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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 April 2007, 09:54 GMT 10:54 UK
Braille converter eases web use
By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website

Image of the RoboBraille logo
The site now processes 400 requests a day
A free service that provides automatic Braille conversion is proving popular despite still being in test phase.

RoboBraille was started by a Danish organisation and now has partners in five other European countries.

Anyone wanting to use the service, which is partly funded by the EU, can send plain text, rich text, html or Word documents by e-mail.

Within a few minutes they receive their document either as an MP3 audio file or as electronic Braille.

Electronic Braille can be read by a tactile display - a device connected to the computer with a series of pins that are raised or lowered to represent the Braille characters - or sent to a Braille printer.

"About two or three years ago we came to the conclusion that it's simply too complicated for the average user to produce Braille," consortium leader, Lars Balieu Christensen told the BBC News website.

"You need to know far too much about Braille conversion, Braille characters and layout."

Mr Christensen - who also runs a Danish assistive technology company - said that he and a colleague decided that the process needed to be made far simpler.

"We wanted to set up a system that was entirely automated, where the user didn't need to know anything apart from an e-mail address."

Testing times

Although the RoboBraille site currently handles plain text, rich text, html and Word format, Mr Christensen's team is about to add PDF documents as well.

The consortium includes the UK's Royal National College of the Blind as well as organisations from Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Cyprus.

Photo of Lars Ballieu Christensen
Lars Christensen has been working on Braille conversion for 20 years

The European Commission provided more than 500,000 for the testing phase which should end this year.

It is hoped that the service will be fully implemented next year, and that it will remain free to individual users and non-profit organisations.

Mr Christensen thinks that RoboBraille could be funded by a combination of public and private grants as well as charging pharmaceutical companies for producing Braille labels for medication which is soon to become a legal requirement.

He says a number of other large institutions will also need to produce information in Braille and could use his service as paying customers.

As well as widening the number of countries and languages involved, the consortium has also decided to expand the number of users by catering for people who - for a variety of reasons, for example dyslexia - find it difficult to read.

The RoboBraille service is currently processing about 400 requests a day but the system has the capacity to deal with up to 14,000 a day.

Mr Christensen thinks this will be sufficient to provide a viable service for the first two years, which will cost around 135,000 a year to run.

With the second phase of testing about to begin, RoboBraille's developers are now keen for more people to test the service ahead of its planned launch next year.

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