Giving Compass' Take:

• Maya Wei-Haas explains how a team of engineers has created a working prototype of a portable device that translates text into braille for blind users. 

• How can funders support the development of tools that help blind people navigate the world more easily?  

• Learn more about technology for blind people

In the wee hours of Valentine's day last year, a team of six women, all MIT engineering undergraduates, sat exhausted but exhilarated. Their table strewn with colorful wires, post it notes, food wrappers, scraps of papers, shapes cut from cardboard. This was no craft project gone awry. The team had just competed in MakeMIT’s hackathon—a competition in which teams of students spend 15 hours designing, coding, constructing, testing and debugging ambitious projects.

The women, competing under the team name 100% Enthusiasm, had set out to tackle a big challenge: accessibility for the blind. Their idea: a portable, inexpensive device that could scan text and convert it to braille in real time. It was something with potential to transform the lives of some of the 1.3 million Americans who are legally blind.

Now, many prototypes later, the team has received another accolade. Tactile is one of nine winners for this year’s Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, which celebrates the translation of “ideas into inventions that improve the world in which we live,” according to the contest’s website. The winning inventions—a folding electric drone, proteins to fight superbugs, and a solar-powered desalination system for off-grid water production, to name a few—tackle a wide range of problems.

The team’s latest prototype, about the size of a candy bar, can display six characters at a time (the average English word is roughly five characters long) and has a built in camera. Users can place it down on a line of text and with a push of a button, the device takes an image. Optical character recognition then takes over, identifying the characters on the page using Microsoft’s Computer Vision API. Then the team’s software translates each character into braille and subsequently triggers the mechanical system in the box to raise and lower the pins. They have applied for a patent for the integration of the system through Microsoft’s #MakeWhatsNext patent program, which supports women inventors.

Read the full article about translating text to braille by Maya Wei-Haas at Smithsonian.