Girl Power Breaks Down Barriers for the Blind

Each year, 250 of MIT’s brightest students come together to compete in the MakeMIT Hackathon challenge. A traditional hackathon is a design marathon where coders, graphic designers, project managers, and anyone else in the realm of software development come together to create an amazing software project in a short period of time. At MakeMIT, students focus on design and engineering.

The first MakeMIT Hackathon was historic for a number of reasons. Not only was it the first hackathon that incorporated engineering principles, but it’s initial phase was won by an all-female team who created a device that has the potential to change hundreds of millions of lives.

Roland DG Mid Europe Italia, Flickr

It’s estimated that 285 million people suffer from visual impairment around the world, with 39 million being completely blind. Accessing information can be difficult for these individuals since less than 1% of printed information has been translated to braille. While there are some translating mechanisms that can convert digital text braille, that leaves unknown mountains of printed text out of reach for the blind.

That is, until Team Tactile took the 2016 MakeMIT Hackathon by storm. The team is made up of six female MIT undergrads studying mechanical engineering, materials science, electrical engineering, and computer science between them. The girls have been friends since Freshman year, and decided to enter the hackathon as a team.

In the beginning, the team considered creating a dancing robot. Then they moved on to a braille watch. But once they started talking about it, they realized that no one had invented a device that could convert text to braille. In the 15 hours of the competition, the girls designed and redesigned their prototype. In fact, it wasn’t until the very end of the competition that their invention, coined ‘Tactile,’ began to work. But work it did, and the girls became the very first team to win Phase One of the MakeMIT Hackathon.

Tactile went on to win the Microsoft sponsorship prize, a $10,000 grant from MIT Ideas Global Challenge, an additional $10,000 development grant from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund, and acceptance into the Microsoft Patent Program. Paul Parravano, the co-director of MIT’s Government and Community Relations division, also took a special interest in Tactile. Parravano has been blind since the age of three, so he immediately recognized how life-changing this device could be for the visually impaired.

In April, tactile won the 2017 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, which is competition that recognizes students for creating innovative solutions to challenges in healthcare, transportation, food and agriculture, and consumer devices. The team is currently working on their fifth Tactile prototype. Since its hackathon inception, Tactile has become completely mobile and is roughly the size of a candy bar.

Team Tactile is committed to making this device affordable and available to every visually impaired person. They are aiming to keep the manufacturing costs at $100, which would bring the price of a Tactile unit to less than the cost of a new iPhone. These incredible young women hope that their journey will inspire young girls worldwide to pursue STEM studies, and to use their knowledge to improve the lives of others. To learn more about Tactile, visit www.teamtactile.com.

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