Touch of brilliance

On a mission to make braille technology accessible to all, Team Tactile is working to revolutionize the industry with a text-to-braille converter that will make a real-world impact—all for less than $500.

Paul Parravano was 18 months old when his parents got the news. Retinoblastoma; cancer of the retina. By three, his vision was gone completely.

His parents, Giuseppe and Ernestina, were devastated—but determined. “They said, ‘Well, this is tough, but we’re going to sort it out by making sure he learns braille,’” recalls Paul. So, they taught him. His father handcrafted a makeshift braille reader: a block of wood with six holes lined up in symmetrical pairs. Ernestina quizzed Paul with braille alphabet cards: “Make an H,” she’d say, and Paul would drop a marble into its respective home.

Today, Paul is one of the 10 percent of the 1.5 million legally blind Americans who can read braille. And, as co-director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Office of Government and Community Relations, he’s one of the 42 percent of the community who holds a job. Literacy and employment: they go hand-in-hand.

Team Tactile plans to up those numbers with Tactile: an affordable, pocket-sized, on-demand text-to-braille converter.  

If blind children are going to have an equal shot at education and employment, they really need to know braille.

- Paul Parravano

Meeting of the minds

It all started in February 2016, when six friends—Jessica Shi, Charlene Xia, Chandani Doshi, Grace Li, Chen (Bonnie) Wang, and Tania Yu—entered MakeMIT: an annual 15-hour student hackathon.

When Team Tactile (as they’d soon be called) first came up with the idea to create a real-time text-to-braille device for the competition, they thought it’d be fun and technically challenging. Then, they began their research and discovered there was nothing like they’d had in mind already available on the market.

We were like, ‘Why is this not available?’” says Jessica. The current options were cumbersome, inconvenient and nowhere near good enough. Reality set in: creating a text-to-braille converter wouldn’t just be fun and technically challenging. It would mean something. “We just grabbed onto it,” she says. That was their opportunity moment—and how Team Tactile got its start.

MakeMIT

The idea went like this: with Tactile, a visually impaired user could scan any document—a menu, a package, a piece of mail—and the device would quickly convert the print to braille in real time.

Creating a proof of concept wasn’t easy, but the women were patient, determined, and pushed through—together. By the time the 15 hours were up, they had a “working” prototype. At 3 AM, a bleary-eyed Team Tactile shuffled into the judging room. Their barely operating device was stacked up against flashy projects—moving robots, a giant candy dispenser. “Ours was just one block of cell, kind of janky. One letter kept popping up,” says Jessica. They felt defeated.

Until moments later, when—to their disbelief—they heard their name called. They’d won the hackathon. Suddenly, they a had first-place prize, a Microsoft sponsorship, and a realization: Tactile was much bigger than MakeMIT.

Inclusive innovation

Word spread, and another innovator in the blind technology space reached out with a suggestion that would alter the course of everything: meet Paul.

Team Tactile paid him a visit, armed with their prototype and lots of questions. They wanted to know how Paul might benefit from a device like theirs.

“I was really knocked out by the fact that these young people had this idea and they wanted my help in designing and thinking about it,” says Paul. “I knew a whole lot less than they did about the mechanics, but they did a lot of homework and studying and took a lot of my advice about what it needed to be in order for it to be useful to me.”

For Team Tactile, the meeting was a turning point. “I didn’t realize how much of an impact it could have until I met Paul and we talked about our device,” says Jessica. “It’s no longer just a puzzle; there’s a human element attached to it. We’re making this for someone now.”

Now it’s just a matter of bringing it to the masses.

When you unite imagination, creativity, and the willingness to talk to people who may have a different approach, that’s when you get real innovation.

- Paul Parravano
Six students lean against each other and smile together

The next generation of braille technology

Each iteration of Tactile is smaller and smarter than the previous one—the goal is a pocket-sized device that measures 5 inches long by 2 inches wide and features 36 braille characters—but the work is far from over.

While all six Team Tactile members completed their undergraduate careers in 2017, they’re continuing to perfect their prototype—all in the hopes their $500 device will be available to the blind community, and soon. They’re also working toward patenting pieces of their technology with the Microsoft #MakeWhatsNext Patent Program, which connects female innovators with industry experts and leaders.

“I came to MIT to apply what I’ve learned to directly solve an issue I see that’s not being addressed out there,” says Jessica. “This is something that really excites me. It’s a challenge and it’s what I believe engineering should be going toward: directly solving these problems.”

Paul’s confident they’ll get the job done.

“The fact that they’re thinking about the problem—that they’re aware of this challenge that many, many blind people face—is already such a powerful demonstration of what great young people they are,” says Paul. “No matter where they go or what they do, they’ve already made a significant contribution. I can’t wait to see what Team Tactile accomplishes.”

[Tactile] is something that really excites me. It’s a challenge and it’s what I believe engineering should be going toward; directly solving these problems.

- Jessica Shi