22 May 2019

LEGO® Braille bricks

New Elementary are spending three days gathering news stories and interviews at the Recognised LEGO® Fan Media Days in Billund, Denmark (thanks in part to the help of our 40 magnificent patrons on Patreon). On Day 1, Stine Storm of The LEGO Foundation showed us a prototype of their new product: LEGO® Braille bricks.

The LEGO Foundation own 25% of The LEGO Group (TLG), and that means that when TLG are doing well, The LEGO Foundation have money for exciting projects like LEGO® Braille bricks, announced earlier this year. The sets will be given to blind and visually impaired children for free, with the first round of markets launching in late 2020. The LEGO Foundation will work with a blindness association in each country to administrate this. Therefore the sets will be owned by individuals rather than schools or organisations. The Foundation hope the sets will be passed from child to child as each progresses from the bricks to regular Braille.

There aren't many existing materials for teaching Braille to young children and those that do exist are clunky and often archaic. Teachers often find themselves creating their own materials, like using a box of half a dozen eggs and moving the eggs around to create the permutations for each letter.

Although there are only six dots used in standard Braille i.e. a 2x3 grid, LEGO Braille bricks are a modified 2x4 brick so that there is additional space for printing the corresponding letter/ number/ symbol. They wanted to include the printing so that sighted and partially sighted people can learn Braille too.

The set has been tested in workshops in Brazil, Denmark, Norway and the UK. They've realised because of regional differences, they will need to test the bricks more widely in many countries before releasing. Different languages not only use different letters but the Braille representations vary, especially when it comes to numbers and symbols. The sets come with bricks for the mathematical operators plus, minus and equals but no multiplication or division symbols as the Braille for these two simply varies too widely from country to country.

Feedback was remarkably positive, with people in each workshop developing games with the bricks such as crosswords and anagrams. The public launch of this project was an overwhelming media success too – however the public reaction hasn't been 100% positive. We asked The LEGO Foundation about concerns that having Braille which is larger than a child's finger encourages an up/down motion rather than teaching them to solely read left to right, known as 'scrubbing'. Braille is of course read as the fingers pass over the letters rather than stopping at each letter to determine it.

The LEGO Foundation responded by stressing that this is a product for those initially learning Braille and is not considered a standalone product. Obviously it's not intended for long tracts of text either. These days with improvements to technology like tablets and apps, children are less interested in learning Braille, and the Foundation consider the involvement of the LEGO brand as a positive and a creative way to get children interested – and then more deeply engaged.

Another criticism is orientation; that there may be confusion if the brick is rotated 180°. They initially considered adding an orientation device like a groove or making the letter embossed (see presentation slide below) but given that the Braille bricks are already a change to the classic LEGO 2x4 brick – an important icon of the LEGO brand – they didn't want to muck about with it more than necessary. Orientation is important, but so is the LEGO brand in this context. Furthermore, orientation is part of the learning process; for example all letters in Braille have dots in their top row and LEGO Braille bricks have no dots in their bottom row; so children will quickly learn when a brick is incorrectly placed.

Being tangible objects that can be rearranged provide LEGO Braille bricks with a distinct advantage over many teaching methods such as a Braille typewriter where, if a child makes a mistake, they cannot correct it. These individual letter bricks open many creative doors for the children using them, and I can attest that at the end of the session when us sighted adults all got to have a play, they were really addictive! Our host had to eventually demand we stop so he could start the next session.

Where can you buy LEGO Braille bricks? 

Nowhere as yet - and possibly never. As stated earlier, LEGO Braille bricks will be provided for free by the Foundation to blind and visually impaired children but clearly there is a massive public demand for them too. Certainly us adult LEGO fans are desperate for them, if not for their fun or collectability then for the helpful building options that elements with 'reduced knobs' provide!

So will these be made available commercially to the many who wish to pay for them? It was hinted that some of those internal discussions around the fundamental changes Braille bricks have made to the classic LEGO 2x4 may mean they may need to remain a non-commercial product forever.

However it doesn't seem to have been ruled out altogether as yet. If it happens it would need to be anchored to another department, i.e. one in The LEGO Group rather than The LEGO Foundation who are non-commercial.

Will these bricks ever appear in regular LEGO sets, and therefore unprinted? This feels very unlikely given the concerns around the LEGO brand. However, given they need to create the moulds, perhaps they'll want to get good use out of them!

Production of the LEGO Braille brick

The grid of six dots used for Braille allows for 64 possible permutations, one of which has zero dots and is therefore not required in LEGO form. That meant it was necessary to produce 63 new LEGO moulds for this project! Now, these do not come cheap, although there is a range of quality available in mould production. Cheap moulds are used for elements with a short lifespan, such as a BIONICLE helmet, or where the detailing on the element does not need to be too crisp. Expensive moulds are used for universal parts that will need to be moulded for years or decades to come and need the highest quality standards. After some discussion, it was decided the Braille bricks would use a mould quality somewhere in the middle ground.

We asked if LEGO could have used one special mould where the number of dots could be adjusted in between runs, but apparently this had been raised and quickly discarded. It is important the Braille project fits into TLG's existing production processes and doesn't introduce new risks - so 63 new moulds it is, courtesy of The LEGO Foundation.

Clutch between bricks is obviously weaker than a classic 2x4 so they're not as good for building, or more importantly, they don't match the user's expectation of how strong the clutch is with normal bricks.

The only marking we could see inside the bricks was '57705', the same in every brick we examined, so perhaps this is the Design ID of the prototype. Presumably the 63 moulds will each have their own Design ID.

The colours of LEGO Braille bricks

For people who are visually impaired rather than blind it is essential to have good colour contrast between the printing and the bricks. The colours chosen are white, yellow, red, blue and green. The first prototypes used some darker shades of blue and green from the LEGO palette but the contrast was insufficient, so they are going with Dark Azure and Bright Yellowish Green [TLG]/Lime [BL] instead. Pink was included in the user workshops but reactions were so 'love it or hate it' that LEGO played it safe and decided against including that colour.

You'll have noted that different letters have different colours; this is to provide some visual interest for sighted users. There is no logic to which letters share the same colour; it was decided that it would be better to avoid any particular pattern here. Each set will have roughly 250 bricks (depending on the number of letters in the local alphabet) meaning about 50 of each colour. Even uncommon letters will have five bricks present – if there was only one and you lost that brick, the set may quickly become unusable. Neither did they want too many bricks in the set overall, as it becomes harder to locate letters. Common letters will be present in quantities of around 12 to 15 bricks.

Sets also come with with two grey baseplates, a brick separator and a card showing all available letter bricks. The prototype packaging shown here is not the actual final packaging. There will also be an accessible website including the instructions as audio tracks. 

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  1. It's awesome that they're doing this, and the article is quite an interesting read.

  2. Thanks for this interesting article. If the top row of studs always includes at least one, then the number of (non-empty) combinations of the 6 studs is less than 63. I make it 48 (your 64, minus the 16 that have nothing in the top row and all combinations of the remaining 4 studs). Did TLG give you the figure of 63 molds? If so I wonder what the others were for...

  3. Huh - I just noticed in one of the pictures there are grey bricks with no studs in either the top or bottom rows, so maybe 63 moulds is the correct figure after all, and it's the statement that there will always be at least one stud in the top row that is incorrect?

    1. So, I didn't fully explain. Letters and numbers all have dots in the top row. The other combinations are all used for other special characters. I think the special characters LEGO will include all have more dots in the left column than the right, again to assist with orientation. As for numbers, to distinguish them from letters, they are preceded by the # brick you can see in the #LEGO pic.

  4. Great article! I’m of course sad these bricks won’t be available for the public, but they seem too odd compared to regular bricks, so I can understand why. An interesting aspect of this is that if Braille bricks show up in MOCs, we will know that someone stole them from some blind kid.

  5. Is there any reason that the Lego logo isn't moulded on the studs?

    1. It is, just very faint on these poor quality prototypes.

  6. As someone who has a disability it is nice to see LEGO doing something like this. While it may not be for the general builder. It still will have an important impact.

  7. I don't know if the Tom's shoe company started it or just popularized the concept, but I'd be in for a buy one/ donate one set.