An all-woman team of six engineering undergraduate students at MIT has created an inexpensive, hand-held device prototype that provides real-time translation of printed text to Braille — which could greatly increase accessibility of written materials for the blind.
Here’s how it works: The device has an internal camera that takes photos of the printed text, which is then converted into digital text using optical character recognition software. Next, the text is translated into Braille, and a mechanical system raises and lowers pins on the surface of the Tactile that form the characters to be read by one’s fingertips.
Though the current version is limited in the number of characters it can translate and display, the team hopes to make the device capable of scanning an entire page at a time and displaying two lines of text at once.
In a world of audiobooks and text-to-audio technology, why is Braille still important? Though audio systems are easier to use, they don’t instill the same understanding of language as a written system like Braille does. Studies have shown that Braille literacy significantly improves employment opportunities for the blind — but right now, less than 10% of blind Americans can read it.
Part of the problem is that creating Braille texts is costly, greatly limiting choices for the visually impaired. The Tactile device has the potential to open up entire libraries of books to the blind. And while there are products on the market that translate digital texts to Braille, there are some drawbacks. Not all documents are available electronically. Also, these devices are very expensive and are designed to work with laptops and computers, making them less than portable. Team Tactile hopes to make their handheld translator available for less than $200.
The six women — Chen Wang, Chandani Doshi, Grace Li, Jessica Shi, Charlene Xia and Tania Yu — met freshman year at MIT. The original Tactile was the result of a hackathon they entered “as a team of friends just for fun.”
Now, they’re receiving patent help and mentorship through Microsoft’s #MakeWhat’sNext, a program that encourages talented women who are creating technology for positive change. Though all six team members are graduating this year, they hope to continue working on the Tactile — and their larger ambition: to “improve the world, one innovative solution at a time.”