07 Nov 2019
LEGO Launches Braille Bricks for Children
What started as a kind gesture between friends living just outside Boston, US, is being rolled out as a global project by the LEGO Group – using AI technology the initiative aims to make the LEGO play experience more accessible for those with vision impairment. They call it: LEGO® Audio & Braille Building Instructions. The idea comes from Matthew Shifrin, who was born blind. As a child, he developed a strong passion for LEGO play. However, he always needed assistance when it came to specific LEGO building instructions.
“I had a friend, Lilya, who would write down all the building steps for me so that I could upload them into a system that allowed me to read the building steps on a Braille reader through my fingers. She learned Braille to engage with me and support my LEGO passion, and then spent countless hours translating LEGO instructions into Braille.”
Shifrin would pore over his customized instructions to create models such as the LEGO Creator Expert Sydney Opera House and London Tower Bridge, the latter of which required over 850 pages. For the first time ever, he was able to build LEGO sets by himself without being dependent on someone else guiding him through the instructions.
“This is extremely important for blind children because there aren’t a lot of places where we can say, ‘Look Mom and Dad! I built this on my own… I did this’“ says Shifrin. “For blind children, we don’t have access to what sighted kids are used to. LEGO bricks enable us to learn about our environment, to see the world. It is so important because blind kids get left out of a lot of social stuff, especially in elementary school. But LEGO building is one of the things we can do.”
When Lilya sadly passed away in 2017 Matthew was inspired to honour her memory by ensuring others benefitted from her idea of creating LEGO building instructions for those with no or limited sight. Through a friend at the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Lab, he was then introduced to the Creative Play Lab at the LEGO Group.
The team took his idea to the Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence who developed new AI software to translate LXFML data (LEGO Exchange Format Mel Script) from the visual digital building instructions to text based descriptions for braille and voice commanded instructions. Speech synthesis company, CereProc then provided the Software Development Kit and the voice that reads the instructions.
“Matthew’s story demonstrates the power of LEGO play. It brings people together, helps to build confidence and sparks creativity. It has been an honour to work with Matthew, his passion and energy are truly inspiring. But most importantly his project will help visually impaired children around the world experience the same joy of building and pride of creation that all our fans feel”, says Fenella Blaize Charity, Creative Director, LEGO Group.
Matthew Shifrin says: “As I build a set I develop a better sense of what a building looks like and how it is laid out and constructed. For blind people LEGO sets act as miniature 3D substitutes for real-life buildings in lieu of two-dimensional photographs. LEGO bricks allow me to see things that are impossible to explore by touch, such as the arches of a Middle Eastern palace or the towers of the London Tower Bridge. I would like to get my instructions out to the blind community. I would like every blind person to be able to download the instructions, buy a set, have a sighted person sort the pieces, and feel on par with a sighted builder. I want every blind person to feel that the once impossible is now possible; that he or she can now build a miniature LEGO world.”