In order to allow people affected with poor sight or blindness to be able to fully use its PCs or tablets, the tech giants have temporarily buried the hatchet in order to work together and create a USB standard for Braille displays.

A Braille console

At the moment, computer use for a person with visual disability is not an obstacle course, but it nearly is. To read a digital text, anyone who is blind or has poor sight must use a “Braille console”, a device connected via either Bluetooth or USB which goes under a conventional keyboard and which displays in Braille what is written on the screens of PCs and tablets.  

The price of these devices are often very high due to their complex nature – between 1,200 and 10,000 EUR depending on the number of characters (ranging from 40 to 80). A program is also needed in order to run the device, as well as drivers which vary from brand to brand.

For the common good

But things should be moving along quickly now, thanks to the goodwill of the tech giants who seem determined to increase access to their operating systems. Apple, Google, Microsoft, and “other tech companies” have thus forgotten their rivalry for the common good. They collaborated to put in place a new standard for Braille devices which came out in June 2018.

This new standard is called USB HID (Human Interface Device), which is a USB specialisation for “human interface” devices such as mouse, keyboard, gamepad, and other devices with alphanumeric display. Its name is simply “HID Standard for Braille Displays”. Developed under the aegis of USB Implementers Forum – a platform which supports and promotes the adoption of USB tech – it should allow Braille devices to function on Microsoft, Apple, and Google’s OS respectively without the need for a specific driver. This would promote more compatibility between devices which would in turn facilitate internet access to those with visual disabilities.

Indeed, portable e-notebook and Braille console manufacturers while have an easier job as they won’t have to look for a specific software that is set up for a particular OS or screen reader.

“A responsibility as an industry”

In short, the tech giants’ goal is to use “HID Standards for Braille Displays” to make the connection to a Braille console as easy as that of a USB keyboard or mouse. “We see the opportunity that advancements in technology can create for people with disabilities and have a responsibility as an industry to develop new ways of empowering everyone to achieve more,” said Jeff Petty, Windows accessibility program manager lead at Microsoft on USB-IF.

According to him, the development of standard HID for Braille displays is “one example of how we can work together, across the industry, to advance technology in a way that benefits society and ultimately improve the unemployment rate for people with disabilities.

Apple does not hesitate to chime in on the same tone, all the while being realistic on the commercial interest of such an undertaking: “We’re proud to advance this new USB-IF standard because we believe in improving the experience for all people who rely on braille displays to use their Apple products or any other device.