A group of engineering students knew exactly what they wanted to build at a student technology competition, and they had just 15 hours to do it.
As they worked furiously alongside other MIT students, the young women hit a series of snags. They had to wait in long lines to use the 3D printer and laser cutter they needed to shape various parts for their project. Some of the supplies their design called for had already been snatched up by others.
Bonnie Wang, an engineering and materials science major, recalls it as “one of the most hectic 15 hours of my life, ever.”
They cobbled together their prototype with barely 15 minutes to spare. It was clunky, with taped corners, an array of wires sprouting from the middle and gaps they’d hastily filled with cardboard — but it worked.
In the wee hours of that morning in February, they were awarded a first-place trophy for their invention: a device that could turn printed words into Braille. It was a moment that left them even more energized to create something that could help blind people around the globe — and to cement their place in the growing subset of the world’s inventors who are women.
The tight-knit friends, known as Team Tactile, are now among four groups of innovators accepted into the new Microsoft #MakeWhatsNext Patent Program, giving them the chance to get the legal help they need to navigate the complicated and often expensive process of obtaining a patent.
“There are a lot of potential barriers for women entering tech and staying in tech, from not enough exposure as children to lack of encouragement as they grow up,” said student Tania Yu. “This program makes it a lot easier for women to pursue what they’ve been working on, instead of just dropping a project because they feel like they couldn’t get intellectual property rights.”
They formally applied for a patent for their real-time text-to-Braille converter, called Tactile, on Sept. 16. All of the Microsoft Patent Program’s participants reached the major milestone of achieving patent-pending status that same week for their fledgling technologies.
Members of all four groups are attending this year’s Microsoft Ignite conference in Atlanta, where they’ll meet with execs from around the company, discuss their projects and learn from industry experts about the latest technology.
The genesis of the patent program came earlier this year, when Microsoft connected with girls in New York for International Women’s Day, and young students were asked to name an inventor. The answers came quickly: Ben Franklin. Nikola Tesla. Thomas Edison.
But when they were asked to name a female inventor? The question was met with uncertain silence.
“We realized as we started talking to these girls that we had hit on something,” recalled Jenny Leahy, director of marketing for Microsoft’s Global Advertising team. “Even though females in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields have done and continue to do incredible things that have shaped our world, their stories aren’t as well known. Uncovering these stories and celebrating these women is key for the next generation to have female role models to help them realize they can do it, too.”
The #MakeWhatsNext Patent Program seeks out industrious women, or groups that include at least one female member, who are working on advances in technology that could make a real difference in the world. It then connects them with Microsoft patent lawyers and a newly formed Patent Board of senior company leaders, researchers and technology experts to provide them with mentorship and connections across Microsoft and the tech industry.
The other teams in the program are AfriGals, a group of women in Uganda who have developed a low-cost phone app to help detect sickle cell anemia; Team AMANDA, a group of four engineering students in Greece who have created a gamified virtual reality app to combat bullying; and a medical school graduate in India who created Care N Grow, a system that monitors schoolkids’ health profiles at scale to detect often-overlooked medical problems.
“When we started looking at inventors to invite into the program, we really focused on the impact these inventions could make, and we also wanted to ensure they had a high likelihood of receiving a patent,” Leahy said. “The problems these teams are trying to solve for are big issues that the world is facing today, and I love that the teams are and will continue to drive considerable impact through their inventions, both in their local communities and around the world.”
Microsoft Assistant General Counsel Sandy Swain, who leads a team of patent attorneys at Microsoft, connects patent experts with Patent Program participants to file their applications. She said she has long been interested in seeing more girls and women find success in science and technology, so she “was really excited about this idea and this way we, in the patent group, could help.”
“There are multiple steps in the patent process that need to be successfully navigated and completed in order to get to a patent, and it can be very intimidating for someone who’s not familiar with it,” she said. “Having a patent attorney work with the participants eases that barrier in many ways.”
The engineering students behind Tactile hope their device will allow people living with low or no vision to read everything from textbooks to menus, all in real time, by converting the words into Braille that appears on a refreshable handheld display.
As they work to improve their early prototypes, they also want to combine the mechanism used to capture images of text with the display itself, which has pins that move up and down to form Braille characters. Their goal is to make the device about 5 inches long by 2 inches wide — barely larger than a candy bar — and display about 36 Braille characters at a time.
The students are working to refine the mechanical actuation system, which moves the pins, and are exploring ways to use materials that will allow them to make the device much cheaper than any other Braille display on the market. They’re aiming to make it cost less than $100.
Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft’s chief accessibility officer, loves the idea that the students have focused their efforts on a way to help empower people. Such technology inspires many because “we all want to do projects that are going to enable people to do whatever their hearts dream of,” she said.
“There cannot be enough investment in technology that will enable, empower and allow people with disabilities to go and do amazing things,” she said. “And getting it to under $100 is gold dust. I can’t wait to see where this one goes — and I think the patent is a great next step.”
The group now includes six students — Wang, Yu, Jialin Shi, Charlene Xia, Grace Li and Chandani Doshi — who are all starting their senior year at MIT and are each fascinated by technology in their own ways.
Enthusiasm fills Wang’s voice as she talks about her experience writing code for computational simulations involving solar-thermal fields as an intern at BMW in Germany. Li just wrapped up a summer interning in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Shi recently took a trip to a Six Flags amusement park and found herself preoccupied by the engineering of the wires and harnesses that each ride relies on to keep people safe at such lofty, spinning heights.
But these studious engineers are also serious about having fun. On many nights, they crowd into Xia and Shi’s double dorm room to watch movies or hold impromptu dance parties. Each year for Shi’s birthday, they capture their dance moves to some outrageous tune to make their own music videos.
At dinnertime, if they’re not laughing over a meal in the campus dining hall, they’re likely out trying new restaurants in their ongoing mission to find food that is too spicy for Doshi, but they haven’t been able to overwhelm her unflappable taste buds yet.
The idea for Tactile was born earlier this year. Some of the students thought it would be fun to participate in the MakeMIT hackathon. They entered under the team name “100% Enthusiasm” because, in an early group chat to gauge interest, each responded with the same basic answer: “I don’t know how much I can contribute, but I’m pretty excited!”
“That was the consensus of the entire group, so I made a joke about how we have zero percent skill and 100 percent enthusiasm, and the name stuck,” Shi said. “We just became ‘100% Enthusiasm’ because that’s what we knew we had going in.”
They started by throwing around ideas of what they could design and build in 15 hours: A dancing robot? A machine that draws elaborate pictures? An alarm clock that awakens you with a splash of water, or maybe a helpful smack in the face?
As ideas popped up and were just as swiftly cast aside, the group realized they really wanted to do something that could make a difference in people’s lives. Shi came across a blog post with a hypothetical rendering of a Braille watch, and the students were soon discussing the idea of building a device that could turn text to Braille.
“We knew assistive technology was a huge and growing field, and this was something I think everyone felt good about making,” Shi said. “Especially since we knew that if we could make this device, it would actually have an impact.”
Since the hackathon, the students have improved their prototype several times. Many people suggested that they get a patent. It seemed like a good idea, but they felt intimidated by the process.
That’s why they were so excited to be invited into the patent program in July. The students believe it will make a big difference in how far they’ll be able to take their idea.
“The legal side is very important to us, but certainly Microsoft also has a lot of really bright engineers,” Yu said. “We stand to benefit a lot from learning from these people, who have more experience and maybe have considered things we haven’t thought of yet.”
The students learned through their research that the Braille literacy rate among blind people around the world is discouragingly low, partly because there’s limited technology for Braille and partly because of an increasing reliance on audio technologies, which Wang said “can hinder people from learning Braille or taking it seriously.”
“Our device would really increase people’s access to Braille because it’s portable, and we’re trying to make it affordable as well,” she said. “We could potentially increase the Braille literacy rate, which would in turn give people more independence and better employment opportunities.”
Despite the prevalence of text-to-speech and other audio-based technology, Braille and the technology that uses it remain as important as ever, according to Anne Taylor, who served for 11 years as the director of access technology at the National Federation of the Blind and is now a senior supportability programming manager at Microsoft.
Blind people in the U.S. have long faced high rates of unemployment. A 2013 study showed less than 40 percent of legally blind or visually impaired people are employed — but it also revealed that those who read Braille on a weekly basis were more likely to have jobs, and even to earn higher salaries, than those who did not.
Taylor, who has been blind since birth and uses Braille every day, says Braille literacy “has really helped many blind people get ahead in life.”
Taylor is eager to learn more about the students’ technology because she knows the drawbacks of what’s on the market now. She has two electronic Braille displays on her desk. One had a price tag of about $5,000. The other cost even more.
“If we can bring the price point down so that it will be affordable for every Braille reader in the world,” she said, “that would absolutely be helpful.”
People can already convert Braille to text with technology available now, but it takes a PC, a phone to scan the text, an optical character recognition app and a Braille display that all have to be physically connected each time, “so it’s very convoluted and cumbersome,” Taylor said.
A device that turns text into Braille as quickly and easily as a sighted person can read a piece of paper “would be outstanding,” she said.
The Tactile team would love to see their invention help boost Braille literacy around the globe. They hope it can help many people gain more independence, and they’ve even been discussing how they could make it available to schools that don’t have the budget for expensive technology.
“The thing that’s really pushed us is there’s not really something like this yet in the world… and it’s something that’s needed,” Li said. “That’s really motivated us to continue to develop this and make it happen.”
– written by Tracy Ith