Braille software is the true dot-com.
The raised-dot alphabet system has been around since 1829 to help sightless people read, but recent technological advancements are enabling materials to be produced more quickly than ever before.
"Braille is the true method of literacy for a blind person," said Joe Sullivan, founder and CEO of Duxbury Systems, the first company to develop these tools.
Duxbury's Braille software has actually been around for 25 years, applied first to clunky, slow IBM-360 mainframes. Even then, what it accomplished was far more effective than the days volunteers had to spend 100 hours transcribing 600 pages into Braille on special typewriters.
"Most people can't spend that amount of time volunteering," said National Braille Press education director Eileen Curran, whose company prints magazines, books, and calendars in Braille.
Now, Braille software such as Duxbury's can transcribe 600 pages in 20 hours.
While there's a long way to go, it's still a miracle to sightless people such as Martha Pamparin, 62, who was born with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a condition that gradually destroys the retina. As a child, Pamparin was educated primarily by readers and through recordings.
"Because I did not have access to Braille textbooks in high school or in college, some subjects were unavailable to me," said Pamparin, now a Braille teacher in Davis, California.
For math and science, she said, "Auditory doesn't cut it."
"Can you imagine trying to solve a quadratic equation without writing anything down?"
Braille characters are formed from raised-dot combinations, in arrangements from one to six dots each.
To create computer documents in Braille with the Duxbury software, users employ a regular keyboard that gives them two typing options.
They can select the regular QWERTY method. Typing the letter "b," for example, appears as the Braille symbol for "b."
Or users can opt for the Braille typewriter method, where certain keys denote one of the six dots, with the rest of the keys turned off.
The software also recognizes contracted Braille, or grade-two Braille, a form that saves space on the page. Up to three Braille pages can be reduced to one page of print by equating a single Braille letter, like "b," to a common word, like "but."
Nemeth Braille, a form that uses certain math and science characters, is also a part of the software. And a more sophisticated eight-dot system, which can denote capital letters, is available as well.
Documents are then printed by a special appliance that embosses the Braille.
Duxbury's is the only Braille software compatible with all Windows, MacIntosh, and DOS operating systems, and it's available in over 30 languages. The company acquired its largest competitor, Braille Planet, last year.
Duxbury programs start at $595 and are available directly through the company or from specialized vendors. Braille-embossing printers start at $1,800.
Other inventions have attempted to upgrade Braille production.
A device called the Optacon, developed by Telesensory, enables readers to feel the shapes of regular printed letters. Vibrating metal rods that move over a printed page convert the image of a letter into a tactile form. A Braille level of literacy isn't achievable through this method, however.
"The bottom line is that the bandwidth that you need to sense Braille is a lot lower than what you need to sense the shapes of letters," Duxbury's Sullivan said.
Refreshable Braille displays, a peripheral for the computer, have been more successful. Movable pins that simulate Braille connect to the PC. They can display up to 80 characters at once and are useful for reading Web pages.
But these displays are considered a luxury for Braille users, costing thousands of dollars.
More tools are being developed that will help increase the level of literacy for the vision-impaired, and continue its reach to those who need it.
Despite the Braille system's universal reach, the National Federation of the Blind estimates that only 10 percent of the vision-impaired are able to read Braille.
And yet the scope of Braille software remains limited.
Despite the speed of the translation itself, the text scanning, editing, and formatting can be time-consuming. Transcribers still need to format for paragraphs, headers, footnotes, sidebars, and tables of contents.
"Even if we have reduced the number of skilled transcribers required ... we still need somebody with good judgment who can ensure that the print formatting information is passed on to the Braille document," said Curtis Chong, director of technology for the National Federation of the Blind.
"Everyone in the Braille business is well aware of these shortcomings," Chong said. "We think that the task of the translation would be made much easier if you could incorporate information around structure into the original printed document."
Chong pointed out that HTML and XML already have some of these commands built in.
Ideally, Chong said, "Everything will be based on a logical structure rather than a visual appearance."
Progress is moving in that direction. Chong said e-books also have some of these commands built in, making it easy to transcribe into Braille.
E-books, however, pose another problem for Braille readers if they appear on screen as a picture, such as a bitmap or PDF file, rather than in HTML.
"That would be a disaster for us," Chong said.