The blind truth


Some time ago I was invited to an annual day ceremony to a blind school in Madurai, where my father was one of several guests of honour from State Bank of India. The bank had contributed to the institution, enabling it to buy a braille printer. What’s interesting is that this printer was, if I recollect correctly, from Switzerland. A massive machine, with a price tag to match.

This got me thinking. We really haven’t redefined the way we look at braille. While technology has definitely advanced in the printing field, it is still too expensive for the common man. In the day and age of the Kindle, we do not have a working equivalent for the visually challenged. This is definitely an opportunity if such a device can be constructed with a small price tag.

Braille is all about tactile sensation that you get from running your fingers over embossed paper. The problem with Braille books is that they are not only much more expensive compared to their standard print edition, they also don’t last that long. Think about it. Every read involves someone tracing their fingers across each line of text. Even though books are printed on thick (high GSM) papers, the more it is read the more the embossing degrades. A device that has a tactile screen that can be refreshed like an E-reader will definitely solve this. Perhaps keeping the cost low can be achieve by using ball bearings and electro-magnets in a grid like pattern. Reversing polarity so that the ball bearing rises us through the grid matrices as it is repelled by magnetic forces. It’s a thought, though isolating the magnetic currents and controlling the grid will definitely one of several challenges to build such a device.

The other thought of approaching the problem would be to somehow create a braille printing ink cartridge. Some kind of polymer glue perhaps that could print out the dots from a normal compatible inkjet printer. This would be an ideal distribution model and the perfect opportunity for a printing company like Canon, HP, Brother or Fuji to jump onto from a CSR initiative and marketing angle. This is also looking at the Braille problem from a new perspective. Layering on the dots instead of indenting / embossing them.

I’ve been pondering on this for a while now, till by chance I stumbled upon something quite spectacular. A young Indian boy has built a low cost braille printer using Lego technic and mindstorm bricks and powered it with an Intel processor. You’ve got to hand it to this kid. He’s made a dent in the world and possible solution to the problem. Is it viable in India? Maybe not considering that the average Indian couldn’t quite afford the cost of Lego blocks. Nevertheless, this is the right spirit and approach and we hope that the kid’s business venture of building a low cost braille printer becomes a reality.