SINGAPORE: It was a campus hackathon in 2016 that got six Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineering students in their early 20s thinking how they can empower the visually impaired.
The students – Grace Li, Bonnie Wang, Jialin Shi, Charlene Xia, Tania Yu and Chandani Doshi – entered the MakeMIT hackathon last February and got together beforehand to throw out some ideas. One of them came across a hypothetical rendering of a Braille watch, which led to them asking: “How do visually impaired people tell time?”
This then led to pondering about the possibility of a text-to-Braille computer, and feeling sure there was already one on the market, they searched online, only to realise there wasn’t - at least, not a cheap one, as many of these were in the thousands of dollars, said Wang during a recent Skype interview with Channel NewsAsia.
“The technology behind today’s Braille assistive devices have not been innovated in a decade,” Wang said, adding that the team is looking to change this.
It was an idea that particularly resonated with fellow team member Chandani, who had then just returned from her trip to India where she had been volunteering at a school for the blind, Wang recounted.
“She told us the children there are fascinated by and want to learn about (Braille) technology, but the school does not have it,” she added.
The team winning MakeMIT and the US$10,000 prize in February 2016. (Photo: Team Tactile)
Fast forward to 2017: Team Tactile had won the MakeMIT competition with their prototype real-time text-to-Braille portable device, called Tactile, got accepted into Microsoft’s #MakeWhatsNext patent programme and was listed as one of the top 100 2016 Global Thinkers by the Foreign Policy magazine last December.
Looking ahead, Wang said they are now focussed on coming up with an alpha prototype of Tactile by June this year.
The device, which has cameras at the base, will scan the text and send the image to a smartphone app via Bluetooth. The app will, in turn, decode and send instructions to Tactile to form the Braille text on its surface. According to Wang, the team is researching how to use an electromagnetic mechanism to move the Braille pins. And because they are intending to use cheaper materials, it will cut down the cost of the device significantly.
A computer rendering of how the low-cost Tactile device would look like. (Image: Team Tactile)
According to an earlier interview with Microsoft, the team hopes to make the device about 5 inches long by 2 inches wide and display about 36 Braille characters at a time. Better yet, they aim to make it cost less than S$100.
Asked when an actual product will land in the market, Wang said the agenda is “quite flexible” but in general, they intend to complete it in about two years. Tactile will predominantly be marketed in the US, and its target audience are students and those looking to find work, she revealed.
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It’s not been plain-sailing for the budding engineers though, as they had had to juggle the project with getting ready to graduate later this year.
“Time has been the most challenging part of this project,” Wang shared. “The courses at MIT are pretty rigorous and there isn’t much free time left to work on the project after school.
“We still have to apply for funding or set aside time for these interviews to create awareness of our project,” she said, adding that it’s a good thing there are six of them so they can share the workload.
On who calls the shots within the group, Wang said fortunately they have been good friends since freshman year, so “if something goes wrong, we can just call someone” and there is no yelling or other such confrontations.
They are "not shy in sharing opinions,” but will make decisions together as a group, she said.
And there’s a big decision looming. What will happen to Tactile once they’ve graduated?
“We’ll be holding a group meeting on this soon, on our plans for the future,” Wang revealed.
What happens if no one wants to continue with Tactile’s development? “We know of a group of graduate MIT students who have more time on their hands and are keen on continuing with it,” she said, adding they have no doubts their Braille project will be in good hands.