The Tactile Print-to-Braile Translator: The Next Step for Assistive Technology

January 24, 2017 by Donald Krambeck

Six ECE students at MIT are pushing the boundaries in the inkprint-to-Braille marketplace after winning a hackathon.

Assistive technology like inkprint-to-Braille devices, has been life-changing for blind people. An MIT-based team is pushing the boundaries of how far it can go.

The Evolution of Braille-Focused Technology

Special software for Braille translation either converts "inkprint" (text prepared for reading by the eye) into Braille or Braille into inkprint.


Braille-to-Inkprint Technology

One with an electronic Braille notetaker may convert Braille into inkprint to share with others who cannot read Braille. 

An example of a Braille notetaker is a BrailleNote Touch device, which is a modern portable Braille tablet. This machine is outfitted with a Texas Instruments OMAP4460 1.2GHz mobile processor, a multi-touch capacitive touch screen, a 2GB low-power DDR2 SDRAM, Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity, and HDMI output.


The HumanWare BrailleNote Touch. Image courtesy of HumanWare.


The software that is used for in the Braille translation is considered an assistive technology. Something I found interesting about this technology is that it can be run on a cellular phone, personal computer, network server, or even a mainframe of larger networks of computers. 


Inkprint-to-Braille Technology

Typically, though, one will have inkprint in the format of a word document, pdf file, or internet URL and will want it in Braille.

Once the inkprint has been converted to Braille, there are a couple of ways to go about reading it. First, the Braille could be sent to a Braille embosser, which is an impact printer that renders text as tactile Braille cells.


A Braille embosser. Image courtesy of Index Braille


The other option is to have it sent to a refreshable Braille display that uses electromechanical pins to raise into the shape of Braille characters. As pointed out in this video of a refreshable Braille display teardown, older displays worked very similarly to a music box with a rotating camshaft pushing up pins attached to actuator slides into sequences that form characters. Some similar Braille actuators use solenoids to push up the pins (for example, check out this video to see a homemade solenoid Braille display created with an Arduino).

Some modern Braille displays, however, use piezoelectricity to function. Touchpads can include crystals which expand when voltage is applied to them using what is called the piezo effect. When these crystals are arranged in a specific way, they can form Braille characters. Notably, the University of Michigan developed a Kindle-type tablet that creates refreshable Braille by using the inflation of pneumatic, pressurized air cells rather than voltage to raise the tactile pins (research that developed out of the Holy Braille project).


The U of M Braille tablet using pneumatic cells. Screengrab courtesy of the University of Michigan.


Other technologies include electro-tactile displays (stimulating skin electrically to denote characters) like SmartTouch from TachiLab

Most inkprint-to-Braille technology is either quite large or requires the use of a PC, a smartphone, a specific app, or all of the above. That's what makes Tactile special: it's a standalone device that works in real-time and fits easily in one hand.



Six engineering and computer science students at MIT have created the first portable real-time text-to-Braille converter. Tactile was designed to help those who are visually impaired get access to print text around them all the time at a reasonable cost.


Image courtesy of Tactile

The device makes it easy for someone with low visibility or full blindness to interact with printed language around them in real-time. They must simply run the device over printed text and read the Braille that is output through the pin interface. 

Tactile was born out of a 15-hour hackathon of all things, the MakeMIT event. Team Tactile, as they call themselves, assembled their prototype in the smallest of windows and with competition for supplies and tools. 


The Tactile's prototype stage. Image courtesy of Microsoft.


These six MIT students For their work, they were rewarded with participation in Microsoft's #MakeWhatsNext Patent Program, which focuses on women innovators in STEM fields and supplying them with the resources they need to achieve patents on their inventions. They applied for a formal patent on September 16, 2016, and—with the help of Microsoft's patent lawyers—achieved patent-pending status that same week.

In the future, the team wants to reduce the size of Tactile further without reducing the number of characters that can be displayed at once. They also want to improve their current actuator system for the pins and—of course—make the device affordable (hopefully under $100).

Keep up with Tactile's progress here.

Other Devices Helping Those with Disabilities

Finger Reader

The Finger Reader is a wearable prototype in the design stages that helps with reading printed text. The device aims to help visually impaired people the require assistance with finding printed readings as well as translating languages. The idea came out of the MIT Media Lab as they were focusing on developing more practical and natural user interfaces. The group at Finger Reader wanted to provide the visually impaired a device that is quick and gives real-time feedback to provide for an easier lifestyle.


Image courtesy of Finger Reader



Another great wearable that is ready for pre-order is Dot, the world's first smartwatch for blind users. It's more affordable than a typical e-Braille device, which can cost thousands of dollars.

Dot allows the visually impaired access to messages, tweets, and even books anywhere at any time. There are six dots on four cells on the smartwatch surface that either rise or lower to form four letters in Braille. It connects to any smartphone via Bluetooth to retrieve and translate any given text from emails or messaging applications.


Image courtesy of Dot



For those with speech and language disorders, Talkitt can help them use their voice to communicate with others. The device works by translating unintelligible pronunciations into an understandable speech so others can understand exactly what they are trying to say, despite speech impediments.


Image courtesy of medGadget


The device can listen and translate many languages and the algorithm can learn the user's speech patterns and create a personal speech dictionary for better translations.


Featured image used courtesy of Microsoft.