The U.S. has a literary crisis unrelated to the general population. According to the National Federation of the Blind, only 10% of blind children can read Braille. And only about one percent of text documents are translated into Braille. While there are devices that can create Braille and audio translations from electronic documents, they do not work with printed text. That means even blind people who can read Braille have no way to read menus, shipping labels, pamphlets, and other printed matter. Reasons for low Braille literacy include the limited availability and cost of Braille materials and the price of refreshable Braille display devices. Humanware’s Brailliant BI 32, which is sold in the Apple Store and elsewhere, costs $2,595.

MakeMIT is an annual one-day hardware hackathon open to undergraduate hackers. The 2017 MakeMIT hackathon had more 250 hackers who compete for the sake of the competition and for prizes. This year’s winners of the top $10,000 prize were a team of six women. They collaborated to make a prototype for an inexpensive, portable real-time, text-to-Braille scanner with a refreshable handheld pin display.  Called Tactile, the device has multiple cameras on the bottom that can scan any text. Onboard processors stitch the images together and transmit the data via Bluetooth to an associated smartphone for image processing and text recognition. After processing, the smartphone sends the data back to the Tactile’s refreshable display in real-time. The display consists of two rows of magnetically actuated Braille blocks. The pins in each block extend or retract to form Braille characters.

The team is continuing to develop Tactile and has applied for a patent via Microsoft’s #MakeWhatsNextPatentProgram, a program which encourages women to stay in STEM careers and invent “what’s next.” Tactile’s electromagnetic mechanism will be cheaper to produce than conventional piezoelectric mechanisms. They project the cost per cell should decrease to $3 per cell block. The current plan is to make a 20-cell device that would market for $500 or less. They have partnered with the Carrol Center for the Blind, Perkins School for the Blind, and National Braille Press. In addition, the group is in discussions with manufacturers.