Show 77 - RoboBraille

Listen to Show 77

I don't usually advertise products on this show, but is it really advertising when it's free? RoboBraille can take a document of virtually any kind, even if it's a scanned PDF, or a jpg of a document, and give it back to you in Braille, audio, DAISY and other formats. Did I mention it's free? Listen to this episode to find out more.

RoboBraille (Notice ORG, not COM)


Beth Case: Hello, and welcome to the Disability411 podcast, episode number 77. I'm your host, Beth Case. And today, I'm going to be bringing you an interview a service called RoboBraille. And as much as it sounds like a new science fiction tv show, it's actually a very cool service that I think has the potential to really help people who are blind or low vision or have other print disabilities to be a little more independent. And so, let's listen to the interview now.
Beth: Recently I became aware of a really fantastic service called RoboBraille and I am lucky enough to have one of the co-inventers of RoboBraille with me right now, Lars Christensen. Lars, thanks so much for joining me.

Lars Christensen: Oh, you're welcome.

Beth: I believe you're actually in Denmark right now?

Lars: Yes, I am.

Beth: So I especially appreciate you taking the time to talk since we have quite a bit of time difference here. So, before we start talking about RoboBraille specifically, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.

Lars: Well, I'm basically a computer scientist. I've been working for people with special needs for the last twenty-five years, developing lots of different tools and technologies. And also we are running an accessibility practice out of Denmark that consults, in the entire Europe, actually.

Beth: That's fantastic. So I so give us the lowdown on RoboBraille. What is it and what does it do?

Lars: Well, RoboBraille, it's a free service that we developed originally for our visually impaired children in Denmark. But one of our challenges is that we only have, in primary school, about fifty blind students at that age. So, we simply needed to come up with some kind of solution that would be, that would attract users from other countries as well. So RoboBraille today is an email based service and a web based service that allows users to, free of charge, convert documents into Braille, into mp3, and into DAISY.

Beth: So, if I were blind and I had, I don't know, a PDF or some kind of document that I couldn't read, then I could just e-mail that to you and you would send it back to me in Braille?

Lars: Yeah, you wouldn't email it to me in person. You would email it to the service and everything is done automatically. So you would email it to, if you wanted it as an mp3 file and you wanted it in British English, you would mail it to an account called and you would have it back as an mp3 file. Or you could submit it to an account called and you would have it back as a DAISY project.

Beth: Ok, so if I have a paper document, I have a letter a bill or something like that, I could just, I would then scan it in and send you that document.

Lars: Yes, you would need to scan it yourself. And then you would forward that document. That could be an image-only PDF or it could be a TIFF file or a gif file.

Beth: Well, that brings up a good question. So, the formats you can accept? You said PDF, TIFF, gif...

Lars: Yeah, virtually any format that you can think of, we support, support most of the popular formats. So, Word document, doc, docx file, an rtf file, text file, an HTML file, XML file. And then, of course, various image formats as well.

Beth: That's fantastic. And then, what are all the different forms I can get it back in? You mentioned Braille, audio, DAISY...

Lars: You can have it back as Braille in different formats, and of course, as you know, Braille is not the same from country to country. You can have it back at the moment in British English Braille, you can have it back according to the German rule set, according to the Danish rule set, according to the Polish rule set, the French, the Italian, the Portuguese and the Greek rule set. We're actually working on this variant of the North American Braille rule set, as well, to complement what we already do with the British English.

So Braille is one thing you can have back, and mp3s is another format. And again, you can have back in a number of different languages. Then we can do full audio/full text DAISY projects. And we can do what we call "accessibility" or "accessible" formats, so you can send your image-only PDF file and have it back as a Word document, for instance, if that's what you want.

Beth: That's incredible, that takes a bit of work. I've had to rework some PDFs myself and that's amazing. So, this is a free service to anyone in the world?

Lars: That's right.

Beth: So how is it supported?

Lars: Well, at the moment we are funded by the Danish government. They have provided us with some grants that are paying for the development and operation of the service. Also, we have a few private foundations that are supporting the work that we do. Previously, we've been funded by the European Commission when we decided to go outside the borders of Denmark and venture into Britain and Ireland and Portugal, Italy and Cyprus. That we received funding from them. So and then. we're trying to hook up with American universities and colleges at the moment to see whether some of them would be interested in having RoboBraille service embedded on their sites. And that would be subject to some kind of a usage fee.

Beth: OK, so all of you university and college people out there, I know you're listening! Follow up on this because this would be an amazing service. So, for example, I used to work for a college in disability services and was one of the people that would help make the documents accessible to students with a vision or are other print disabilities. And, like I said, it took a t lot of time and a lot of work. So is this something that, for example, a university could use to help make their documents accessible to their students? Or is there a paid version for something on that scale? Or how might universities take advantage of your service?

Lars: Well, basically, the service is available free of charge to anyone who wants to use it as long as the use is for non-commercial purposes. So we would not accept that you would produce, say mp3 files, and go out and resell them. For all others, the service is available free of charge. So I think you should think of the RoboBraille service as a self-service solution for students and for faculty whereby they can service themselves nd need not necessarily go through the accessibility people at the university and colleges.

Beth: That would really help the independence of students where, you know, they're at the library and they needed documents, and, you know, sometimes if you go to the Disability Services Office, it could be a few days before you could get it converted because of the backlog that they have of conversions. And the students could just do this.

Lars: Exactly, and that was the whole reason for putting the service online. The ability to make students and faculty, for that matter, self-sufficient and independent of others. So we're not saying that we're going to take the work from the Disability Services, there will always be a need, especially for the more complex documents, but for lecture notes, things that you just need to have done, to have converted into something more accessible for you, you will need something like RoboBraille to make it happen instantly.

Beth: So what is the turnaround time? How fast you get your document back?

Lars: Well, it depends. If it's a Braille document, then usually you have your document back within a minute or so. If it's and audio book, an entire book that that may be 600-700 pages, then you may need to wait for, maybe up to 10 hours for us to produce the book. So it really depends on the kind of material that you're requesting. Braille by far the easiest to produce and audio books and document conversions can take some time.

Beth: Just to clarify, in Braille, right now you're working on the Braille that we use in the United States, but it's not yet available?

Lars: Well, North American Braille, is quite similar to the Braille that is used in Britain. One of the major differences is the sign for capital letters that you use in North America. And we are adding that. I hope to be able to announce that. We will be at CSUN in just a week's time and we are hosting a mini-seminar on RoboBraille there. And I hope to be able to announce at seminar by then that we will be supporting North American Braille.

Beth: Oh, I'm so jealous! I wish I could go to CSUN! Now, you know, there's Grade 1 and Grade 2 Braille. Do you convert to Grade 1 or Grade 2 or do you know yet?

Lars: Actually, there's Grade 1, there's a Grade 2 contracted Braille, and there's even a Grade 3 contracted Braille. At the moment, we support Grade 1 and Grade 2 and we will be doing the same for North American Braille. And then we will, within the next month or so, be adding support for Grade 3 Braille as well.

Beth: That's fantastic. I'm just so impressed. Ok, so just logistically, and I'm focusing on the Braille because that seems to be one of the more complex things to produce. Once I get, what kind of Braille file does it come in? Like, what kind of software would I need, or what kind of equipment would I need in order to actually, say use it with a refreshable Braille display or if I wanted to emboss it?

Lars: Well, what you get back from RoboBraille is one of several different forms you can have it back in. You have have it back as --- which is what would come out of commercial software as well. You can display directly onto your Braille display. So that would come back in a formatted way and it would come back in the character set that you are using on your device North American Computer Braille, or whatever character set your device is set up for. So you could use that directly on your refreshable Braille display.

If we're talking about Braille embossers, then of course, you can do the same. We can produce the Braille according to actual character set. But what is even more efficient is a new format called "portable embosser format" or the "pef" format. Which you can think about as like a PDF for Braille, that is independent of the actual setup and the actual embosser that you use. We support the pef format and also, we do supply a pef embossing application that you can download from our site.

Beth: That's fantastic. Well, Lars, I am impressed with this service and I am definitely going to do what I can to support it and plug it. I think it's wonderful that you're making it available to everyone and this is just a really fantastic service to help people with vision disabilities or other print disabilities to be very independent. So, good job!

Lars: Thank you!


Beth: Well, as you may be able to tell, the more I talk to Lars, the more I was just amazed with everything that RoboBraille claims to do. It just, it really kinda seems too good to be true. So, after I did the interview, I decided to test it out. I took the worst PDF I could find in my files. It was scanned crooked, it had a diagram, it was not clean, you know, it was kind of, it wasn't a nice, clear, sharp image. You know, it was a little fuzzy. It wasn't a real stark black on white, it was kinda grey. It had overflow from the page next to it, so, you know, you'd have a couple inches of the page on the other side of the fold that were on there. It was just not something that... if a student had handed it to me and said "I need this converted," I would have groaned! It was not a nice PDF. And, of course, it was image-only.

So I submitted it and about half an hour or so later I got an e-mail with the link to the audio file. I had requested an audio file because, of course, I don't read Braille and I didn't happen to have a DAISY reader on this computer. So I went ahead and just requested an audio version. And, you know, I have to admit it wasn't perfect, but I am really impressed. Especially given the quality of the PDF that I submitted, I am really, really impressed.

There were few drawbacks. The voice is a bit robotic, like some of the little bit older screen readers. It's not quite as good as some of the voices I've heard on modern screen readers. But even as a sited person, I didn't have a problem listening to it, and I think if I had to rely on that to listen to something, that I would be fine with it. I would be fine with it.

It did skip the diagram that was that was in the document and it struggled a little bit with italics. But again, given the quality of the document I submitted, I had troubles reading the italics! So, I can't really blame them too much for that one.

Is this a solution for all of your converting needs? No. I think, as Lars said in the interview, more complex documents, I would say things with a lot of formula or charts and a lot of graphs and things like that, there are always going to be things that have to be manually converted. Where it really takes a person to sit down and look at it and figure out the best way to, you know, make it the most usable.
But for something quick, for something straightforward, something that's mostly text and you need it quickly, I think that this service really fills a need. When I used to work in disability services, I know students were sometimes frustrated, where they needed something simple, like a syllabus for a class, converted. And they needed it right away and we had such a backlog of documents to be converted, that we couldn't get it back to them for a couple of days. Well, they could, even if they only had the paper version, they could have scanned it in and submitted that scan into RoboBraille, and gotten it back within minutes. And it would have all the information that they needed.

So, I think this serves a really good purpose. I think that a lot of people will find it useful. I would love for you all to try it out, especially someone who knows Braille, once they announce the North American Braille is available, test it out. Someone who's familiar with DAISY, you know, request a DAISY document, test it out. And then email me at and let me know what you think. I'd really like to get some feedback from actual users as to whether you like the service. I think you will. I think you will. I'm still impressed with it.

So, that's it for now. Until next time, this is Beth Case with the Disability411 podcast.

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