New technology sees first braille tablet

Post date: 
Thursday, 20 August 2015

NB talks to Kristina Tsvetanova, a co-founder and CEO of Blitab about a possible ground breaking braille tablet.

What is Blitab®?

BLITAB® is the first ever braille tablet, which uses a new liquid-based technology to create tactile relief outputting braille, graphics and maps for the blind and partially sighted. We call it BLITAB® – the iPad for the blind. It is a next-generation affordable and multi-functional device for braille reading and writing that displays a whole page of braille text, without any mechanical elements.
 
How did you come up with the idea for a braille tablet? 
Everything started three years ago during my studies, when a colleague of mine, sitting next to me, asked me to sign him in for an online course. I did it, but after that I realised Peter was blind. For the first time, I understood that something sighted people take for granted can be a challenge for others. This was the trigger, how we started developing a revolutionary tactile technology that will disrupt the status quo. In the past 10 months, we transferred the concept and project into a start-up company with social impact. Within this short space of time, our tablet has become an 11-time award-winning social and innovative project, with more than 20 sustainability recognitions. And more importantly, we already have more than 2,500 sign-up testers, among them 300 children in 34 countries, and this was the reason we were spotted and awarded as social change makers.
 

Slavi Slavev, chief technology officer and co-founder of Blitab, has said that new technology has been created to make this tactile tablet a reality for blind people. 

What makes this technology so unique, as this is not the first time a company has tried to make a tablet for blind people?

In the past 40 years, there were 64 different groups – among them companies, universities and non-profit organisations – that tried to develop a tactile braille tablet based on various technologies. They failed. Our tablet is different due to the approached used. The technology is innovative because of the smart materials that have never been used in this market niche. The risk in such an approach is enormous and the possibility of failure is high too. We proved the materials’ feasibility, reduced the technical risk to a minimum and already have a working prototype. Some testers have experienced the new technology. It is interesting that there is a high interest among non-profit organisations and the community. However, until now we have not received any financial support from the sector.

Could this technology be used for other devices such as smartphones?

The developed technology is integrated into our computer – it is produced in this way. So it is not possible to be removed or adapted by the user. However, it is a scalable technology and, therefore, it could be used by different industries and sectors, as well as consumer electronics. The haptic sector is a fast-growing sector and, according to WIRED, is estimated to reach $7.5 billion (£4.9 billion) by 2020.

How long has it taken to produce the tablet and was it a steep learning curve?

The most time-consuming process of hardware development was the iterations and adaptations when something went wrong. Many times we considered giving up. But we are a highly motivated team of experienced designers and engineers, and we just took a breath and started again. And right now, we are assembling all the parts in order to produce it.

What has been the reaction to the tablet from blind people?

You cannot describe people’s emotions with words. The following are examples of the emails we receive every day:
 
“This would be a dream come true, literally. I always imagined this type of technology to be available, with all that is out there.”
 
“This looks like it will be wonderful and it could help so many blind individuals to learn braille. It could also promote more braille use in schools and improve literacy.”
 
“This invention will be HUGE for my son and the many amazing people worldwide who are blind or visually impaired. This is significant because it tells me that you are creating this device from the most important perspective – the perspective of the person.”
 
"We are convinced we are changing millions of lives."

As it is only at the prototype stage, when do you think people will be able to buy it?

I have the latest version of the tablet in my hands now. It is currently in seed stage and if the ongoing investment/subsidy round is successful, the start-up plans to bring the first product to the market by October 2016. We already have the working technology prototype and are looking for testers in each country. Anyone who believes they can contribute with their feedback can make a short video with an introduction, and answer the following questions:
  1.  What was your first reaction when you heard about BLITAB®?
  2.  How could it change your life?
  3.  What would you use it for?

How much will it cost and will people be able to buy it in the UK?

One of the advantages of our tablet is that the materials and production process are cost-effective and durable. The state-of-the-art braille displays on the market now are limited in their functions and are priced between €4,000 and €14,000 (£2,800 and £9,900). According to our production estimate, we envisage an end price of up to €2,500 (£1,800). We are also in discussion with state authorities and governments to include it in their portfolio of subsidised assistive devices.

Do you see this tablet as a game changer that takes away the boundaries of blind people going online and allowing them to enjoy the benefits that the web brings?

We want to contribute to equal opportunities. It intends to provide a leap forward towards access to digital information. The tactile display opens a complete new world of content, having in mind tactile routing maps, relief drawings, mathematic formulas and so on. This is a huge step to support blind and visually impaired users to manage their digital experience on their own. Thus, it is not only a helpful gadget for the blind, it is a new game-changing product in the world of accessibility. Furthermore, it will motivate blind and visually impaired to learn braille.

Where can I find out more information about the tablet? 

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