According to the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), just 1% of the blind population is born without sight; the vast majority of the estimated 10 million Americans who are blind or visually impaired lost their vision later in life. In 1987, Andrew Chepaitis’s grandmother became part of that statistic: She started to lose her vision due to macular degeneration. It was this experience that would lead Chepaitis, 13 years later, to found ELIA Life Technology, a company that wants to mass-produce an easy-to-learn tactile reading system based on the Roman alphabet.
ELIA bills its system, called ELIA Frames, as an alternative to braille–particularly for people who learned how to read regular text before losing their vision. “My grandmother, who could finish the New York Times crosswords, couldn’t learn braille,” says Chepaitis. She wasn’t alone in that struggle: The NFB estimates that fewer than 10% of blind people can read braille. For older people especially, learning a new skill–much less one that involves sharp sensory skills–can prove difficult.
In Chepaitis’s mind, that’s because braille violates a number of design principles: It is not scaleable in the same way as a font size, for one, and braille dots are small and very close together. Importantly, braille is also a completely different system from the Roman alphabet, and therefore doesn’t build on the existing knowledge of a large portion of visually impaired people.
According to Census bureau data, There are an estimated 8.4 million individuals with visual impairment in the US, it is estimated that less than 60,000 can read Braille.
High schoolers with visual impairment have a dropout rate of nearly 50%.
The employment rate among individuals with sight is approximately 84%. Individuals with visual impairment have an estimated employment rate of 43%; but if the individual can use Braille, that rate soars to 85%.
It’s estimated that the number of individuals with visual impairment will double to 16 million by 2030.
ELIA has raised roughly $450,000 in angel investment since it was founded. It has received $2.7 million from organizations such as the National Institute on Aging and the National Eye Institute (divisions of the National Institutes of Health), the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and NYSTAR. More recently, ELIA also worked to develop a touch printer in partnership with Hewlett-Packard, as well as a tactile display, both of which would serve to put ELIA in the hands of visually impaired people.
A SYSTEM ROUTED IN USER-FRIENDLY DESIGN
The idea for the design of ELIA Frames didn’t originate with Chepaitis. Rather, his mother, who was studying design and human impact for her PhD at the time his grandmother lost her sight, developed the first iteration of the system. She took inspiration in NASA’s control panel design, which uses triangular, square, or circular frames around different buttons to allow NASA engineers to quickly and easily identify them. The system that Chepaitis’s mother designed relies on the same border system to differentiate one letter from the next in a sequence. Adding dots or lines inside of the frame gives the letters the characteristics of Roman letters.
The company has tested the alphabet on 175,000 research participants. The first study included three groups of people, each of whom received 30 hours of training and testing. One group learned braille, one ELIA, and the other a system of raised Roman letters. The second study also included those three systems, but participants trained for an increased 60 hours of instruction and testing. In addition to testing for speed and understanding against other systems, ELIA researchers also tested the ELIA groups with random letterforms to see how those letters performed. They solicited feedback on the letters that participants struggled with and adjusted them accordingly.
The system works through variously shaped frames: a circle for letters A-D, a square for E-N, a house-shape for numbers, and so on. The letters take shape with the lines, dots, and openings added inside and around the exterior frames. With these embellishments, the letters appropriate characteristics of the Roman letters they represent: “C,” for instance, is three-fourths of a circle with a dot on the interior and top. “K” is a square frame with two lines inside like a “V” turned on its side, creating a Roman “K” with one side of the frame and the two legs. The most major changes from the first to second iteration, Chepaitis says, are that the shape of the frames–square, circle–became easier to identify at smaller sizes, and some of the interiors were tweaked to be easier to distinguish.
Chepaitis also points to two more design elements that are important to the current iteration of the alphabet: the spacing and the scaleability. The dots for braille are small and close together so that those proficient in it can perform reading speeds that are comparable to sighted people–but that also results in a steeper learning curve. With ELIA, the team found that letters could be close together but distinguishable because of the frames, allowing for ease of learning without slowing readers down. Because it is closer to a Roman alphabet, ELIA can be scaled up or down the same as a font. By contrast, there is only one standard size of braille, though “Jumbo braille” is sometimes used to teach new braille students (the difference with Jumbo braille is that the dots are spaced slightly farther apart).
Chepaitis claims that the average person can read an extended text after about three hours and is working on the production of the ELIA printer, which the company wants to get into people’s homes as well as educational spaces and training centers. This is one of the most promising aspects of ELIA as a company: It’s one thing to design a reading system that people can pick up quickly, but it’s only useful if it exists off-screen and people actually have access to it. ELIA’s HP inkjet touch printer, which will be able to print any raised alphabet, will be for sale by the end of 2017 on the ELIA website for $3,000. After that, ELIA is launching pilot programs in places like the Brooklyn Library and other locations in New York City, which will train people on the system. Eventually, they plan to expand to other cities nationwide. ELIA is also developing a display that will be able to predict both ELIA and braille.
ELIA FRAMES is free to all for personal use and for educational institutions, but there is a nominal usage charge for businesses producing products for commercial revenues. Try it today!