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No, This $300 Braille Smartwatch Won't Revolutionize Reading For The Blind

[All Images: via Dot]

At first blush, the Dot looks remarkable. It’s a braille smartwatch that syncs to your iPhone or Android device, then displays the messages through four dynamic braille characters that pop up at the speed you can read.

The press loves it, and the company isn’t shying from hyperbole. While braille displays can cost thousands of dollars, the Dot will launch this December for $300. With a price that’s so much lower than those big braille displays, Dot is marketing it as a low-cost way to bring Braille e-readers to the masses. Imagine reading a book on the subway, from your wrist!

But while it’s an intoxicating idea, any display that only shows four letters at a time just doesn’t espouse fundamental design logic when it comes to reading. Regardless of whether someone is sighted or not, no one can read in such little bits of text.

"I can’t imagine how they would be able to display it so that you could read with any kind of gathering of contextual information," says Neva Fairchild, a National Independent Living Associate at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). "You could read [individual] letters fine. But most words are longer than 4 characters, so you’d get part of the word, then more."

Imagine reading a word as simple as "ency-clop-edia." Just this one word would take four refreshes of the watch. Even a short, 140-character tweet would take 35 screen refreshes to read.

Fairchild, who is herself blind and learned to read braille in her forties, points out that existing braille e-readers, which tend to display 12 to 14 characters at a time, can still be a challenge for long-form reading. Her tool of choice for emails and other day-to-day work is a 40 character display. And she points out that coders, who need to be able to read large swaths of information at once to debug small characters in long strings, default to 80 character displays as default.

"It’s the difference between possible and functional," she says of the Dot’s four-character e-reading prowess.

However, she does still love the general idea of the Dot, just for its use as a dumb old watch. The 4-character display is exactly long enough to show the time. Currently, she says there are only two types of watches for blind people, and both stink. Braille watches with radial faces require you feel around on the hands and dial bumps to read the time, but it’s very hard to distinguish the hour this way—is it 1:30 or 2:30?—and it’s easy to accidentally reset your watch. Meanwhile, the other main style of watch (and even the iPhone) simply read the time out loud, which can be inconvenient to check. "A talking watch says ‘IT’S NINE OH THREE AYE AM!’ and everyone in mass can hear!" she laughs.

"I’ve long dreamed of inventing this kind of [braille] watch myself," she says, before adding that for those who can’t detect any light at all, it should probably have a designator for a.m. and p.m.