Researchers’ reprogrammable Braille innovation could boost literacy for blind readers.

A visually impaired person reads a page in Braille.

Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

In recent years, it has become easier for blind and low-sight users to read text from computers and tablets, thanks to advances in accessibility technology that have greatly improved the standards for refreshable Braille displays. But physical Braille books have lagged behind. An average book takes up several volumes of thick Braille paper, which are a pain to carry around. For example, the Braille translation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix spans 14 volumes and takes up a whopping 1,000 pages of Braille paper, compared with the standard printed version, which is a single 766-page volume. The heft of most Braille books makes it challenging for students to take literature and textbooks home, and experts have warned that the inaccessibility of Braille books and the prohibitive cost of refreshable Braille displays have contributed to a “Braille literacy crisis.”

But that could be changing. Researchers at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are developing a novel technique to make Braille books more portable and convenient.

They’re calling it reprogrammable Braille, and it’s an elegant concept: Researchers crafted a flexible elastic shell, similar to a slightly curved ruler, upon which they imprinted dots using a stylus—a similar process to how traditional Braille pages are printed. The shell retains the imprints of the stylus, but users can “erase” the imprints by stretching the shell, allowing new configurations to be imprinted. In tests, Harvard researchers were able to control the number of dots, their position, and order anywhere along the shell.

The researchers first tested the idea of reprogrammable Braille using an inverted plastic fruit bowl. However, the approach is not limited to sturdy plastic materials.  The researchers’ method is “scale-independent,” meaning that it has the potential to be implemented on a wide variety of surfaces, ranging in thickness from one-atom graphene to thicker paper.

Dimples are formed in this plastic fruit bowl by poking it with a stylus, similar to the way in which traditional Braille is printed on paper.

L. Mahadevan/Harvard SEAS

This is not the first attempt to make Braille books more portable. In 2014, a British project called ANAGRAPHS created a working prototype of a Braille e-reader. The model functioned by heating paraffin wax, which expanded to produce Braille dots. However, ANAGRAPHS ran out of funding, and the project was shut down.

Tony Stephens, the director of advocacy and governmental affairs for the American Council of the Blind, is excited by the potential of reprogrammable Braille to improve accessibility. “If it’s able to get into the hands of people at an affordable price, I think this definitely will have some positive impacts on encouraging greater use of Braille [and] creating greater access to Braille material … that’s often difficult to get a hold of,” Stephens told Slate. He hopes that this innovation will be a boon to Braille literacy. “This is a conversation that really runs through our community,” Stephens explained. “Is a person technically literate if they’re just listening to something? … Those are serious concerns that we have because literacy helps in a lot of other areas than just reading and talking: It helps cognition, it helps thinking and critical thinking, and … trying to work your way through basic sentence structure and syntax.”

There’s still a lot of work to be done before reprogrammable Braille makes it easier for readers to carry Harry Potter books with them. While researchers have shown that reprogramming the shell is possible, they are still figuring out how to develop a mechanism that actually makes the changes to the page. Still, if the researchers can work out the kinks, this platform could transform Braille books’ accessibility, cutting their length down to a much more manageable size. That would be practically magical.