This Device Translates Text To Braille in Real Time
In the wee hours of Valentine's day last year, a team of six women, all MIT engineering undergraduates, sat exhausted but exhilarated. Their table strewn with colorful wires, post it notes, food wrappers, scraps of papers, shapes cut from cardboard. This was no craft project gone awry. The team had just competed in MakeMIT’s hackathon—a competition in which teams of students spend 15 hours designing, coding, constructing, testing and debugging ambitious projects.
The women, competing under the team name 100% Enthusiasm, had set out to tackle a big challenge: accessibility for the blind. Their idea: a portable, inexpensive device that could scan text and convert it to braille in real time. It was something with potential to transform the lives of some of the 1.3 million Americans who are legally blind.
This first iteration was rough. Nearly the size of an adult’s hand, the mechanics of the device were sandwiched between two panes of plastic—wires and circuit boards exposed. Six pins poked up through the top of the device to display a single braille character (letter, number or punctuation mark). It imaged each character of text using an external computer’s webcam, rather than an internal camera as the team had hoped, explains Chen “Bonnie” Wang, one of the team members who is currently a senior majoring in material science and engineering. It was slow and not particularly portable. But it worked, translating text to braille. Team 100% Enthusiasm won.
The win was just the beginning of their work with the device, which they dubbed Tactile. Now, many prototypes later, the team has received another accolade. Tactile is one of nine winners for this year’s Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, which celebrates the translation of “ideas into inventions that improve the world in which we live,” according to the contest’s website. The winning inventions—a folding electric drone, proteins to fight superbugs, and a solar-powered desalination system for off-grid water production, to name a few—tackle a wide range of problems.