May 13, 2008 Vision impaired users can now access books, news articles and web pages using an email-based service that translates text into Braille and audio recordings. RoboBraille is a free service offering a simple way of converting text without the need for users to operate complicated software and has completed more than 250,000 translations since its launch in January.
Developed by European researchers, the user-friendly RoboBraille service has been 20 years in the making. It works by attaching the text to be translated to an email (in one of several recognized formats, from plain text and Word documents to HTML and XML). The email is then sent to the service’s server where software agents automatically begin the process of translating the text. The conversion to audio recording is done through a specific text-to-speech engine.
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The type of output and the language depends on the e-mail address the user sends the text to. Robobraille has a range of email address that correspond with languages and whether or not the output should be audio or Braille. For example, an email to firstname.lastname@example.org would be translated from Portuguese into six-dot Braille. RoboBraille can currently translate text written in English, Danish, Italian, Greek and Portuguese into Braille and speech. The service can also handle text-to-speech conversions in French and Lithuanian. The RoboBraille partners are constantly working on adding new languages to the service and plan to start providing Braille and audio translations for Russian, Spanish, German and Arabic. They are also working on making the service compatible with PDF documents and text scanned from images.
Once completed, the user receives the translation back via e-mail, which can be read on a Braille printer or on a tactile display, a device connected to the computer with a series of pins that are raised or lowered to represent Braille characters. Audio recordings are returned in MP3 format to be played via a PC or downloaded to a portable MP3 playing device. At present, the service translates an average of 500 documents a day, but has the capacity to handle as many as 14,000 per day. Turnaround times for simple text in Braille can be under a minute, while audio recording of entire books can take up to 10 hours. In addition to helping the blind and visually impaired, the service is also helpful for dyslexics, people with reading difficulties and the illiterate. The project partners plan to continue to offer the service for free to such users and other individuals, while in parallel developing commercial services for companies and public institutions. The commercial applications for RoboBraille include use by pharmaceutical companies in Europe as they will soon be required to ensure all medicine packaging is labeled in Braille.