Andrea Appleton 2015-04-16 08:57:08
12-Year-Old Makes A Braille Printer From A Lego Kit Isaac Newton had his falling apple, Benjamin Franklin his kite and key. Twelve-year-old inventor Shubham Banerjee’s “aha moment” came as a result of a flier on his doorstep. The flier requested donations to help the blind. “I saw it and asked my parents ‘How do blind people read?’” Shubham recalls. “They told me to Google it, and that’s how I found out about Braille and how much Braille printers cost.” Braille printers, known as embossers, are pricey. They start around $2,000. Shubham was preparing for a science fair at his San Francisco Bay Area school, so he decided to try to invent a cheap embosser. He started tinkering with a LEGO Mindstorms EV3 robotics kit. About a month later—after numerous false starts and some moments of despair—Shubham had a working model on his hands. He dubbed it Braigo. The machine was slow; it took 10 to 15 seconds to produce each raised character, and the results were printed vertically on a roll of calculator paper. A single word might span several inches of paper. Braigo proved impractical for everyday use. But with a $350 toy kit and some dedication, a 7th-grader had slashed the price of the cheapest consumer Braille printer by more than 80 percent. Shubham’s invention highlights the fact that there is plenty of room for improvement in Braille printing technology. “I’ve been in the industry for 15 or 20 years,” says Jim Denham, director of Assistive Technology for Educational Programs at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. “And embossers haven’t changed a whole lot in those years.” The chief difficulty, he says, is the limited market. According to the World Health Organization, about 39 million people in the world are blind. But only a tiny subset of this population reads Braille. “If these small companies [that produce embossers] can sell a thousand of their product, that's considered a great success,” Denham says. Ike Presley, national project manager for the American Foundation for the Blind in New York, agrees that demand is the key to the problem. “I still find it fascinating that we have companies willing to make stuff for our population,” he says. And though they may advertise themselves as cheaper or more portable, new products do not always produce readable Braille, Denham says. “You really want good firm dots and the alignment to be good. There’s a lot that goes into good-quality Braille.” Shubham, with financial backing from Intel—his father is a director there—hopes to overcome these hurdles with his new consumer product, Braigo 2.0. This version, which should hit the market this year, is a quantum leap from his initial LEGO product. Powered by Intel’s Edison chip, Shubham says it will be “the world’s cheapest, lightest, quietest, IOT-enabled Braille printer.” (IOT stands for “Internet of Things,” allowing for connection with the Internet and other devices.) Experts in the field have a healthy skepticism of new products, and Shubham’s is no exception. “We’re often asked by a new inventor, ‘What do you think about this?’” Presley says. “I always play devil’s advocate. What happens is they go and put all their time, energy and resources into developing this thing and they didn’t look at the market and realize, ‘Okay, how many of these am I going to be able to sell?’” But, Denham says, the need is there. “It would be great if it [Braigo 2.0] produced good-quality Braille,” he says. “We’re always looking for less expensive and portable solutions for our students.” Braigo 2.0 will have features other printers do not such as the ability to print out CNN headlines every morning. But among the visually impaired, as in the sighted world, reading is increasingly a digital activity. “People make a decision about what they want in hard copy versus electronic,” Presley says. “Blind people do that in a very similar way. Now, do you want to print out your CNN newsfeed every day? No.” Computerized devices featuring refreshable Braille have become common. Small, round pins, made of plastic, rise and fall in response to an electronic signal, forming the dots of a Braille cell. On what is known as a Braille notetaker, users can download files like e-books from a computer, access features like calendars, and in some cases, connect to the Internet. Apple’s iDevices have also become popular among Braille readers. With a refreshable Braille display attached, blind users have access to nearly the same world of information as the sighted. Most of these setups, however, cost at least $2,000. And if Shubham’s invention lives up to its promise, it could be a boon for the blind in other ways. Some Braille readers prefer paper Braille. And refreshable Braille currently only displays one line of text at a time, which is a problem when it comes to representing images like charts, graphs or, say, complex math problems. “Paper Braille is still really valuable,” Denham says. For Shubham’s part, success with Braigo 2.0 would be icing on the cake. Not long ago, he says, “I didn’t even know there was a thing called Braille.” Now he runs his own Braille printer company and has been featured on media outlets ranging from CNN to “The Queen Latifah Show.” But his most shining moment came last June at the White House. Shubham sounds like a Silicon Valley executive when he talks Braille printers, but on the subject of meeting the president, his tone is very much that of a 12-year-old: “Barack Obama’s funny,” Shubham says, “and really awesome.”
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.