July 27, 2018

Reprogrammable Braille offers tremendous potential to blind and visually impaired readers


A chart of Russian braille, which is beautiful.

We have, over the years, had ample cause to ridicule a good number of faddish “book technologies,” each of which was certain to “change the nature of reading, at scale” or “revolutionize the index of discoverability” or something. These ideas are usually a) stupid, and b) clearly flailing attempts to attract witless venture capital. Poo on them.

But not-poo on this new and actually, truly, possibly revolutionary new piece of technology that may fundamentally change the nature of reading for the blind and visually impaired.

As Jon Fingas reports at Engadget, researchers at Harvard University have published a paper demonstrating—in their parlance—“a framework to encode memory, in the form of Braille-like dimples and bumps, onto a blank, lattice-free material.” The technique (which is a little hard to visualize, if we’re being honest) could, in principle, be used to store and display braille messages on almost any medium, from thick paper to ultra-thin sheets of graphene.

As L. Mahadevan, Professor of Applied Mathematics at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard, told Leah Burrows for a Paulson press release, “Simple experiments … show that we can control the number, location, and the temporal order of these dimples which can be written and erased at will … This paper is a first step in showing that we can store memories [in braille]. The next step is to ask if we can actually compute with them.”

Current braille translations are extremely bulky objects. As Burrows mentions in the release, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, originally weighing in at a svelte 1,225 pages, spans twenty-one volumes of interpoint braille. Theoretically, hyper-thin programmable braille sheets could one day be used to shrink that down to a handful of papers.

While “refreshable braille readers” are currently available, granting blind and visually impaired readers limited access to digital resources like the internet, they’re expensive, and not particularly portable. Similarly, attempts at braille e-books have been largely kept from the market, hampered by complicated and expensive designs. If Mahadevan and his team are able to carry their research forward, it would be a major accomplishment on behalf of a large portion of the reading public that is far too often ignored.



Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.