They had 15 hours to come up with an idea that'd improve lives. They did it.
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Microsoft

They had 15 hours to come up with an idea for a revolutionary device that would make people's lives better.

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.

(Left to right) Tania Yu, Charlene Xia, Bonnie Wang, Chandani Doshi, Jialin Shi, and Grace Li. All images via Team Tactile, used with permission.

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."

The young inventors began to lay the foundation for Tactile, the world's first real-time text-to-braille converter.

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 current Tactile prototype.

Team Tactile ended up winning first place in the hackathon. But their journey was just getting started.

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 already aids on the market, but what sets Tactile apart is its affordability, accuracy, and ability to improve braille literacy.

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.

A rendering of Team Tactile's vision for their revolutionary invention.

"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."

There's nothing stopping these badasses.

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."

Team Tactile's invention is so promising that they were selected to be a part of Microsoft's #MakeWhatsNext Patent Program.

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."

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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