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.
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.