At the annual MakeMIT hackathon event last year, Team 100% Enthusiasm, composed of 6 undergrad MIT students, re-imagined the braille reader, giving them gold in Phase 1 of the competition. The original prototype “was janky … but it worked,” said team member Charlene Xia.
A year later, the group renamed themselves Team Tactile, and hope to change the world with a candy bar sized Braille reader with a proposed shelf price of $100. Typical readers on the market currently cost $3,500 to $15,000, and portable devices still run upwards of $2,000.
Team Tactile’s mission, posted on the MIT website, reads:
The mission of Tactile is to empower the visually impaired through education equality by enabling them to have the opportunity to access all printed texts. Our innovation allows real-time conversion of printed text to Braille. Ultimately, a visually impaired person would use the portable scanner to scan the text from the spine of a book to the outer edge of the book. The scanner would transfer information to a refreshable Braille display wirelessly, and the visually impaired would be able to read the Braille text and repeat the same process to read the next page.
The team, composed of Xia, Chandani Doshi, Jialin Shi, Bonnie Wang, Tania Yu and Grace Li, hopes to change the marketplace for the blind, which has not seen innovation despite the fact that 70% of the visually impaired are reportedly unemployed.
Xia said, “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?'” She continued, “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.”
All 6 members of the Team are women in their 20’s, which is noteworthy in and of itself, but not what the group wants to focus on. Yu said, “Our team isn’t really thinking, ‘Oh, we’re women,’ working differently in any way … this is what we enjoy, this is what we want to do, so we just went for it.”
Xia added, “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.”
While the project is still in early development, the team already has plans to see the project through to the end. Xia said, “We plan for this semester — our last semester — to be a sprint toward our goal … 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.”
The group has been accepted into Microsoft’s #MakeWhatsNext program, which is geared towards helping female inventors gain patents for their ideas.