A lot has happened since we first covered the Canute multi-line braille reader in 2015. Ed Rogers, Founder and Managing Director of Bristol Braille Technology and Dave Williams, the Chair of the Braillists community speaks with J.J. about the imminent release of the now 360-cell, 9-line braille display, targeted for release this year, and some of the advantages of a multi-line unit including math equations, tables, and musical scores.
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Transcribed by Grecia Ramirez
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Now, here’s J.J. Meddaugh
J.J. MEDDAUGH: Welcome to Blind Bargains’ coverage, CSUN 2018, live from the Blind Bargains suite.
And we are here to give a very exciting update on one of the most talked about braille displays, this one being the Canute, the full-page braille display. Well, Ed Rogers of Bristol Braille and Dave Williams from the Braillist are back to tell us the latest about the Canute and perhaps, how we can get one soon.
Guys, welcome back to the podcast.
ED ROGERS: Thank you very much.
DAVE WILLIAMS: It’s good to be here.
JM: Did I get the titles right? You guys have nice, long titles and names and things.
ER: Yeah. I’m from – so I’m Ed. I’m from Bristol Braille.; I’m the managing director.
DW: And I’m Dave Williams, the chair of the Braillist’s community, and I also work as an assistive technology trainer and consultant.
JM: Well, there you go. Now, you have the names and the voices. And welcome back.
Let’s go to – talk about a little bit of the history of the Canute, Ed, and perhaps how this whole thing got started for those who might not be as familiar.
ER: Right. So we’ve brought the final prototype with us today of the Canute 360—
ER: -- which is a 360-cell braille E-reader. So that’s 40 cells wide, 9 lines long. It takes BRF files as input, and it reads through them as – like a Kindle.
We’ve been developing this for almost six years now. This is the 13th prototype.
ER: The one that we showed you in 2016, when we last came to the Blind Bargains suite at CSUN, was the Mark 8, so there’s been a huge amount of progress since then. And this one is one that we’re about to start a pilot program for before we go on general sale, hopefully, later in the year.
JM: So, I guess, why don’t we just start out – we have it sitting in front of me. The last one wasn’t terribly functioning. It was kind of a demo. And this one is functioning and has menus and everything.
ER: Yeah. The –
DW: Should I give you a tour?
JM: Yeah. Sure.
DW: Okay. So on the top face of the unit, we have the nine braille lines, so 40 cells on each line, as Ed said.
DW: And then, down the –
JM: And I would say, those are spaced one and a half, maybe, spacing, would you say, in between?
DW: Yeah. They’re slightly wider than standard braille line spacing –
DW: -- which may have benefits in early-years education or when learning braille and also –
DW: -- helps with, you know, developing those important tracking skills –
DW: -- which you need when you’re learning to read braille.
They’re six-dot braille cells.
DW: Most of the published braille in the world is six-dot braille. You tend to only need eight-dot braille when you’re working with a computer directly.
DW: Canute is designed as a standalone braille E-reader, so you load your book onto there -- and the content can be about any subject. It can be in any six-dot braille code. You literally just load a braille file into the Canute, and then it’s displayed on this 360-cell display.
To the left of the braille lines -- each has an arrow pointing toward it, and those are the selection buttons. And they run, 1 to 9, down the left-hand side.
JM: So you have the numbers, and then to the right of each number is a square – yeah. An arrow.
DW: It’s a triangle.
JM: A right – yeah. That’s a triangle.
DW: And then at the top, we’ve got a circular button. That’s the "Help” button, context-sensitive help.
JM: It says H in braille. Yeah.
DW: Yeah. Wherever you are in the Canute, you press the circular button, the top left-hand corner, and you’ll get context-sensitive help about what you can do next.
And at the bottom of the column of numbers, we also have a 0 button as well. So if you needed to enter a numeric value in, like a page number or something –
DW: -- then you could do that, because you now have all ten –
JM: All ten.
DW: -- digits.
Below the braille display, at the front edge of Canute, we have three buttons, and they are labeled in braille, so you’ll be able to feel those, J.
JM: Okay. So we have "Back" on the left and then “Menu” and then “forward”.
DW: That’s right. So they’re pretty self-explanatory. So the "Back" and “Forward" buttons will move by page, a full page of braille. And then the central button takes you away to the menu, where you can navigate around the book or you can access the library. A lot of –
JM: And there’s –
DW: The library is where we are right now.
JM: And they’re essentially kind of thumb keys, the keys themselves. The buttons face forward at you, the labels being on the top. And then they’re horizontal.
DW: That's right. So –
JM: Yeah. Which is long – they’re big buttons.
DW: When you finish – when you get toward the bottom of the page – so imagine you’re reading as you would read hard-copy braille, and your right hand is moving toward the end of the bottom line. Your thumb should fall naturally on to the forward button, which should take you to the next page.
JM: Well, how about we not imagine it. Let’s actually –
DW: Absolutely. Yeah.
JM: -- read something.
DW: So we’re in the library. We need to use one of our selection buttons to choose one of the books that are listed. So these are examples that – sample content that we’ve loaded. And they are kind of skewed toward showing the best of formatted braille. So, really, to highlight the benefits of having multi-line braille, because many of us are familiar with single-line braille displays –
DW: -- and what braille looks like on there, but obviously, when you’re reading from a single-line braille display, you don’t have that sense of formatting. So we’ve chosen examples that really, kind of, show off that capability.
JM: Population Data Calendar –
DW: That sort of thing.
JM: -- Mozart – that’s some braille music
DW: Braille music. Absolutely.
JM: Oh. Awesome.
DW: Yeah. Yeah. So –
JM: Pascal Triangle.
DW: Pascal’s Triangle, which is a mathematical thing. So you choose one, J. Let us know which one you –
JM: Well, we’ll do the – let’s do the calendar first because that’s a simple one that people might be familiar with how a calendar –
JM: So this is a 5. So I assume I press this 5 here?
DW: That’s right. Yeah. You press the –
JM: And what’s the – we’ll let people hear this. It’s going line by line. Is it top to bottom or –
DW: It is. It starts refreshing on the first line, then it refreshes the second, the third, the fourth, and so on, but you can start reading straight away. You don’t have to wait for the –
JM: Sure. While it’s doing it.
DW: -- to refresh.
JM: So there you go. The top row. This makes perfect sense. March 2018, and then, the usual – anyone who’s used a date picker has seen this, but in a much more crude form on a webpage.
DW: When you’re reading a calendar – I don’t know about you, J, but when I read a calendar in braille, it only ever makes sense to me on paper.
DW: Because on a single-line braille display, like you said, you have a picker, maybe, sometimes, where you choose your day or your month or your year. But you don’t really see the grid of the calendar in the way that a sighted person sees the grid of the calendar. So, for example, you could look for all the Thursdays in March and see what dates –
DW: -- they fall on.
JM: Easily. 1, 8, 15, 22. I’m just reading down. 29.
DW: Exactly. Exactly. You can read down. So you can also -- as well as reading horizontally, you can read vertically.
JM: Which makes a lot of sense for a lot of the examples you have here, like the math problems and other things like that. Let’s see if we can pull up – so I hit 9 for library or –
DW: So you could hit the number, 9. It’ll take you back to the library.
JM: I’m assuming I’m going to have to wait for this whole screen to –
DW: No. You can start reading straight away.
JM: If I see one that I want that --
ER: Yeah. Or if you remember the position it’s on, you can press the button before it shows up.
JM: What’s a cricket table? That’s dealing with the sport?
DW: So this is sports statistics. So –
JM: Oh, cool. I’m not going to understand the cricket, but I might understand the braille.
DW: Well, right. So let’s do that. And I’ll talk you through it. Are you a sports fan, J?
JM: Of course.
ER: We – Dave, specifically, chose cricket for the American audience.
JM: Of course. But I did read baseball cards when I was a young kid. I could see a little bit on a CCTV. So this layout looks a lot like a box score of sorts.
DW: So I was thinking about originally, perhaps showing the English Premier League, because I know soccer has gotten more popular in the U.S. in recent years. But there are 20 teams in the Premier League. And then I remembered that actually, in the County Cricket League, Division 1, there are eight teams, which is perfect for the Canute.
JM: Ha. We have more here.
DW: So we have them all here. So this was the end of the season standings from 2017. So if you read across the top, you’ll find that you’ve got, “Team.”
DW: Then you’ve got, "Games Played."
DW: And then, "Won, Lost, Drawn.”
DW: Then the next column is, "Bowling Average." We’re missing an O-W sign, which I think is my transcription. I’m not a transcriber. And then, we’ve got, “bat,” which is batting average. And then, the final column is "Points." And that is – the points is the things that they’re all, sort of, ranked by.
JM: So we’ve got one, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight –
JM: Down – down. Nine, really with the numbers over there on the left.
DW: Yeah. So if I said to you, for example, how many games did Yorkshire win --
JM: Let me go down to Yorkshire.
DW: -- last season?
JM: Win: 4.
DW: There you go.
JM: And that’s how quickly you can do that.
DW: Imagine trying to do that on a single-line display.
JM: Exactly. You can’t. I mean, you can, but it would take a long, long time. And this is where it absolutely makes sense.
So, I guess, this brings up a little bit – so right now, the input is a BRF file, or can you hook this up to a computer? Is that –
DW: So initially, the plan is that Canute will read BRF, braille-formatted files, or Pf, which are portable embosser-formatted files.
DW: That was a new one on me. I wasn’t familiar with PF, but --
ER: It’s more of a European format.
JM: I can’t say I’ve ever heard of that either.
DW: And then – so -- yeah. But BRF is the main format. And if you feel the left-hand face of the machine, J, you’ll notice there is an SD card slot –
DW: -- about two thirds of the way toward you.
JM: Full-sized SD.
DW: That’s right. Yeah. So you can plug in a full-sized SD card. And if you have micro SD cards, of course, you can –
JM: Of course. Yup.
DW: -- get one of those handy little adapters, you know, that will read from a micro SD card.
DW: Then we’ve also got a USB port, into which we’ve got a little USB drive at the moment. Please don’t pull that out.
DW: And so that is the main way, right now, that you read books on Canute. Now, I think eventually, one of the projects that we are hoping to, kind of, you know, get going, is the --
ER: Especially while we’re here at CSUN.
– is the idea of using Canute a bit like an embosser. Because it is like an embosser in many ways, in that it shows multiple lines of braille. So we can imagine a scenario where you might have formatted a file in Duxbury, for example. And then you just hit the key to emboss it, and it just sends it straight to your Canute.
JM: Well, plus, maybe you want to see it before, you know – I don’t know about you, but when I’ve done braille embossing before, I always have to print out a copy first to see where I messed up. And then, I’d waste a whole bunch of paper.
ER: We have had a lot of interest from very different braille printing houses and transcribers saying, we want to be able to hook this up to something like Duxbury or just to be able to test things so we don’t have to go through reames of paper.
JM: That’s really good. I mean, even still, you know, perhaps if it’s down the road, like, say in windows, having a very simple way to transfer, you know, pages to a Canute that – say, create a simple program that says, hey – you know?
ER: I mean, for example, you’ve got – APH have already produced something called Send to Braille –
ER: -- which you could then -- if you plugged this into the computer – this particular prototype, we haven’t got that on it yet, but it’s got a USB printer port on it, essentially. So you plug it in, and then it would act either as an embosser or as a USB stick on one of those lines. And then you send to braille, and it would just send it to the Canute, essentially. Something similar to the way that you use Send to Braille.
DW: Now, people who know me obviously remember me from my Dolphin days and work with screen readers.
JM: Yes. Right.
DW: And that is an area – screen reading is an area that we’re often asked about. Will this work with my screen reader? And, of course, it’ll work with your screen reader in the sense that if you’re using braille transcription software, you can, of course, produce formatted braille. But what people really want to happen is, if I’m in Excel, for example, is there a way I could see the cells around where I am?
JM: Which would be awesome.
DW: That’s something that we agree -- it would be awesome. And we are searching for talented NVDA add-on developers, or even JAWS scriptors, who can maybe help produce something rudimentary to show that as a proof of concept. I think longer-term, we perhaps need to talk more deeply with the screen reader developers about architecture, because screen readers are fundamentally designed to deliver a linear stream, you know, out to your speech synthesizer or to your braille display. They don’t really take into account the, you know, the two-dimensional nature of your screen and the physical layout of your screen, in terms of being able to present that to you, so –
DW: -- that is a conversation that we are having, and we are keen for people to engage with us on that subject.
JM: You know, but embosser is the perfect comparison, because I, you know, partly because of the current speed of this and partly because of the way it’s designed, you’re probably not going to use it to be going through menus on your Windows computer or doing simple things like that. We’re at the point when you have, say, the Kindle app up, and you want to start reading a book, that’s where this makes a lot of sense; right?
ER: Exactly. Yes. We really want to see this as something which is not a replacement for your single-line displays. This is an entirely new device which gives new opportunities for using digital braille.
JM: Let’s talk about some of the dimensions. What would you say -- physical dimensions and the weight?
ER: It’s approximately 14 inches, left to right. So most of that is made up of the actual display itself.
ER: -- plus about an inch and a half margin. It’s 7 inches, front to back. It’s just under an inch and a half high. So it’s kind of like a hard-back print book or a stack of braille; slightly -- only 7 inches in that sense. It weighs somewhere in the region of about six pounds, I think.
JM: Yeah. That’s what I’d call semi-portable. You’re probably not putting it in your backpack, but you could easily bring it around if you needed to.
ER: Oh. You can definitely put it in your backpack.
JM: Yup. Okay.
ER: That’s easy. It’s – you wouldn’t necessarily swing it from one hand whilst walking down the corridor, but you could put it in your backpack and walk down the corridor.
ER: I mean, that’s what we’ve been doing.
JM: Okay. So you just have it, like, in a bigger backpack or whatever and –
ER: It fits in a normal laptop bag. So it fits in a normal 14-inch laptop bag.
DW: Canute is really designed as a tabletop device for reading braille. It doesn’t replace your small, form-factor, you know, 14-cell or 20-cell braille display you might use with your phone or whatever. It’s a different-use case, I think. Some of the applications where Canute is potentially very interesting –
JM: Which is why I pressed the menu button just now.
DW: Yeah. Take us back to the list of examples.
So laying out a title page of a book, or learning about how to correctly format an address or a heading or centered text, all of which make much less sense on a single-line display.
JM: Math problems.
DW: Yeah. So then we move into math problems, learning about place value. You know, units, tens, hundreds, and doing things like vertical addition. You could also show simultaneous equations on there. And you could also show figures like the Pascal's Triangle. So that’s one of the examples on there.
Pascal’s Triangle is an array of numbers arranged in a triangle, where each value in that array is the sum of the two values that are immediately above it. So I guess you’re loading that now, J?
DW: Okay. And we’ve gone for Nemeth with this example.
JM: It looks like it has to wait for the library -- no. No. Here it goes.
ER: It starts loading from the top.
JM: No. Here it goes. Now it’s --
DW: It’s loading from the top.
JM: Oh. Here we go. So we have -- yup. 1; 1, 1; 1, 2, 1; 1, 3, 3, 1. These are all in a triangle.
DW: That’s right. So if you pick a number somewhere in the middle of the triangle, that number is just – any number.
JM: 10. Here’s a 10.
DW: You’ve got a 10. Right. So if you feel above the 10, the 10 is the sum of the two values –
JM: 6, 4.
DW: 6 and 4. Okay? Gives you the 10. Now, these numbers are used by mathematicians in probability. They’re also used in binomial expansions. And mathematicians – you know, proper mathematicians aren’t enthusiastic amateurs like myself.
ER: Or unenthusiastic amateurs like me.
DW: Yeah. – will be able to better explain the role of pascal’s triangle. But it is, you know, a recognized array that you do study when you’re learning mathematics. And, of course, showing something like that arrangement, you can feel it’s a nice, big triangle.
JM: But it’s not a single-line display.
DW: Yeah. Exactly.
JM: How would you do this?
DW: The only way you could really do that at the moment is on hard copy.
JM: Right. And, of course, the cost of an embosser versus -- well, even the cost of this. You’re looking at cheaper than an embosser; right?
ER: We are. Yeah. We’ve yet to finalize the price of this.
JM: Of course. Of course.
ER: And obviously, it’s going to be sold into America by distributors, but we’re looking at around about a thousand pounds sterling wholesale at the moment. We can’t confirm exactly what that’s going to be.
JM: Right. And –
ER: -- but that’s –
JM: And wholesale will be a little lower than the retail, or a bunch lower, probably, you know. So just to clarify, you know --
ER: But this is still going to cost significantly less for a 360-cell display than any 32- or 40-cell single-line display.
JM: And that’s what’s really cool about it. It’s so cool to actually finally see this to the point where it’s going to be – well, are you doing a pilot program now?
ER: We are. So this – the one you’re trying now is one of the Canute mark 13’s, which is the pilot program prototype. We’ve brought another one with us here, which is on the table in its box with – we’re going to build a total of ten of those, and we’ve got a pilot program in the UK, in America, and in Canada with partners like the CNIB, the NFB, and the American printing house. And we’re going to be running a pilot for a few months, trialing these things, finding out what needs to be changed, what the software needs to be doing. And then, when that pilot is concluded, we’re going to full production. We’ll be ready for market.
JM: Any idea of a date for that, or does that depend on the pilot?
ER: It does depend on the pilot, but we certainly expect it to be this year. So assuming everything goes well with the pilot program, then please do get in contact with us if you’re interested in this.
JM: So I’m sure people might have some ideas. I’m sure – a device like this, people are going to come up with new spatial representations that you didn’t think of or I didn’t think of or anybody else didn’t think of.
DW: So Bristol Braille Technology is a community-interest company. And so far, you know, it’s been funded by grants and people donating their time and expertise. Now, it also means – a community-interest company – I guess there will be a model similar in the U.S.: I’m not sure what that is. But basically, it means that if there are any profits in the future, they have to be reinvested in projects to benefit the community. And this has always been about community. So it’s been –
DW: -- developed very openly with blind people in the UK, with people enthusiastic about braille. We are invited to test each prototype as it comes along. I’ve never signed an NDA for this, for example. The software is on GitHub, so you could go and get involved in that. And as you said, J, people who have the skills, we would love them to become involved and help develop those applications that really exploit the benefits of multi-line braille.
JM: And there’s probably multiple parts of that. Even if, maybe, you’re not as capable of a programmer, but you can specialize what things might look like on a 40 by 9 grid, that’s certainly useful as well.
ER: Uh-huh. Very useful. And also people who maybe aren’t – who haven’t been using braille that much recently – we’ve had quite a lot of people who say, this is encouraging them to get back involved in it. And it’s a more affordable entry point than many existing things.
JM: And this is – yeah. I would love – this is the year that a lot of these talked-about braille ideas have really come into fruition. It’s really cool to see this. And they’re exciting.
If people have questions or comments or want to throw you ideas or lots of money, how should they contact you?
ER: Well, we’ve got – it’s best to contact us through our Email address, which is enquiries, with an E -- firstname.lastname@example.org.
JM: Let’s spell that, just to be sure.
ER: So that’s Bristol, B-r-i-s-t-o-l; braille, B-r-a-i-l-l-e; dot co, dot UK.
Also, you can, if you’re really enthusiastic, we’d love to speak to you by the Braillist foundation as Dave mentioned at the start. The braillists are our local testing group, who help us also test lots of other equipment, and they promote braille generally. So if you’re interested in the braillists, then the web site for the braillists is braillists.org So that’s Braillists, plural, dot org.
JM: You still doing your podcast, Dave?
DW: I am indeed. Yeah. Yeah. We’ve done half a dozen braillecasts now. I’m hoping to add to that this week at CSUN. So if people are interested in a podcast that is about braille, first and foremost, then by all means, come along to braillecast.com, and we certainly welcome your feedback.
JM: Thanks, guys. Definitely very excited to see this, and it’s so great to see the progress. Thank you.
ER: Thanks, JJ.
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J.J. Meddaugh is an experienced technology writer and computer enthusiast. He is a graduate of Western Michigan University with a major in telecommunications management and a minor in business. When not writing for Blind Bargains, he enjoys travel, playing the keyboard, and meeting new people.