I took a plunge into the land of darkness experienced by the visually impaired in January 2014, after a flyer arrived in the mail from a charity asking my parents for a donation. I then started my journey into the world of darkness, with a hope to bring light to the visually impaired.
I am not visually impaired; I am a sighted, 13-year-old eighth grader from Santa Clara, California. I have met and interacted with visually impaired individuals before, but this time my inquisitiveness took over. I asked my parents how it was possible for blind people to read or write. They asked me to follow the technological ritual of self-motivated learning and research that’s common for all of us nowadays – “Google it!”
Just before going to bed one night, I studied online literature about Braille and its variants. According to the World Health Organization, there were approximately 285 million visually impaired people worldwide, and some 90 per cent of them live in developing countries. I found out that Braille printers/embossers are very costly, with a price tag of $2,000 and upwards, and many millions of people across the world have limited access to them. According to a New York Times article in 2009, the number of people educated in Braille in the United States has been declining over the years. In the United States, less than 10 per cent of 1.3 million legally blind people know Braille.
I concluded that if a normal Braille printer/embosser costs more than $2,000, then teaching institutes and parents could not afford such a device. Thus Braille education will suffer and eventually die. The other alternative is text-to-speech software. But again this technology is for the privileged few. Existing assistive technologies are either too expensive or difficult to obtain for normal people without a government or non-profit sponsorship. Technological advances should help humanity and not become a burden because of cost.
So in January 2014, with my school’s science fair approaching fast, I thought maybe I could try to build a printer/embosser. I received full support from my school and my parents to work on the project. If I didn’t try, I couldn’t know if I would succeed or fail. The success of my project relied on the possibility of reducing the cost of a printer to less than US$500. If I could make a working prototype around that price range, I could reduce the cost by 75 per cent.
I relied on my love of LEGO, since I knew that they had released a new robotics kit called LEGO Mindstorms EV3. My parents always encouraged me to get educational toys, so it was easy to get US$349 from them. Every day, after finishing my homework and eating dinner, I sat down to develop my prototype. Sometimes, I was awake until 2 a.m. My father always stayed up with me, keeping me company at the kitchen table as he did office work on his computer. I used rapid prototyping methods, where I built seven different models before settling on a final one that was able to print the six dots in a desired sequence according to Braille grade 1 standards. After that, I programmed the letters A–Z. While developing the printer, I always closed my eyes and used my fingers to feel the bumps on the paper.
I validated BRAIGO v1.0 (the name combines Braille and LEGO) at the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center in San Jose, and also with Henry ‘Hoby’ Wedler at his laboratory at the University of California, Davis. He has been blind since he was born and is now completing his PhD in chemistry.
I started receiving a lot of positive feedback from visually impaired individuals and parents of children who are blind. I would say that the first prototype of the proof of concept has been successful. I made the building instructions and software open source, which will provide a low-cost solution for the visually impaired community. I eventually achieved an 82 per cent reduction in cost.
“Existing assistive technologies are either too expensive or difficult to obtain.”
Immediately afterwards I started to work on my Braigo v2.0, a consumer-oriented product that anybody can buy off the shelf. I drew a lot of sketches of the design and how it should work based on the feedback I received with Braigo v1.0. Over my summer vacation in June and July of 2014, I needed a single processor with connectivity and low power to make my next prototype. I found myself in the Beta developers program with Intel for their new chip called “Edison”. I got a membership at the Techshop in San Jose to learn design tools, worked with other individuals to get 3D printed mechanical parts and also collaborated with a machinist to design new Braille heads and assembly. On September 9, 2014, I demonstrated the Braigo v2.0 prototype at Intel Developers Forum in San Francisco. This new version, with new patent pending technology, promises to be the most lightweight, connected and silent Braille printer/embosser – and possibly the cheapest – when it comes to the market.
As I proceeded in building and enhancing BRAIGO, my life went into darkness and I could feel how a blind person lives life on a day-to-day basis. This life is difficult for a sighted individual to conceptualize – only when you work on a project like this can you begin to feel it. I am glad that I followed through in developing a low-cost Braille printer, despite a lot of technical challenges. This has been a great experience, and I hope to bring the product to the market through my company, Braigo Labs Inc. At the end of the day, I started off on a journey to benefit the visually impaired. This journey is continuing one step at a time.