And they had to beat out hundreds of other teams that had some of the best student hackers in the world.
"Our first idea was a dancing robot that, like, danced with you if you’re lonely in a dance club," Charlene Xia said with a chuckle.
She and friends Chandani Doshi, Grace Li, Jialin Shi, Bonnie Wang, and Tania Yu were taking part in the MakeMIT hackathon — MIT's premier technology design competition. They and other students were tasked with coming up with a prototype for a new device.
Xia continued: "Then we moved to a braille watch that we saw a concept model of that somebody posted online. It got us thinking, 'Well, wait a second, is there a thing like a text-to-braille converter? Like it translates and scans images of text on a book and converts it to braille when you move up and down?' We kept googling and nothing came out."
It was a daunting challenge to say the least, but one that these young women, dubbed Team Tactile, were more than ready for.
"The good thing was that our team was very diverse," said Shi. "We have people who studied material science, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science."
Of course, as most projects go, hurdles inevitably popped up. From the hourlong lines at the 3D printer to their code not working properly, it was one heck of a photo finish.
"Basically, nothing came together until the last 15 minutes," added Shi. "That’s when we were finally able to take a picture of some text and finally translate that into some motor movement, which translated into a braille character. It was stressful, but it was definitely one of the highlights of our time here at MIT — that moment when something you make from scratch finally works and your concept is realized."
The team received incredible support and encouragement from the mentors involved with the hackathon — and one mentor, in particular, had a lasting effect.
Paul Parravano is the co-director of MIT's Government and Community Relations office. He's been blind since age 3. He told Team Tactile that their invention could have a huge impact on the visually impaired community, especially since they experience many pain points when it comes to access to information — no more than 5% of books are accessible to them.
Ultimately, providing someone who is visually impaired with the ability to read any book out in the world was too important not to pursue.
"The impact that we could potentially have in the future is really what drove us to continue working as a team," said Wang. "Just working it out despite our problem sets, all the exams, projects and everything, we still keep going and just try to take the prototype as far as we can."
There are devices such as the B2G, which acts as a mini-laptop for blind people to access information. However, it costs a staggering $2,495. Tactile, on the other hand, could cost as little as $100.
There are other cheaper alternatives, but they're not necessarily as effective. "For instance, there’s an app that lets you take pictures of printed text and then it turns to audio," said Li. "As you can imagine, this is not applicable for every situation. It’s also less accurate."
But the ability to read instead of having something read back to you is where the biggest difference lies. The team noted that braille literacy is very low right now — in fact, less than 10% of the 1.3 million legally blind people in the U.S. are braille readers. Tactile could help change that.
"An audio translator won't be able to translate all the mathematical signs and symbols," said Shi. "There’s also everyday life — something as simple as reading packaging labels and just knowing your surroundings. Not [having to ask] for help for every little thing."
Right now, the team is still working to refine Tactile to make sure it's as efficient and affordable as possible. After graduation, they plan to work on it full time, and they have their sights set on getting this invention into the hands of all those who truly need it — whether in the U.S. or in the developing world.
Added Wang, "Ideally ... one day, every visually impaired person will have a Tactile device — something that they carry around with them every day and use on a daily basis to access the information around them."
The program focuses on two things: helping young female inventors navigate the legal hurdles that come with securing patents and empowering young women to bridge the gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
"They really helped us take the stress away from the patent process and allowed us to focus on the technology — the part that we're passionate about developing," said Wang.
Tactile is a great example of the type of life-changing innovation that can come from technology, and Microsoft is committed to ensuring that everyone — especially young girls — has access to computer science education resources so they, too, can unlock the power to create with technology.
"Why is that the case when you think of patents, you don't think of women inventors?" wondered Xia. "Right now, there's a movement towards building this community of women engineers and inventors, and we're really happy and honored to be part of this movement and contribute as much as we can to make sure this movement continues and grows."