Future Reflections Special Issue: A Celebration of Braille
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Compiled by Clara Van Gerven, Access Technology Content Specialist, NFB, and Anne Taylor, Director of Access Technology, NFB
Editor’s Note: The history of the early development of technology for writing Braille and for publishing Braille is available from several sources--including my favorite resource book, Braille Into the Next Millennium, a 2000 publication of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and Friends of Libraries for Blind and Physically Handicapped Individuals In North America. However, information about the notable advances in Braille production over the last three decades since the advent of the personal computer and the rapid development of communication technology is scattered and not easily available. Clara and Anne spent a good deal of time researching and checking the facts for this timeline, and they state that it will become an important resource on our NFB Web site. We think it provides valuable historical perspective. It also demonstrates that technology, far from being the death knell for Braille that its detractors proclaim, has in fact made Braille more viable, relevant, and accessible than ever before in history. For those less familiar with access technology, we added a short glossary to the timeline describing the most important Braille technology. Here it is:
Braille translation software: The fastest Braille embosser available cannot produce even one dot of material unless a Braille translation program is installed on the computer. Three titles are most prevalent today, the Duxbury Braille Translator, Braille 2000, and MegaDots.
Embossers: A Braille embosser, also referred to as a Braille printer, is a piece of very specialized computer hardware. The embosser allows Braille files that have been created on the personal computer (PC) to be produced in hard-copy Braille.
Notetakers: First introduced by Blazie Engineering in the mid-1980’s these easy-to-use personal organizers allow a person knowledgeable in Braille to create documents, read text, keep addresses and appointments, access a list of special utilities, and do so almost a decade before the sighted found similar convenience in the Palm Pilot and Pocket PC.
Refreshable Braille displays: Called refreshable Braille displays, these devices allow the user to interact with his or her computer using Braille. They are called refreshable because the unit is made up of a line of pins that move up and down to display the Braille dots. Braille displays also have navigation keys that allow the user to move around the computer screen without taking his or her hands from the display to perform tasks.
1971: Triformation Systems, which would later become Enabling Technologies, releases their first embosser, the BD 3. In the late seventies they came out with their popular LED 120 embosser.
1975: Papenmeier Reha undertook a development program with Dr. Werner Boldt of Dortmund University, Germany, and in 1975 produces the BRAILLEX, an electronic device with a refreshable Braille display.
1976: The first installation of the Duxbury Translator takes place at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in Toronto, Canada, in July 1976. Duxbury was the first commercial Braille translation package to be released.
1980: The original version of nfbtrans, a Braille translation package, is released. For a time it was sold for $350 but in the early 1990’s Dr. Jernigan felt it would better serve the needs of blind users by releasing it to public domain.
1982: The VersaBraille, by Telesensory, is the first refreshable Braille display available in the United States.
1987: The Braille 'n Speak, the first portable notetaking device with a Braille keyboard, is launched at the NFB Convention. The success of this device opened the door to similar popular notetakers in use today.
1990: Dr. Kenneth Jernigan opens the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC) at the NFB headquarters, a one-of-a-kind, comprehensive evaluation and demonstration facility. Today it contains 2.5 million dollars’ worth of nonvisual access technology, making the IBTC the largest evaluation center of its kind in the world.
1991: The U.S. Patent for cursor routing is issued to Arend Arends and Jaap Breider, the president of Dutch Braille display manufacturer Alva B.V.; the original Dutch patent was filed in 1987. Cursor routing quickly became an expected feature of refreshable Braille devices.
1995: The first release of Duxbury for Windows brings Braille translation to the new operating system.
2000: PulseData International and HumanWare release the BrailleNote line of notetakers with Braille and QWERTY keyboards and synthesized speech and a refreshable Braille display. In 2005 HumanWare released the second generation in the BrailleNote line, the mPower series.
2001: Papenmeier releases its Elba notetaker, the first Linux-based notetaker, with Braille and QWERTY keyboard and a refreshable Braille display.
2001: ViewPlus Technologies announces the Tiger Advantage, the first of its Braille-capable tactile graphics printers.
2003: Freedom Scientific starts shipping its Windows-based PAC Mate notetaker. The unit was available with a Braille keyboard and a QWERTY keyboard (without refreshable Braille display). Versions of this unit with 20- and 40-cell Braille displays were released at the end of 2003. The PAC Mate Omni, the second generation of PAC Mate notetakers, was released in 2007.
2003: The Alva Mobile Phone Organizer comes out on the market, the first and only cell phone and notetaker hybrid. It is a cellular phone and personal organizer that offered a 20-cell Braille display, a Braille keyboard, and a speech synthesizer.
2004: At the NFB Convention, HumanWare releases the BrailleNote PK, the smallest notetaker available in the United States with an 18-cell refreshable Braille display and speech synthesizer.
2004: HumanWare, formerly PulseData, launches the Brailliant 20 and 40, the first refreshable Braille displays with Bluetooth.
2006: G.W. Micro announces its first notetaker, the Braille Sense, which has refreshable Braille, synthesized speech output, and a Braille keyboard. The BrailleSense comes with an LCD window, an MP3 player, a DAISY player and external monitor support. In 2008, G.W. Micro enhanced the Braille Sense to become the Braille Sense +. The Voice Sense was also added to the line of notetakers.
Special thanks for assistance in compiling this timeline go to NFB members and leading access technologists Michael Barber and Richard Ring. Resources consulted include David Pilischer, Enabling Technologies, Freedom Scientific, and HumanWare.
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