Bangkok ad agency J Walter Thompson comes up with a way to reach the visually impaired, with touchable ink
Hailed as a major breakthrough for the visually impaired when they were first introduced a couple of decades ago, Braille embossers, as the impact printers that render text as tactile Braille cells are known, are of little use to Thailand’s blind. Their high price – about Bt100,000 each or more than Bt30 per printed sheet, the need for special, heavier and more expensive paper that has to be imported and the resultant thicker and often unwieldly books have led to the blind turning to audio services for their reading pleasure or simply going without.
That could be about to change thanks to Touchable Ink. Currently in the development process, this new process will erase all the obstacles associated with Braille printing, and once when it is ready will represent a real breakthrough for the visually impaired.
The seeds for the idea were first planted here in Thailand by the advertising agency J Walter Thompson.
Parattajariya Jalayanateja, managing director of J Walter Thompson Bangkok and Satit Jantawiwat, the chief creative officer, grin when asked how the advertising agency came up with the innovative idea when their main business is surely to create catching ads for their clients.
“At JWT we have always had teams looking at consumer needs and behaviours in order to enrich creativity,” Parattajariya explains.
“The Touchable Ink project began from a study of visually impaired people that led to better awareness of these needs. The blind depend largely on Braille code but the printers available on the market are way more expensive that ordinary printers and we wanted to see if we could come up with a Braille embosser for the home that couldn’t cost a fortune.”
The agency also looked at embossing pens, which are used for arts and crafts and sold in most stationary shops. Enquiries revealed that embossing powder was also available on the market at a very low price. They then took the idea to Dr Nopparat Plucktaveesak, head of the Department of Chemistry at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Science and Technology and also asked for support from Samsung, which was pleased to contribute laser printers, ink cartridges and technicians to work on modifying the printers during the experiment process.
The process is surprisingly simple. The embossing powder is first mixed into the ink cartridges and then printed on normal paper. The paper is heated using a hair dryer, iron or popped in a microwave for seven seconds, which puffs out the ink and makes it perceptible to the touch.
Tests conducted so far show that the process works well with laser printers that provide a more stable and better printing quality than their inkjet cousins but are still affordable to home users.
“It also allows embossed printing of non-Braille characters and other shapes and patterns too. This will open up a new world for the visually impaired and revolutionise their access to knowledge,” Satit adds.
“We do know that the embossing should be around 0.1mm thick so that they can read it smoothly and perfectly. Moreover the ink should stick strongly to the paper,” he explains, adding that the research team is still working to find the right formula so make the printing more stable. “Sometimes they have to print seven or eight sheets before getting it perfect,” he says.
“We tested it by scratching at the embossed Braille but it stuck firmly to the paper and it works,” says Sutat Pungsiripattana, vice president of the Thailand Association of the Blind.
“I’m thrilled about the invention. Once they find the final formula, it will make our lives and education so much easier,” he adds.
Although numerous assistive technologies exist for the visually impaired such as screen readers, Sutat says that the Braille code is still more convenient for the blind, as it is non-linear, using six-dot cells in two rows.
Those who do not suffer from visual impairment have little idea how even normal daily activities present a challenge for the non-sighted and how much they are forced to rely on other people. Imagine, for example, the problems differentiating between juice and milk cartons, categorising medicines according to their packaging and pressing the remote control for the TV.
The easiest way of overcoming such handicaps is to have products and facilities marked with commercially printed Braille labels, which allows them to differentiate between the ATM card and BTS or MRT cards.
With the touchable ink technology and an inexpensive laser printer, they will be able to print their own labels. Such printers can be found for as little as Bt2,000 and while the ink cartridges run into the hundreds of baht, the whole process is still much, much cheaper than the Braille printer or even the typewriter.
And because there are fewer than 200 Braille embossers in Thailand, printing a book usually takes around two weeks.
The number of blind is Thailand is estimated at 700,000 though only some 100,000 are officially registered. And not all blind people know Braille. Sutat says that the association has 10,000 members but the number who have applied to learn Braille is considerably lower.The touchable ink will provide more opportunities to learn Braille, printing what they need to known from online sites to their home laser printers. And they can print labels for milk and juice, for example, thereby making life easier and at a price that everyone can afford.
JWT expects the final product to be ready in a few months from now and is turning its efforts to making it available through interested printer manufacturers.