This handheld device translates to braille in real time

Braille is closing in on its 200th birthday, but it’s had some growing pains. Despite reaching the ripe old age of 193, fewer than 1% of printed texts have braille translations – a fact that may partially account for the fairly low numbers of people who are fluent. The rise of digital texts and ebooks has helped, as there are devices that can translate books into braille on the fly, but these tend to be both expensive and require a computer to work – not to mention the fact that not every book has a digital version.

Which is why a patent-pending invention from a team of engineers at MIT is so exciting: Tactile is a portable, handheld translator that can instantly scan and convert text to braille – and the team hopes to make it available for less than $200 (~£154).

The current prototype device is an unassuming white rectangle. On the top are 36 dots that can rise and fall in response to the text scanned through the internal camera. The device uses optical character recognition software to recognise what letters are on the page, and raise the corresponding dots to translate.

There are some drawbacks to the current version: chiefly that it’s limited in the number of characters it can translate and display at a time, but the team is hoping to expand that, with a future design that will look something like this:portable_braille_translator_-_2

In an interview with the Intellectual Property Owners Education Foundation (IPOEF), the team explains the process in more detail – and also reveals that with help from Microsoft’s #MakeWhat’sNext campaign, the device is now patent pending.

In a sector where the ratio of men to women is shamefully unbalanced, it’s refreshing to see an all-female engineering team come up with something that may well end up transforming the lives of millions of people. “We’re in a unique spot at MIT because the ratio of women to men in the engineering disciplines here is pretty balanced, but all of our friends going to other engineering schools say that they’re one of the only women in their classes,” the team told the IPOEF.portable_braille_translator_-_3

“I think schools should focus on naturally integrating STEM programs. There are definitely a lot of clubs and societies for women at MIT, it’s very important for schools to foster a strong community of women in STEM for people who are just coming in to feel supported and to make sure there are strong female role models. We’re lucky to have a lot of strong female professors who we can look up to. The female professors we have at MIT are amazing.”

All six women will be graduating this year, and plan to continue working on Tactile and other projects. We wish them every success.

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