Left to right: Chandani Doshi, Jessica (Jialin) Shi, Chen (Bonnie) Wang, Charlene Xia, Tania Yu, and Grace Li

Although braille literacy is linked to employment, fewer than 10 percent of the 1.3 million people who are legally blind in the United States are braille readers, according to the National Federation of the Blind.

Part of the reason for the declining braille literacy rate is a lack of access to braille documents and literature.

An all-female group of scientists and engineers studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is working to change that. The team— Jessica (Jialin) Shi, Chen (Bonnie) Wang, Charlene Xia, Tania Yu, Chandani Doshi, and Grace Li— are developing a real-time text to braille converter that allows people who are visually impaired to take a picture of printed text, and the text will be quickly transcribed to braille on a refreshable display.

This accomplished earned them the 2017 $10,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in the “Use It!” category.

“Braille books cost a lot of money, and when you go places, they don’t often have braille versions of things to read, and that limited access kind of makes it not as important to learn braille,” said Wang, a junior studying materials science at MIT, in an interview with R&D Magazine.

“There is a cycle; people don’t want to learn braille because there isn’t that much out there to read in braille and as a result the industry doesn’t make more braille,” she added. “By creating a refreshable braille display that is inexpensive, it will give people more access to braille around them, and we hope we can increase the braille literacy rate.”

The team first began working on the device, known as 'Tactile,' in February 2016 during a ‘hack-a-thon’—a marathon design event where a group quickly creates a piece of technology from start to finish.

Team member Doshi had volunteer experience with an organization that works with a blind school in India, and understood firsthand the difficulty people with low or no vision have trying to access information around them.

Within 15 hours, the group had created their first prototype.

“This was a very proof-of-concept device, it could only transcribe printed text at a slow rate, but it showed that the concept could work,” said Shi, a mechanical engineering senior at MIT, in an interview with R&D Magazine.

The group did not plan to continue with the project initially, but that changed when they met Paul Parravano, co-director, Office of Government and Community Relations at MIT. Parravano lost his vision at age three and encouraged the group to continue to take their project forward.

A working prototype of the device, known as "Tactile."

Today, the team has created their sixth prototype and is continuing to work to  develop the most effective and inexpensive version of the device.

“One of the current issues with braille technology is the devices out there are very, very expensive,” said Shi. “We are trying to work on new methods, use new materials and new designs, so that we can really eliminate a lot of these material costs. We are trying to research and develop new methods of braille actuation that, instead of costing $36 for one cell of braille, cost just a couple dollars per cell.”

The team envisions the final version of the device to be around the size of a smartphone, but thicker, and easily portable.

“If someone opens up a page in a textbook and they would like to understand what that page is saying, they would place our device on the page and hit a button, and the device would capture that printed text through text recognition and convert that into the corresponding braille letters,” explained Shi. “Those braille letters will be displayed using a refreshable braille display on top of the device.”

Refreshable braille displays work by using pins that move up and down, creating the texture of braille dynamically and changing as the reader moves from line to line of text.

Many current systems use piezoelectric technology, and can be bulky and limited in the amount of cells of braille that can be displayed at once. The team is searching for an alternative, and is investigating emerging technologies such as microfluidics and ways to refine electromagnetic actuation.

A rendering of the device's future design.

They are working with Parravano, who has become their mentor, to better understand the needs of the visually impaired community, as well as with students at local schools for the blind. In addition, they have visited the Perkins School for the Blind and the Carroll Center for the Blind just to observe how visually impaired individuals read using their fingers and what their needs are.

The group hopes their work, once it is perfected, makes a real difference in the lives of the blind.

“If we could make this device that can quickly convert text to braille that would open up a lot of possibilities for the blind,” said Shi.