Canute: Using Braille to make ‘Kindles for blind people’

By Kitty Knowles 10 October 2016

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.

National Braille Week

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.

Bringing back Braille

There are a few reasons why Braille has fallen out of favour, Bristol Braille founder Ed Rogers told The Memo.

One of the main ones is that text-to-speech software has become a cheap, portable way to access information, while hard copy Braille and digitally refreshable Braille remains expensive.

Braille is simply unaffordable for many blind people and, as a result, it is also much less common in schools.

But it would be a crime to let Braille disappear, says Rogers.

Some people say that Braille makes information easier to retain, while having the skill also correlates with higher employment rates.

“Braille supports the development of literacy skills, [it’s] about the pleasure and power of reading, rather than being read to.”

What is Canute?

Canute is the world’s first low-cost Braille reader capable of translating multiple lines of information – all current displays are limited to a single line.

Uniquely, its nine lines of Braille allow blind users to access bullet pointed lists, mathematical formulae, musical notation, calendars and spreadsheets.

It’s been developed over a period of four years in co-operation with a community of Braille readers and professionals called the Braillists, alongside transcribers, the Watershed, Braille libraries, the Bristol Royal Infirmary and New College Worcester.

“I was initially inspired by the mechanical challenge,” says Rogers of making the device.

“Since then I have been motivated by the enthusiasm of Braille users I speak to, whom I don’t wish to let down.”

A Kindle for the blind

Many sighted people will already know the joy of being able to carry lightweight e-reader around with them, and the appeal of Canute is a similar one.

You load up books via USB and these can then be displayed on the physical pinboard. You can also navigate around and between books using a series of buttons.

The current Canute prototype is about 14in square and 2.5in thick, but Rogers hopes to make it even smaller and lighter.

“Canute will eventually be battery powered and more portable,” he says.

“Like a Kindle for blind people.”

Getting Canute into the world

Canute is for anyone: that includes blind adults and children, and people who are going blind and wish to learn Braille pre-emptively.

Rogers wants to see it rolled out in schools and in public places where information is displayed and updated – such as libraries, theatres, bus and train stations.

The device is actually already being trialled by students at New College Worcester and Child Vision schools and is nearly ready to be taken to market.

Rogers says it will cost £600 – a stark contrast to other displays, many of which cost over £1,700.

The Canute is an Open Source design, so developers can extend its functionality to different needs and requirements.

“We intend to play our part in reversing the decline in Braille literacy,” says Rogers.

“We hope Canute can put blind readers in control of their own technology, because it is Open Source, because they designed it, and because they can afford it.”

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