BrailleBox with the Raspberry Pi

Reading, whether online or from the page of a book is a simple affair for those endowed with the power of sight. However, for those who are sightless, or have lost their eyesight, totally or partially, reading can be cumbersome, if not impossible. The Braille system, by allowing a changeover to the sense of touch, helps sight-impaired people to read.

Braille uses a system of raised dots that blind or those with low vision can follow with their fingertips. It is not a separate language, but rather a code for representing individual alphabets of a language. So far, the Braille system covers several languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, English, and dozens of others. Thousands of people all over the world use the Braille system of dots in their native language, providing a means of literacy for all.

The main code for reading materials in the US is the Unified English Braille, and seven other English-speaking countries use this code.

As such, Braille is useful when the material is in printed form. However, the challenge lies in reading online material. Although text-to-speech software packages are available, they are expensive and not very useful when the reader, say, wants to move back and forth while reading.

As a solution to the above problem, Joe Birch has built BrailleBox, a simple device to convert online news stories to Braille. His BrailleBox works with Android Things, News API, and the popular single board computer, the Raspberry Pi 3 or RBPi3.

Being a symbol system for people with visual impairment, the Braille system consists of letters and numbers as raised points in an array. Commercial systems are available and they produce Braille dynamically, but they are very expensive and out of reach of most people. Therefore, Joe built a low-cost alternative, the BrailleBox, which is simple to create.

Joe uses the News API as a tool that fetches jSON metadata from more than 70 news sources online. The API can integrate articles or headlines into text-based applications and websites.

The Braille system uses an array of six dots arranged in an array of three rows and two columns. Apart from representing the alphabets and numbers with various combinations of the six dots, they also represent whole words, sometimes in contraction. For instance, contracted braille includes 75 short form words and 180 different letter contractions. These help to reduce the volume of paper necessary for reproducing books in Braille.

To make the six dots for forming the Braille symbols, Joe attached wooden balls atop solenoids. He arranged the solenoids in an array of 2×3, and wired them individually to GPIO pins of an RBPi3.

Being an Android engineer, Joe controls the solenoids through Android Things, running on the RBPi3 as self-booting BrailleBox software. The reader has to push a button, which makes the program fetch a news story using the News API. As the RBPi3 deciphers the alphabets, it operates the solenoids, moving the dots.

Joe’s project is still in prototype stage, and he is yet to move all hardware inside a proper box. He also wants to add a potentiometer, preferably foot operated, so the readers can set their own reading speed.