can but hope!

Ed Rogers said...

Hi Victoria

I'm Ed from Bristol Braille, the team making the Canute. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about the Canute.

# Regarding the books it can read;

The Canute on-board software is entirely Open Sourced here:

Its not locked down to content from any specific provider and we won't be supplying content. No DRM or proprietary formats.

The Canute can natively read any PEF and BRF files. We specifically chose 40 cells wide so any formatted-for-embossing BRF file would show without having to wrap the lines. We specifically chose 9 lines (=360 cells) so that files intended for Braille paper 25 or 27 lines long would split into just three pages. Splitting pages in two would be better, but 14 lines (=560 cells) was too much of a stretch for our resources. Eventually it would be good to offer a 40x27 = 1,080 cells model, but that would certainly not be portable!

By the way, by 'we' I mean the Braillists community, not Bristol Braille. More about them below.

In effect it is a portable Braille library for existing Braille files or ones the user has created them self (using RoboBraille, Duxbury &c) and others from libraries like Bookshare.

We could put automatic transcription on the Canute itself, making it accept Word, PDF, EPUB, HTML &c. For now we are electing not to as we don't have the manpower to develop or support that. We are developing a plug-in to the free Calibre e-book software that automates conversion to PEF, but users are free to use any free or commercial alternative to produce the files.

Because its Open Source though, if enough people want to add it, they don't need to wait for Bristol Braille to add it. Canute testers can already reflash with their own new version of the software. Those who don't have access to a Canute prototype can run the accessible emulator on their own PC:

So yes, while non-BRF and non-PEF files will need to be transcribed on a PC first (for the time being), the Canute will work with any text file.


Ed Rogers said...

... Continued

# Regarding the price;

I agree with your view on the Canute's intended price. I will explain why it what it is, and hope you can appreciate that we are not at all ignorant of or uninterested in the ramifications of the intended price.

The fundamental point is that we have a duty to make the Canute available at the lowest possible price, due to commitments made to our community of supporters, various grant makers who have paid for the Canute to be developed, and because our mission, making Braille as affordable as possible, requires it.

The Canute mechanism allows the price of Braille cells to fall from around £40 per cell to around £2. But it is still a very complex machine. There are a thousand mving parts, for example. At the moment we have received very limited financial backing and so are restricted in our ability to prototype the hell out of the design and mass produce thousands of units at a time, the two things that would allow the price to drop by another one or two hundred pounds.

It is obviously infuriating for you or any Braille reader to be told that its not possible for the price to drop because of vague design reasons. Its the kind of thing that has made the community justifiably skeptical about all hyperbolic Braille projects, promising the world and disappearing a few years later without demonstrating much at all.

That's why we hold regular show and tell meetings with a group called the Braillists ( in Bristol, Reading and (twice) in Dublin. There is a new group soon to be set up in Worcester. In these meetings, which anyone is welcome to attend, we explain exactly where the Canute project is at, all the trials and tribulations. We also explain how the mechanism works in great detail. Those who can't attend (which is the majority, as there are 255 members, many not in the UK or Ireland) can discuss the Canute with us online (

It was thrashed out over many such meetings that the initial price of the Canute should attempt to match the retail price of the Perkins Brailler. This was just about within the limits of what Bristol Braille thought it could manage. This was decided upon after discussions about the complexity of the technology, the realities of potential user's purchasing capabilities, and the best immediate use cases for the Canute.

As we lacked (and still lack) the resources to create more than one initial model we asked them to choose the use case for us. Schools, colleges and parents came out top. The Perkins price was significant because of another decision made by the Braillists, that Bristol braille should target the Canute initially at the educational market, where Perkins are more often afforded than not.

This is how the Canute's development works (its a long read):

Neither Bristol Braille nor the Braillists groups will be sated with the initial Canute model's design or price. We want to create smaller, far cheaper and more even more featureful designs in the future. Personally I would like to make a display for under US$300 / £200, even if it isn't 360 cells. One day!

We hope that one of the most important symbolic changes the Canute will bring will be to prove that, if a tiny under-funded not for profit outfit operating out of a Hackspace in Bristol, backed by a self-organising group of two hundred odd enthusiasts, can make 360 cell refreshable Braille for half the price of 40 cell refreshable Braille sold by profit making companies who have been in the industry for decades, then anything is possible!

By the way, I'd love to be able to demonstrate the Canute Mk10 to you and some of your readers some time. If you're interested please do come join us on the forums (, where demos are arranged, or sign up to the Braillists newsletter, where demos are announced (



Victoria Zigler said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment and share the information. I'm glad to hear that will be the case when it comes to accessability of books. At least that means those who manage to save up the money for one will have plenty of available reading material.

Now if the price tag could be lower, I'd be all set...

Victoria Zigler said...

Sorry... I was replying to your first comment while you were writing your second.

I do understand your reasons for the price being so high, and appreciate the fact it's expensive to create the technology. I still wish it wasn't the case though. Please don't take offence at my complaints over the price tag. I complain about the cost of my screen reader all the time, but it doesn't stop me saving up to buy the updates as often as I can.

Victoria Zigler said...

Oh, and by the way, I'd love to see how it works, but I can't travel far these days, so it would have to be a demo done very close to where I live for me to have any chance of making it. It's a shame, because if there's anyone who would be able to give the device a good test run it's me... I read a lot.