On Rachel and Reading

1 Jun

Long-time readers of the comic may remember that I’ve been working on the Rachel Peng series for years. I’ve got giant files full of scraps of notes and stray paragraphs, and each time I found a new news item that could fit in her world, I’d open these files and slide that tidbit into its appropriate place.

Maker Space closed with Rachel coming to terms with her blindness. The next book in the series has her relearning how to read. She’s one of those people who has a stack of favorite books, and she can pick one at random, flip to any page, and plunge herself into a familiar world. In that respect, she’s probably like every one of you reading this. Now, imagine if that was taken away from you. All of those worlds you loved? Gone. Rachel can still read, but it takes her a lot of effort: ever since she woke up and found her eyes no longer worked, the only way she can visit these favorite worlds of hers is on brief business trips.

Semi-tangent: Audiobooks are often held up as a viable substitute for reading for persons with visual impairment, or just used as a substitute for reading in general. They aren’t. Listening to a book is passive. You are an audience to a performance. Reading a book makes you an active participant in a world that is only partially described, and you fill in the rest with your own ideas. What did the birds sound like the first time you entered the Shire, what did the sewers smell like under Derry… A good audiobook gives us some limited opportunity to fill in these blanks, but the rises and falls within characters and plot? Those are carried along with the performer, and tend to dominate the experience.*

It’s been my intention that Rachel will relearn to read with her fingers instead of her eyes. A few years ago, Yanko Design went into my plot note files. This is a South Korean company that’s been working on innovative technologies to translate printed text into Braille. They’ve developed a portable Braille tablet, as well as some other (ridiculously cool) product concepts. Fast-forward to this week, when I’m working on the part of the new novel where Rachel is relearning how to read, and I decide to revisit Yanko Design to fact-check their progress on these products.

As far as I can tell, none of them have gone into production. This seems kind of messed up to me, so I started looking around and found that no low-cost portable Braille e-readers exist.

what the actual

For me, this is an opportunity. It’s a handwave where smart people do things with wires and poof! Rachel has her magic device:

“The Braille e-reader was slightly thicker than a tablet, its back and edges sealed in some sort of silicone to make it waterproof. Calling it a first-generation device would have been generous: the thing was so far removed from the production line that it might as well have come from the technological equivalent of a farmer’s market. The silicone was lumpy, the metal shell beneath covered in deep scratches where a Dremel tool had kicked sideways, but the reader’s face was as smooth as glass. Mako and Santino had made it for her, and it had quickly become one of her favorite things in the world.”

In real life, tho’…

Guys, this is truly messed up. I’m going to do a little more searching to check if there’s a different barrier besides “the economics don’t make it worthwhile.” Maybe the prototypes worked for about three days and then caught fire, I don’t know. I do know that we are at a time and a place in our civilization in which these types of products should exist.

*Not bagging on audiobooks, by the way. We got the recording and editing of Digital Divide all wrapped up just this past Friday. Just saying that listening to a book is a different experience than reading it.


9 Responses to “On Rachel and Reading”

  1. bogo_lode June 1, 2014 at 7:44 pm #

    Some comments (following on from twitter).

    Most braille electronic devices use electro-mechanical mechanisms right now, so physically large and relatively heavy devices. (Part of why most of them are designed to provide a line of text or a word’s worth of text and then refresh, as opposed to a full page, although there have been concepts and production devices designed to display a full page, just prohibitively expensive). Reasons for using those designs are the low requirements for battery usage, the low wear and tear on parts, and durability. http://resna.org/conference/proceedings/2009/TechnologyCognitiveSensory/Matheson.html mentions the cost of the piezo-electric “dots” at $25 per dot. 6 possible dots per character, and it adds up.

    There are several existing patents and prototypes for rotating wheel based braille readers that would provide a cheaper way to make a line based device and more continuous reading experience, but commercializing them has been slow and hasn’t really happened yet, and possibly will not happen because there isn’t sufficient market to drive a company into creating and marketing a new device rather than iterating upon prior designs.

    http://spie.org/x37076.xml?ArticleID=x37076 runs down some of the limitations on electro-active polymer setups. One of the major problems is that most of the EAP options require relatively large amounts of battery power, and wear out relatively quickly. There are also durability concerns from the friction of reading the bumps.

    Yanko Design’s stuff is all concept. Nothing was ever physically made to actually do the job, it was just mockups to show what a product *might* look like and work like. http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-27243376 mentions Pera Technology, who created an actual prototype (or prototypes) using wax to do it.

    Given that out of the legally blind population in the USA, most statistical estimates are that approximately 3 to 5% of the USA legally blind/visually impaired can actually read braille and actually *do* read braille, and further narrowed by people either already having a device or being unable to afford a device, it’s a pretty small audience to target for. Throwing in medical device/prosthesis regulations, and there are some high barriers to bringing a device to market.

    Between the economies of scale not really kicking in at the levels of manufacture these days, and the technological limitations of current EAP based designs, it’s likely that there are several technological hurdles in the form of better EAP materials/design, and better battery qualities required to create an e-ink style braille display.

    • KBSpangler June 1, 2014 at 8:11 pm #

      Thanks for posting this! It explains a lot.

  2. Milan June 2, 2014 at 1:21 am #

    Back in the 1970’s this technology showed promise http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optacon
    by displaying text scanned by a camera as an array of vibrating pins under the user’s finger.
    It was claimed that less training was needed than learning Braille, with higher reading speed. Unfortunately, the needed technology really wasn’t there, prices were too high and reliability too low, and the company folded.

    Given that the cellphone folks are contemplating tactile displays (e.g. dynamically raising bumps between virtual keyboard keys) one could imagine a picture-to-tactile-image app….

  3. Dane June 6, 2014 at 4:29 am #

    Not to be contrary, but I can’t help but wonder— if she can interface with & get useful info from video cameras, why can’t she use her phone’s camera as a reading device? Point it at the page, read the scanned text….

    • KBSpangler June 6, 2014 at 11:36 am #

      There are TONS of tricks she can use if she needs to read! But when Rachel is looking to read for pleasure, she doesn’t want anything between her and her book.

  4. Nuclear Glow June 6, 2014 at 6:32 am #

    Hmm, tech has moved on, but the principal challenge for ANY new developer is getting enough funding for patent trolls. The American way seems to be to let a small developer comes up with a bright idea, work hard to get it ready for market and then take their (often life’s) work away when starts showing signs of making a profit. I have seen similar with the OpenDyslexia font where the developer had to work hard to fight off those who were making a lot of profit.

    On the plus side, however, there are now communities of electronics designers who could maybe come up with a new idea. There is, for instance, a new watch for the blind (at least I think it’s in production) which is so well designed and stylish that it’s become somewhat of a hit with seeing people too. I think I saw it on the BBC website. It may be worth pushing this need into a University as a project and see what falls out, as Unis generally also have the resources to avoid patent trolling,

    Just some off the cuff thinking 🙂

  5. Miscel July 10, 2014 at 1:57 am #

    Well it’s too audio for Rachel but MIT’s FingerReader (not in production yet) could help the vision impairied read forms and stuff. I wouldn’t trust it as a replacement for audio books though.

  6. Uncle Sumer November 3, 2014 at 9:28 pm #

    I’m sure there ARE a few other ways to virtually stimulate / simulate the tactile sensations of raised-dot braille — be it a pulsed transdermal laser tickling the nerve-endings, or some low-erg frequency-modulated acoustic variant thereof . . . i’ll have to browse my prodigious & OCD collection of R&D web-“bookmarks”, for any specifics to contribute here, yet — but, meanwhile, might i suggest that any invention-interested readers scan the IEEE site/s, for more cutting-edge paradigm-fuel vapour-wares … ?

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