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 Students create revolutionary device that could transform the lives of the blind community


February 7, 2017
Mashable
By Matt Petronzio

With just a few hours left to build a groundbreaking gadget, things weren't going as smoothly as planned.

Six young women, all undergrad engineering students at MIT, had established a lofty goal: to create the first-ever affordable device that immediately translates printed text into Braille. The idea could prove revolutionary for the blind community, transforming how they read while also creating sorely needed opportunities for children with low or no vision.
 
But throughout the hectic, 15-hour MakeMIT hackathon last February, the women — competing as Team 100% Enthusiasm — were running into snags. The lines for hackathon participants to use the 3D printers were taking forever. The team laser-cut the wrong material for the casing. And the optical recognition software they wanted to use — crucial for the device to actually work — wasn't turning up accurate translations of text.
 
"It turned out to be a lot harder than we thought," says Charlene Xia, one of the team members.
 
With only 15 minutes left on the clock, they finally had a working prototype — albeit a crude one. The device was big and hastily taped together in places, with wires poking out and only a few pins for Braille characters.
"It was janky," Xia says, laughing. "But it worked."
 
It did indeed work, enough so to take first place in the hackathon. The device, dubbed Tactile, had been born.

A year later, Team 100% Enthusiasm has been renamed Team Tactile. The women are already making waves with their invention, both in terms of accessibility and advancing the visibility of women in tech.
 
But with a ways to go before Tactile hits the market, and big plans for the future, they're really just getting started.
 
 

A collective goal to (affordably) change the world

Right before the hackathon, the young women were sitting in Xia's bedroom, deciding what to build. Their ideas ranged from a dancing robot so people wouldn't be lonely at clubs to an alarm clock that would wake you up by splashing water in your face.

They quickly realized, however, that they really wanted to create something that could change the world for the better.
 
One teammate brought up a concept design she'd seen of a Braille watch. They toyed with the idea of building a text-to-Braille converter, but figured something like that had to already exist. So they did what any of us would do — they Googled it.
 
 
 
"There were a few things, like refreshable Braille technology, that cost like $3,000. And we were like, 'Holy crap. Why is this so expensive?'" Xia says.

According to the American Foundation for the Blind, refreshable Braille displays, which typically help blind users read information from a computer screen, cost between $3,500 and $15,000 depending on the number of characters they have. Portable devices on the market, like the Android-based B2G, still cost around $2,500. The technology is expensive, and just two companies essentially have a duopoly on the tech. The devices are typically sold by the Braille dot (one character has six dots), and they can go for $30 or more per dot.
 
 
 
But Tactile, proposed to be the size of a candy bar with 36 characters (216 dots), could cost as little as $100.
 
 
Here's how it works: You slide the device over printed text, like a book, menu, or even a packaging label. The camera captures images of the words and sends them to a microcontroller, which then performs text recognition. That information, via an electromagnetic activation mechanism, moves the pins up and down at the top of the device, translating the text into Braille. Like with other displays, the Braille characters physically refresh as they scroll through sections of text.

"We're using cheaper material and an easier manufacturing method," says Xia, and this drives down prices.
 
$100 is just an estimate. But even if they land at $200, Team Tactile still thinks it will be a success.

 

The tech effect on Braille

Approximately 1.3 million Americans are legally blind, though millions more live with a visual disability. At the end of 2015, an estimated 61,739 students were reported as legally blind. Globally, 39 million people are blind and 246 million have low vision.

 
But if you think about how much the iPhone has evolved over just the past decade, the stagnant Braille display market looks archaic in comparison.
 

Since the blind community is a relatively small percentage of the overall population, there's a perceived lack of demand for improved Braille technology. There's not a huge incentive for companies to develop better tech for the blind.
 
As a result, Braille displays are more or less the same as they were 30 years ago.
 
In the advent of new technologies like VoiceOver and other text-to-speech software, Braille literacy rates are declining. Only an estimated 10 percent of children learn Braille today, because it's often seen as too difficult, time-consuming or outdated to teach. But advocates argue Braille is just as important as ever, especially when it comes to employment.
 
Up to 70 percent of blind people are unemployed, according to widely cited statistics, due to discrimination, misconceptions, distance barriers and other factors. But 80 percent of blind people who are employed have something in common: They can all read Braille. It helps them learn things like grammar and punctuation, and how to read charts and graphs — all difficult, if not impossible, to learn using text-to-speech.

"One of the biggest things we learned is that most visually impaired families fall below the average income class," Xia says. "They don't have the proper education ... because they can't afford the tools to get the information they need to get higher-income jobs."
 
It's a vicious cycle, Xia says, and one Team Tactile hopes to break.
 
"We really hope this technology will offset the market and just open up some competition, and drive the price down as much as we can," she says.
 
 

Unexpected role models

Regardless of how it was conceived and produced, Tactile is an invention that can open doors for the blind community.

Nevertheless, it's noteworthy that it was six young women in their early 20s who created such a life-changing device. The number of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields is still lackluster, thanks to stereotypes, bias and an often unwelcoming climate at universities.
 
To wit: In 2013, only 18 percent of people who graduated with a computer science degree in the U.S. were women. Professionally, women make up only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce. A recent study found that gender stereotypes around STEM can affect girls as young as age six.
 
But gender doesn't change anything for Team Tactile. "Our team isn't really thinking, 'Oh, we're women,' working differently in any way," says team member Tania Yu. "This is what we enjoy, this is what we want to do, so we just went for it."

And that's Team Tactile's message for young girls: If you're interested in science and engineering, don't be afraid to go for it.
"They can see us and be like, 'They can do it; we can do it, too.' And they don't have to feel like it's only men doing this," Yu says.
 
Xia sees a lot of Facebook posts and videos of new inventions, and the inventors always seem to be men. She admits it can be subconscious for younger girls. If you only see men doing it, you might start to believe women can't.
 
"We're happy that when we have a Facebook post up about our project, maybe girls are watching it ... and maybe they'll consider applying to STEM fields and try it out," Xia says.
 

The future is tactile

After last February's hackathon, Team Tactile was accepted into Microsoft's #MakeWhatsNext patent program, which provides legal help to women inventors throughout the complex process of getting a patent. They applied last September, and Tactile received "patent pending" status that same week.


In the meantime, they're working on different iterations of the prototype, aiming to meet the accepted standards for refreshable Braille displays in terms of size and durability.

The last step is creating an accompanying app, so people can connect Tactile to their smartphones and use the device beyond printed text.

"We plan for this semester — our last semester — to be a sprint toward our goal," Xia says. "A couple of people on our team have already decided to work on this after graduation. But, ideally, by the end of this semester — June of this year — we will have our first ideal prototype."
 
And Team Tactile won't stop there. The long-term goal is to see this brought to production. Ultimately, they want any blind or low-vision child to be able to use to the device for all purposes, from school to everyday life.
 
"We want this to open up information access to the entire visually impaired community," Yu says. "We can really help remove some of the various barriers they face."
POSTED: 2/21/2017