MIT students develop tool to change lives for visually impaired community

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In a male-dominated field, it was a team of six women that have come up with an idea that will be “revolutionary” for the visually impaired community.

“The number of applications are sort of endless,” said Paul Parravano, co-director of the MIT Office of Government & Community Relations. He’s also blind.

The women haven’t even graduated from college yet.

Chandani Doshi, Jessica Shi, Chen Bonnie Wang, Charlene Xia, Tania Yu and Grace Li, now seniors studying engineering, all met during their freshman year at MIT and became friends. They decided to participate in in the 2016 Make MIT Hardware Hackathon, where for 16 hours straight they worked on a project.

(CREDIT: Brian Smale/Microsoft)

The women decided to explore the option of making an educational tool; Shi had come across a refreshable braille watch and they began toying with that idea.

“I had volunteered at this organization that develops educational applications for blind students….I had collected feedback from the students and seen how they interacted with technology,” said Doshi.

They thought of the idea of a printed text to braille tool and realized there was nothing on the market, much to their surprise.

“We first thought, this got to be out there somewhere…there wasn’t any text to braille converter,” said Xia.

At the first Make MIT weekend, the team made one large braille cell. A braille cell is six to eight dots whose design forms a letter of the alphabet. The following weekend, they made a prototype with two braille cells right next to each other.

“It started as kind of a fun weekend project…we can incorporate all of our skills to make something. And we’ve continued it since then,” said Li.

They designed a unit that uses a small camera with optical character recognition software to scan any printed material and convert it into a braille cell. On the other side of the camera, there is a “refreshable braille display,” which means that there six to eight dots, and the dots rise and drop to form different letters.

Since the original weekend, the women, known as Team Tactile, added more cells and have been meeting with Paul Parravano for feedback.

“It’s a dramatic change in how you access information. Probably the most difficult challenge that blind people have in the workplace, and even in one’s personal life, is getting access to print,” said Parravano.

Pavarrano said that while the increase of digital text has made day to day life easier for the blind community, there is still a lot of printed text, from everything to a receipt, a menu, a work agenda to appliance manuals.

“Anytime you pick up a piece a paper as a sighted person, that’s how many ways it can help,” he said.

The printed text to braille unit would dramatically change life for blind people, said Pavarrano. For example, he rarely knows all the menu options and going to lunch by himself can prove difficult.

“I would never ask a waitress or a server to read me a menu – it’s just not something I am comfortable doing,” he said.

While there are refreshable braille units on the market now, none of them convert printed text on demand. Pavarrano said that there are scanners that will read a piece of paper and print out a braille version, but they aren't portable. In addition, many of these tools are expensive, running between $1,000 to $5,000.

With that feedback from Paul, the women have also been working to make their unit as inexpensive as possible, aiming for production and material costs to be around $100.

"You have the potential for really big impact…and you have a pretty novel idea," said Dr. Stephanie Couch is the Executive Director of the Lemelson-MIT program.

The women entered their prototype into the Lemelson-MIT program, a prestigious award that recognizes outstanding student inventors. To their surprise, they won.

“It was a moment of disbelief…we won this,” said Xia.

Couch noted that it’s an all-female team, and about 90 percent of inventors are men. Pavarrano believes that it’s these types of projects that can attract more women to engineering.

“I think if we want to think about how to attract and maintain women in engineering, this is how we do it. Women want to change the world and make people’s lives better,” he said.

With the prize came a $10,000 grant to help the women continue improving the device, which they will do for the next year. All of them are graduating this month from MIT and they will alternate off and on working on it.

They plan to make the final device about the size of an iPhone 7 and have more braille cells on it.

“I’m looking forward to reading the wine menu,” said Pavarrano.

After they finish the first unit, the team plans to make a bigger one for people to use at home.

As for the MIT community, Couch said it’s this type of project and these type of women that can inspire others at the university to create something that can better people’s lives.

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