Image credit: APH/Humanware
For many people around the world, braille is their primary language for reading books and articles, and digital braille readers are an important part of that. The latest and smartest yet is the Monarch, a multifunction device that uses startup Dot’s tactile screen technology.
The Monarch is a collaboration between HumanWare and American Printing House for the Blind. APH is an advocacy, education and development organization focused on the needs of visually impaired people, and this won’t be their first Braille device – but it’s definitely the most suitable.
Called the Dynamic Tactile Device until it received its royal designation at the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference taking place this week in Anaheim. I’ve been waiting for this device for a few months, after learning about it from APH’s Greg Stilson when I interviewed him for Sight Tech Global.
The device began development as a way to adapt the new Braille stylus (ie the raised dots that make up its letters) mechanism created by Dot, a startup I covered last year. Updateable braille displays have been around for many years, but they have been plagued by high cost, low durability and slow refresh rates. Dot’s new mechanism enabled closely spaced, individually replaceable, easily and quickly inflated pins at a reasonable price.
APH partnered with HumanWare to adopt this new technology for a large-scale braille reader and writer, codenamed Dynamic Tactile Device and now known as Monarch.
These days, one of the biggest problems in the braille reading community is the length and complexity of the publication process. A new book, especially a long textbook, can take weeks or months after being published for sighted readers before it is available in Braille—if it is available at all. And of course, once it’s printed, it’s many times the size or the original because braille has a lower information density than regular type.
“To achieve the digital delivery of textbook files, we have collaborated with over 30 international organizations and the DAISY Consortium to create a new electronic braille standard, called eBRF,” an APH representative explained in an email. “This will provide Monarch users with additional functionality, including the ability to jump page to page (with page numbers matching the printed book pages), and the ability to tactile graphics directly into the book file so that the text and graphics can be displayed seamlessly on the page.”
The graphics capability is a serious leap forward. Many previous braille readers were only one or two lines, so the Monarch, with 10 lines of 32 cells each, allows the device to be read more like a person would a printed (or rather embossed) braille page. And because the grid of pins is continuous, it can also — as Dot’s reference device showed — display simple graphics.
Of course the fidelity is limited, but being able to pull up a visualization on demand of a graph, an animal, or especially in early learning, a letter or number shape is huge.
Now you can look at the Monarch and think, “wow, that thing is big!” And that’s quite a big one – but tools for people with visual impairments need to be used and navigated without the benefit of sight, and in this case also by people of many ages, abilities and needs. If you think of it more as a rugged laptop than an e-reader, the size makes a lot more sense.
There are a few other devices out there with continuous pins (a reader pointed out Graphiti), but it’s as much about the formats and software as it is about the hardware, so let’s hope everyone gets on board with this big step forward in accessibility .