Braille Monitor January 1985
(Note: There are now on the market several devices (notably the VersaBrailler) which give a Braille display from a cassette or a computer. These devices have been found by many blind people to be quite useful, but all of them have at least one serious defect. They display only one line (or more likely a part of a line) of Braille at the time. This is all very well for the person who cannot read Braille at normal speeds, but what the rapid reader of Braille wants is a full page display. This enables both hands to be used simultaneously and more than one line to be read at the same time.
For several years Leonard Rose has been telling anyone who would listen that he has a working model of a full page display of Braille. All he needs, he says, is a modest amount of capital to tool up and get into production. Some who have looked at his prototype say that it has so many bugs that what he needs is an exterminator, not a banker. Others say that the Rose Reader is the greatest thing since televised football. The problem is that we have only a prototype, and apparently we are not going to have anything else until or unless. But Leonard Rose keeps trying. At least, he keeps writing.
If his reader is really as good (or even partly as good) as he says it is, the blind have been short-changed by the government bureaucracy, and the officials involved should (at the very least) be called to task. One wonders how many other worthwhile inventions and processes have been kept from the people because of government apathy and red tape--or, more likely, the fear of bureaucrats to deviate from the safety of inaction or take the slightest liberty with the system.
On the other hand, if the Rose Reader offers no promise, it is about time that somebody wrote a definitive article on the subject and refuted the claims. If it won't work, let's forget it. If it will, let's have it. It promises more than anything that has come along. Of course, so far the promises are just that--promises. For the blind the questions about the Rose Reader are more than academic.
Under date of September 5, 1984, Leonard Rose wrote to Susan Bardellini Forman, who edits Bulletins on Science and Technology, which is a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science):
Dear Ms. Forman:
I read with interest the letter of Dr. Cochin in Bulletin Vol. 4, No. 3 (Summer 1984). Dr. Cochin's comments as a highly literate deaf-blind person are inspiring. We all should be supportive of persons with such strong motivations. Perhaps you will print the following commentary, which I feel is relevant and worthy of further discussion by your readers:
The Frustration of Technology for the Handicapped
by Leonard Rose, President
Rose Associates, Inc.
Many readers of this newsletter are aware of the existence of the Rose Reader, a full-page paperless Braille display device that now exists in working prototype form, and which is protected by patents issued by the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom, with patents pending in France, Germany, Japan, Sweden and in Switzerland. The patents clearly establish the inventiveness and workability of the concepts underlying the device. The prototype model proves that it can be built in operable form. It has a 4 2-character line and 25 lines-per-page format with dot and cell sizes that coincide exactly with the Perkins Braille format. With state-of-the-art engineering, the Rose Reader can be made in a production model format that will enable it to have any number of characters per line and any number of lines per page, with all dots and spacing meeting the current specifications of paper Braille. The Rose Reader can be designed to serve as a Braille display for a personal computer, with read and write capability. It can be designed to operate using conventional computer data bases. It can be designed in a modular configuration that allows users to select applications hardware and software for their own specific personal needs.
For the deaf-blind, the Rose Reader can be designed with a modem and call intercept features that respond to telephone calls and tell the caller that he is calling a deaf-blind person. If the caller needs information about how to communicate by modem, the intercepting device will tell him how to write for information. If the caller has a personal computer and modem and is ready to communicate, he will simply input the proper code by touch-tones and the call will be put through to the deaf-blind person's telephone modem. A vibrator will be activated on the deaf-blind person's wrist and make him aware of the call waiting. The deaf-blind person will then use his personal computer with the Rose Reader as his Braille display to communicate with the caller in the same way that any sighted person communicates by modem and personal computer over telephone lines. With this arrangement, a deaf-blind person will be able to communicate with the deaf, the blind, the deaf-blind, and the sighted, as well as with existing electronic data banks, all with virtually the same ease. The Rose Reader represents broad educational, vocational, and recreational reading capability that is almost unlimited. It is expected to sell for less than $7,500, even with full personal computer compatability.
Why is the Rose Reader not now available? Simply because a nominal amount of capital is needed to fund the stateof-the-art design work and tooling needed to make a production model. The prototype was not built to be the production model. It was built in 1980.
The production model will incorporate the advances in technology that have occurred since then.
Venture capital is not available for devices such as the Rose Reader for many reasons. The size and nature of the market is an unknown for venture capitalists. The economic buying power of the blind, and particularly of the deaf blind, is not seen to be high. The requirements for marketing such devices to such an unknown market are beyond the experience of venture capitalists. The assurance of a high return on investment within a relatively short time is not present. Venture capitalists do not regard devices for the handicapped as attractive investments.
For the small for-profit company that develops a device for the handicapped, if the costs of designing and tooling up for production have to be amortized over the first sales of the product, the price per unit often becomes prohibitive and the existing market disappears. The only way for pricing to be made reasonable is for design and tooling costs to be absorbed by public funding or by philanthropic gifts, so that the product's manufacturer does not have to recover those costs through usual startup pricing practices.
The usual response to the idea that the public should pay to bring a product to the market of the handicapped is a negative one. The feeling is that it would be wrong to use public funds to place a private firm in a position to make a profit by selling devices for the handicapped. It is ironic that for those who are not physically handicapped, huge amounts of public funding are made available in a number of ways by the government. There are subsidies for farmers, rural electrification projects, ship construction, CETA training programs, low income public housing, low-interest home mortgages, as well as tax-exempt industrial revenue bond financing for new ventures of highly profitable businesses, where the handicap to be overcome is only economic.
It is a valid principle in the case of projects for the benefit of the handicapped that project funding ought not to be provided for the primary purpose of giving any business firm a profit. However, it is an equally valid and overriding principle that project funding should be provided, even where a for profit company is to be funded, if thereby there will be an opportunity for the handicapped to have otherwise unavailable useful devices at affordable prices. It is unreasonable, because of the small size and the geographic distribution of the relevant market, to impose on developers of unique devices for the handicapped all of the risk of loss of their start-up investment in their product. It can take years for a viable market to be established for any device for the handicapped. The average high technology company cannot afford to defer recapture of its investment in design and tooling costs for the number of years that it takes to establish its product in the market. Where public or philanthropic funds absorb such start-up costs, the burden of recovering them is lifted from the manufacturer as well as the handicapped person who wants to buy the device at a reasonable price. The device can thus be sold only for production costs plus a reasonable profit.
Such use of public or private funds is no different than any other beneficial economic subsidy, and should be encouraged.
Our company's experience may be enlightening. We received notice from the U.S. Department of Education about the availability of funding for programs for severely handicapped children, including funding of research into devices for education and vocational training of deaf-blind children. The Rose Reader satisfied the objective goals of the program, and funding that was apparently available would probably have been adequate to pay for the total development of a production model with full personal computer compatibility. We applied for funding. Our application was summarily rejected by return mail notice at the first screening stage, specifically on the ground that we were a for-profit company. In other words, the fact that we already had reached working-prototype stage was meaningless. The fact that our device is protected by basic patents and cannot be developed by any not-for-profit entity without our consent was meaningless. The government declaration of present need for a device such as the Rose Reader was also meaningless. Simply because we are a for profit company, our device was tainted and could not be funded, no matter how great the need and no matter how well our product may answer that need.
We had a second experience that was equally frustrating. We applied to the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Programs, for contract funding to build a production model of the Rose Reader that could function as a Braille display for most personal computers, with a wide variety of compatible programming and appropriate storage capacity, etc. Our application was at first received with enthusiasm. We were told that funds were available and that the project had received informal approval. It was only the formal processing of our application that was holding up the funding. Later we were informed that the project was deemed to be so beneficial that it was decided that the funding costs should be shared by a number of federal agencies that had an interest in such devices. Our application was then referred to the Interagency Committee for Handicapped Research, which screened it and apparently found it worthy of funding. The application was then referred to a specially created subcommittee of the Interagency Committee for Handicapped Research for direct implementation. The head of that subcommittee let the matter die without taking any action, unilaterally declaring that there was no way for the Interagency Committee for Handicapped Research to arrange for unitary funding of the project. In other words, if the project was to be funded through the Interagency Committee for Handicapped Research, according to the head of the ad hoc subcommittee, there would have to be separate applications to each participating agency, with each application conforming to that agency's current regulations and funding criteria. (The obvious question of why have an Interagency Committee for Handicapped Research at all if it has no ability to unitize and give priority to projects such as ours for funding purposes was never answered.)
The complexity of applying to many federal agencies to ask each to supply an undetermined fractional share of a relatively modest amount of funding, using multiple applications in varying forms with differing deadlines and funding periods, made such a method of seeking funds impractical if not impossible. Instead, we tried to have our original application returned to the Office of Special Programs where we felt the project had support and there were funds available for us. We were told then that changes in regulations had taken place in the interim and it was now legally impossible for that agency to fund our project because we were a for profit company.
We tried another approach, this time through the small business innovative research programs offered by a number of agencies. This offered a new source of frustration. In most instances, one first had to apply for funds for feasibility studies for one's project. This first stage could not be avoided, even though an applicant 's project had already progressed to the point of being ready for second stage funding. A project such as ours that could demonstrate feasibility was not entitled to apply for second stage funding. But, even if we had been able to find a way to qualify at the outset for second stage funding, we would not have been eligible to receive it. Small business innovative research funding regulations generally require that the applicant directly perform most of its project's work on an in-house staff basis. In our case it makes no economic sense for us to acquire the in-house capability to do the design and tooling up work for our project. The capital investment would be very high and would require us to maintain full-time technical capability that would only be needed on a part-time basis and would not be needed at all after the Rose Reader production model is in final form with production capability in place. It makes good sense for us to subcontract our developmental work to various high technology companies that already have that needed expertise and capital equipment. By subcontracting, we can achieve our purposes at much lower cost than by doing it by ourselves. That reality does not seem to have occurred to those who developed the government's small business innovative research regulations. Although we have the inventiveness and the proprietary control of the Rose Reader, as well as the expertise to determine the specifications of a production model, it does not necessarily follow that it would be most economical for us to do all of the technical work in-house to reach production readiness. It is mind-boggling that because we have proposed to minimize the costs of design and tooling up, and thereby limit the public cost of bringing the device to the handicapped, we have become totally ineligible to receive from the government any small business contract for that purpose.
I think that it is outrageous for the federal government to be offering to fund additional research into needed devices for the visually handicapped while ignoring and refusing to fund devices of that kind that already exist and have been shown to be already operational in prototype form. I contend that whether it is a for-profit or notfor-profit company that is the source of the needed device should not be a relevant government criterion for funding such devices. The only valid criterion should be the nature of the device itself and whether it will answer the declared need at a reasonable and fair cost. Where a for-profit company has a proprietary interest in a revolutionary device for the handicapped, the government interest should be to help that company bring the device to the marketing stage at minimum public expense.
The government should not get involved in dictating the form in which the work is done, as long as the form is efficient and honestly carried out.
It is ridiculous to withhold funding for projects of obvious merit simply because the project will be carried on by an entity other than a not-for-profit organization. At the present time, as things now stand, if Rose Associates, Inc. were to patent and successfully develop perfectly working prototype bionic eyes and ears, we would not be able to qualify for any government funding to make them available to the visually and aurally handicapped. Clearly, there is something wrong with a system that imposes such restrictions. As the system now operates, it is preventing the handicapped from having the benefit of needed useful devices that already exist. If funds that are now being offered to encourage scientists and engineers to reinvent devices that already exist were instead applied to bring the existing devices to production, the handicapped would have much of what they need and the cost of giving it to them would be many orders of magnitude smaller than what is now being spent ostensibly for that purpose.
I am reasonably sure that others with equally good inventions and intentions have similar horror stories. I suggest that the American Association for the Advancement of Science should make an effort to inquire into and to correct this intolerable situation. I would welcome the comments of your readers.
Leonard Rose, President
Rose Associates, Inc.