Wearable Braille Typing Devices

Gary Bartos
13 min readMay 23, 2024

(Future Solutions, Proposal 2)

Would you be interested in developing technology that would benefit blind people who know Braille?

Tap Strap 2 wearables available from https://www.tapwithus.com/product/tap-strap-2/

Early in the pandemic I created a prototype for wearable Braille typing. At the time we called “EchoBraille.” We used off-the-shelf wearable devices and custom code to allow for one-handed or two-handed Braille typing.

In the midst of development we found out that Josh Miele had developed a wearable Braille typing device some years prior. He’d even won an award for it! However, Miele’s device wasn’t commercialized.

The pandemic made in-person testing and testing impractical for EchoBraille. Development looked risky as well, given the likely hardware cost, the required sales price, and the resources necessary for proper testing. We paused development on EchoBraille and pivoted to making an iPhone app instead.

But something like EchoBraille should exist. Many thousands of people could benefit. Some people might get a lot of use out of wearable Braille typing.

Blind and DeafBlind people who know Braille could benefit from a wearable Braille typing device that leaves their hands free. The solution I propose could be useful for Brailling on the go, in classrooms, and in other situations where existing Braille typing devices are impractical.

I’ll present the proposal first, then Miele’s WearaBraille, and then provide information about standard Braille typing devices.

Proposal

A wearable Braille typing device would cost $100 or $200 in hardware for the user, depending on whether one or two hands are used for Braille typing. Rather than sell a solution for three times the hardware cost, and thus cover the cost of development of a for-profit venture, I recommend creating open source software and providing instructions for the user to buy the hardware directly from Tap, the manufacturer.

Perhaps a deal could be reached with Tap to provide devices at a reduced price for blind users.

Problem

Existing Braille technology isn’t suitable for all uses. Braille typewriters are bulky and/or expensive. Special purpose Braille typing devices held in the hands are expensive. Typing Braille on a phone can work well for short messages, but you have to hold your phone in both hands.

When someone is sitting on a bus, sitting in class, or traveling light, it’d be handy to type Braille without having to pull out an expensive device.

What if the user could type one-handed or two-handed while walking?

Solution

Type Braille using wearables on the fingers or wrists. Any surface can be used for typing, including a desk, a table, or even one’s leg. We know a leg works!

Support two-handed or “unimanual” (one-handed) typing. People with one hand occupied, and people with limited mobility in one hand, may want to type with one hand. One-handed typing requires the purchase of just one device — that’s half the cost of a two-handed solution.

The EchoBraille prototype used custom software and Tap Strap 2 devices:

The Tap XR device fits on the wrist, leaving the fingers free. Although I haven’t tried it, I’d suggest learning more about the TapXR and considering that the target platform.

The custom software to support Braille typing might allow either the Tap Strap 2 or the TapXR.

Tap developed a proprietary typing scheme for one-handed typing. The Tap typing method takes practice, and it can take up to a month to learn to type 30 words per minute.

Someone who already knows Braille could learn wearable Braille typing in as little as 3 minutes, and gain reasonable proficiency in about 30 minutes.

Difficulties

Custom software is required to handle simultaneous or near-simultaneous taps from an arbitrary number of fingers.

The Tap Strap 2 is intended for one-handed use, but Tap has an API that allows customization. I wrote custom software to handle input from one or two devices, and to allow “hot synching” to switch between one-handed and two-handed mode on the fly.

To allow typing at good speed, custom software handling the input from the wearable devices must do the following:

  • treat fingers tap inputs received at nearly the same time as the “chorded” typing input for a single character (e.g. ring and index fingers of the left hand along with the middle finger of the right hand)
  • distinguish between successive tapping events so that one Braille character is distinguished from the next (e.g. C then A then T for “CAT”)
  • (optional) announce typed characters or typed words aloud, announcing quickly enough not to slow down typing
  • allow for backspace (delete), new line, and space
  • allow either two-handed or unimanual typing
  • (optional) provide autocorrect that takes into account the nature of Braille typos, which is different from autocorrect for QWERTY keyboard typos

Proper handling of input timing gets a bit tricky. Input is provided wirelessly via Bluetooth. Most consumer computers such as Windows laptops and iPhones can’t guarantee real-time performance. But careful programming can get around these limitations.

Proof of Concept

We had a working proof of concept in late 2020. By taking precautions we were able to conduct a few in-person tests. We even mailed a pair of Tap Straps to a tester in another part of the country; that tester completed all tests and provided good feedback.

Testers were provided instructions to set up the Tap Straps and install the EchoBraille software on a Windows laptop. The software guided the user through exercises to first practice typing individual characters, and then words and sentences in Braille.

To keep the test simple, we implemented only Grade 1 Braille, not Grade 2 (contracted) Braille.
https://a2i.co.uk/blog/what-is-ueb-braille-and-what-is-grade-1-and-grade-2-braille/

We proved that Braille typing with off-the-shelf wearables worked well enough to be promising.

Prototype

Since my days creating products for industrial automation, I’ve classified development of new products into four stages of development:

  1. proof of concept
  2. prototype (or alpha), which is more refined
  3. beta
  4. 1.0 release

Developing a wearable Braille device in 2024 or later could require recreating the proof of concept, but with the aim of making it more robust.

Braille Swipe Typing?

Smart phones allow you to run your finger across a touch screen representation of a QWERTY keyboard to spell words. Typing with one finger!

Could the same idea be applied to wearable Braille typing? Maybe, but likely only after standard Braille typing using wearable devices is proven to work.

Is There a Market for Wearable Braille Typing?

Maybe.

A well-respected seller of assistive technology products told me that it’s hard to sell products that cost more $100.

About 170,000 Braille Readers in the U.S.

The percentage of blind people is about 0.5% (1 in 200). You’ll find statistics specific to age groups, and there are larger number of people who are visually impaired but not blind. We’ll assume Braille readers are blind.

One oft-cited estimated is that about 10% of blind people read Braille.
https://www.afb.org/blog/entry/how-many-braille-readers

If 0.5% of people are legally blind, and if 10% of the legally blind are Braille readers, then about 0.05% of people in the U.S. would be Braille readers. That’s 1 in 2000.

With a U.S. population of about 340 million people, we can estimate there are about 170,000 Braille readers in the U.S.

170,000 people is the maximum number of people who could use a wearable Braille device. Not everyone who reads Braille also writes Braille. Not all 170,000 people will ever hear about wearable Braille typing. And of those who hear about it, likely only a small fraction would consider spending money on it, or even using a wearable Braille typing device if it were given away for free.

Let’s continue looking at the numbers.

25,000 Braille Readers Could be Reached in the U.S.

Over time, you might reach 10% or possibly 20% of Braille Readers via advertising or word of mouth. Blind folks are scattered across the country, and there are few advertising channels to reach them. Many Braille readers may not be bothered to pay attention to advertising. Let’s estimate that 15% of Braille readers could be reached.

25,000 people is 15% reached of 170,000 Braille readers.

Perhaps 2,500 People Would Buy

Of the Braille readers reached by advertising and word of mouth, only a fraction — perhaps 10%? — would ever spend $100 or more to buy a wearable Braille typing device, take the time to learn the device, and use that device regularly.

If the hardware costs $100, and if you charge $300 for the hardware + software in the hope of covering the cost of development, operations, and support, then your gross would be

$200 net income per unit sold ($300 price — $100 hardware)

$500,000 net income for 2,500 units

And if it takes five years to sell that many, then your average income would be

$100,000 net income per year

Out of that $100k per year you’d need to pay yourself, cover business expenses, taxes, and so on. And then at some point you’d saturate the market.

And that may be an optimistic projection.

Reaching Other Countries Costs Money

One way to reach more people and to increase revenue would be to sell the solution in other countries besides the U.S. For example, sell the device in countries where English is spoken by nearly all of the population, or by a large number of people. Such countries would include New Zealand, Canada, Australia, the U.K., and India.

Selling in another country means additional cost of development, and additional cost of doing business.

Supporting other languages would cost more money. There are different Braille systems used for different languages. Once a solution is created for readers of Unified English Braille (UEB), adding a new language would involve

  • hiring a translator who knows English, the local language, and the local Braille;
  • testing the solution; and
  • finding a means to deliver the solution in a different country.

So you may be able to sell to more people over time, but it could be expensive to reach those people. Outside the U.S. it could be much harder to reach people.

So…

Open Source the Solution

Use the API from Tap to develop software. Ensure the software is robust and well tested by Braille typists close to you. Put the source code on GitHub — but don’t expect others to contribute to the project. Provide a website that makes it transparently easy to download and install the software on iPhone and Android devices. And maybe Windows or Mac OS.

Provide instructions for people to buy the Tap Strap 2 and/or Tap XR devices. Ensure that the software allows for one-handed operation, which is less costly for the user. Support two-handed operation as well.

For some people wearable Braille typing might simply be fun. But for other people, wearable Braille typing could be useful daily.

How do we know some people might use wearable Braille typing daily?

Because Josh Miele made a wearable Braille typing device, and he uses it.

Existing Technology: Josh Miele’s WearaBraille

When I showed the EchoBraille proof of concept to people at the National Braille Press, I found out that someone had already won an award for developing the same kind of technology. That someone is Josh Miele, who happens to be a friend of a friend, and a former colleague of one of my advisors. Miele is well known in the fields of assistive tech and accessibility.

Josh didn’t commercialize WearaBraille — good name! — but in the YouTube video below it’s clear the device is practical.

For four years now I’ve been meaning to connect with Miele, especially since I know people who know him well. Maybe he’ll like the idea of WearaBraille being deployed on off-the-shelf hardware.

EchoBraille development wasn’t the first, second, or perhaps even third time I was midway through developing some assistive tech solution when I found out someone had already written an academic paper and/or created a prototype proposing the same solution. Or perhaps they’d already created a better solution!

The key is to make such a solution more widely available.

About Braille

Braille is a writing system of raised dots that can be read with the fingers. The Wikipedia article about Braille goes into detail: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braille

Creating Braille

Braille materials for mass production are typically created on large industrial presses at places such as the National Braille Press in Boston:

I’ve visited the National Braille Press. The presses can be huge, and may weigh as much as a car. If you want to create Braille yourself, you need something a bit smaller and lighter.

Writing Braille using a Slate and Stylus

Braille can be created manually using a slate and stylus. Although I’m not blind myself, I’ve learned Braille well enough to create business cards and notes with a slate and stylus.

With a slate you have to learn to Braille backwards since you’re pushing the stylus (the poky thing) into the back of the paper, creating bumps on the front of the paper.

Good fun.

Here’s a video from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH):

No, I haven’t watched this video. I learned on my own.

Using a slate and stylus is hardly speedy, and not recommended if you have tendinitis.

Braille Typing

On a QWERTY keyboard, you type one key at a time. Some keyboards, including gaming keyboards, allow multiple keys to be pressed simultaneously.

Braille typing is “chorded” typing that requires pressing one or more keys down at the same time. Keys for three fingers on the left hand and three fingers on the right hand correspond to the six dots in a 2x3 Braille cell.

Braille typing is similar to typing on a stenotype, a chorded typing device used by court stenographers:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stenotype

On the Perkins Brailler, the pinky fingers are used for return and backspace. As on a QWERTY keyboard, either thumb can be used to press the space bar.

Mechanical Braillers

Braille can be created using mechanical devices such as the Perkins Brailler, “the most widely used Brailler in the world”: https://www.perkins.org/perkins-brailler/

The Perkins Brailler has a sturdy metal body and weighs 4.8 kg (10+ pounds). Hauling a Brailler around is a good workout: image lugging around 5 liters of water (1–1/4 gallons) in a backpack so that you can take notes in class.

The Unimanual Perkins Brailler: https://brailler.perkins.org/pages/unimanual-perkins-brailler

The Brailler is also loud, meaning your classmates may be none too pleased if you’re clacking away during a lecture.

The Unimanual Perkins Brailler shown above operates like the standard two-handed Brailler except that a mechanism allows to type the left column of three dots in the 2x3 cells, and then type the right column of three dots to complete the Braille cell (the Braille character).

The Perkins Brailler is a battle tank for typing, and can last for many decades.

Refreshable Braille Displays (Braille laptops, sorta)

Refreshable Braille displays are electronic devices that provide both Braille typing and Braille reading. They’re typically enclosed in plastic, and are much easier to haul around than a mechanical Brailler. However, a refreshable Braille display may cost close to U.S. $2000.

Refreshable Braille displays can offer much of the same functionality as a laptop. Production numbers are low, and there are many fiddly mechanical components, so the cost has remained relatively high.
https://www.afb.org/node/16207/refreshable-braille-displays

(Web pages like the one linked above may not contain photos. The people most interested in refreshable Braille displays may not have sufficient vision to see the photos.)

Some people receive refreshable Braille displays free through government agencies or non-profit organizations, making it possible for more people to own these relatively expensive devices.

Braille on a QWERTY Keyboard

NVDA software for laptops and desktops can support Braille typing on QWERTY keyboards that can output data for multiple simultaneous key presses.

https://www.nvaccess.org/download/

During EchoBraille development I created a feature to type Braille on my laptop keyboard. The purpose was primarily to debug and test the EchoBraille software without using the Tap Strap wearables.

Braille Typing on Smart Phones

In recent years, iPhone and Android smart phones have supported Braille typing on the touch screen. You cup the phone in both hands so that your fingertips can touch the screen, and then you type with both hands simultaneously. (Smart phones can detect up to ten simultaneous touches, and possibly more.)

iPhone: https://support.apple.com/en-us/101637

Android: https://support.google.com/accessibility/android/answer/9728765?hl=en

A friend of mine types wicked fast on her iPhone, but to do so she has to take her $1000 iPhone out. Although I’ve never seen her drop the phone, imagine holding a phone lightly in your hands when an unexpected bump occurs, and the phone falls to the ground. And then you have to hunt for the phone.

What Next?

If you have the interest and skills to create and maintain open source software, create a website, and handle the other tasks necessary to make wearable Braille typing more widely available, and you will commit to seeing the project through, then contact me as described below.

For this project I might relax my restriction about helping students, but a student will still have to demonstrate the technical ability and the commitment to see this project to completion. It would also be necessary to credit Josh Miele and me for prior art.

I won’t assist in creating the Github page, or writing the project, but I’d be willing to provide code for some of the trickier problems:

  • Handling tap inputs that aren’t exactly simultaneous, but should be treated as part of the same “key presses”
  • How to measure timing so that the software can distinguish between one Braille typed character and the next
  • Display of “SimBraille” (visual Unicode characters) and other GUI features for debug and testing
  • How to create training software
  • How to test the software with Braille users of different skill levels

I’d also be willing to spend a little time on a Zoom call to describe how to architect the software.

The rest would be up to you (or to y’all).

How to Contact Me

Before contacting me, please read both the Preamble and the Introduction to this series.

You might also check out the index to proposals I’ve written so far.

Here’s to hoping the next Proposal will be much shorter!

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Gary Bartos

Founder of Echobatix, engineer, inventor of assistive technology for people with disabilities. Keen on accessible gaming. echobatix@gmail.com