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Building a MultiLine Braille Display

Thomas Simpson
June 7, 2024

I was talking with someone the other day and explained to him that we were building a new multiline braille display. “Why now?”, he asked with a bit of skepticism and curiosity. I can’t blame him for the question. Many attempts have failed and there are already a number of multiline and tactile tablet options available.  We all probably remember when Blitab was going to release a multiline tablet display for $500. They made a big splash at CES back in 2017 and then seemingly disappeared. Like many new devices it never made it to the market. 

There’s the Canute with 360 cells. There is the Graphiti with a tactile array and the Orbit Slate with your choice of 3 lines or 5 lines. Next is the Dot Pad. There is the Monarch which is a partnership between Dot for the Braille, HumanWare for software, NFB for the voice of the customer, and APH as the leader of the group. 

The team behind the Monarch in particular gets the most attention. APH and HumanWare tour around the United States, attending shows, holding Monarch trainings, presenting the latest developments, and so on. The Monarch even has an article in TechCrunch. APH has spent a significant amount of time and effort into making the Monarch. They have the partnerships, the experience, the money, the resources. They have it all. 

I get it. The Monarch is “transformational” according to APH, but it’s also curious that Monarch is also used to refer to a King. Maybe the question “why now” was also a question of “why at all” considering the King has been crowned, and previous attempts by other companies have failed or had limited success. 

To answer “why now”, you need to go back about 10 years ago, to around 2013. That was when Alex Russomanno, one of our co-founders and now CEO, began his PhD work in the field of microfluidics at University of Michigan. Alongside was Brent Gillespie, a professor at Michigan’s School of Engineering, and Sile O’Modhrain, an associate professor, an expert in human-computer interaction, and a braille user herself. The work that began back in 2013 became known as the “Holy Braille Project”. Brent and Sile are both with NewHaptics today. 

A quick aside - yes, APH also calls the Monarch the “Holy Braille'' but we used it much earlier so we are going to keep using it. 

Over the past 10 years Alex and his team have been advancing the use of microfluidics specifically for use with braille. Progress on this cutting edge technology has been made over the years which leads us to today. So the answer to “why now” is that it just happens to be the time that our technology is ready to be used in real-world commercially available braille displays.

The next question, “why at all”, is more complicated. The basic reasons why to build a multiline braille display are shared among all of the companies trying to pull it off. A full page display provides a better, richer reading experience. A tactile graphics display provides graphics in a method more efficient than embossers, although the quality of the tactile graphics are unlikely to compare against what is possible with an embosser. Every company and person shares a certain number of reasons to build a multiline display, but there are some significant differences. 

Over the years I have been given many wonderful opportunities to work with braille embossers and braille displays, and I’ve found that people want tools to make things easier or to make things possible. It is a very simple concept.

If the concept is so simple, then why does it seem that nobody is building a multiline braille display that works great with a computer and screen reader? People are already using these tools at work, at school, and at home, so why not make it easier and more intuitive? These are the questions that led me to join NewHaptics, and what drives our growing team to build a multiline braille display..

At NewHaptics, we want to meet you where you are. We want to give you the tools to make the hard things easy. We want to make the impossible things possible.