From Legos to Low-Cost Braille Printer
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because while adults are programming one-hit-wonder apps, this 12-year-old has invented something that could help the visually impaired for years to come.
By Vignesh Ramachandran
Like a lot of 12-year-old boys, Shubham Banerjee loves to play with Legos. But instead of building a spaceship or a giant castle, Shubham used his Lego Mindstorms EV3 robotics kit to build an open-source braille printer.
Shubham’s remarkable invention started as a science fair project. Last December, he spotted a flier on his doorstep soliciting donations to help the visually impaired. The flier prompted Shubham to ask: How do blind people read? And so the middle schooler used Google to research braille printers and their costs. Baffled that the cost of a braille printer started at $2,000, he decided to hack together his own printer using the Lego robotics kit.
The Santa Clara, California-based eighth-grader tells OZY that the process took about a month and seven prototypes before he settled on the right version. Using only the Lego kit and small items like pins and washers from the Home Depot, Shubham created the first version of the Braigo braille printer. With the help of a keypad, users can select letters that the Braigo then prints in braille on a receipt-like paper format.
“Don’t underestimate Lego,” Shubham tells OZY.
What’s truly revolutionary about the first version of the Braigo is that the entire invention cost about $350 in parts — dramatically cheaper than what’s currently on the market.
“The cost of the technology is always higher than it should be,” says Brian MacDonald, president of National Braille Press. “It’s a small market and companies take advantage of it. A reasonably good, low-cost braille embosser is about $1,000. They’re noisy and they’re prohibitive for people to have them.”
Anyone can develop applications that could allow the Braigo to work in different languages for people in various countries.
The Braigo, which allows a user to select from A–Z and 0–9 and prints each character in braille one by one, requires some do-it-yourself assembly, unlike the traditional, ready-in-box printer that costs so much more.
“It’s a real challenge,” MacDonald says. “Yes, they’re useful, but a lot of people can’t buy them because they’re too expensive. In the long run, I don’t know if people will continue to buy embossed braille printers.”
Not surprisingly, Shubham’s invention has been lauded by many, including Henry “Hoby” Wedler, a blind Ph.D. student in computational chemistry at the University of California, Davis. In a YouTube video in which Shubham demos the Braigo, Wedler says: “What you’ve done here is extraordinarily impressive and really demonstrates what is possible if you think outside the box and don’t just do a simple, standard, run-of-the-mill science experiment that’s been done 10,000 times.”
Wedler goes on to say that parents who don’t know braille themselves can use the Braigo to show children how to read braille. And blind individuals can use the device to label things, he adds.
Shubham’s braille printer has caught the attention of Intel, which is helping him commercialize a second version of the Braigo, to be released sometime in 2015. The Braigo 2.0 will use Intel’s Edison board and be able to connect to Wi-Fi. The device’s software will be open-source, meaning anyone can develop applications that could allow the Braigo to work in different languages for people in various countries. Pricing details aren’t available yet, but Shubham assures us it’ll cost much less than existing $2,000 braille printers.
“I really like helping people,” Shubham says, noting that science is his favorite subject in school. Sounding very much like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Shubham hints at the disruptive nature of what he’s doing, saying he wants to halt the legacy of braille companies taking people’s money for their costly products.
“I hope they don’t get mad at me. I’m just 12.”