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iBrail Creative Team

Michael Northrup
TOUCH SENSITIVE: (from left) Mark Macleod, Eric Harden, and Penny Robinson

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 8/23/2006

City Paper doesn't have a Braille edition, so do your blind neighbors a favor and read this good news aloud. Thanks to a team of senior engineering majors in Professor Andrew Conn's Engineering Design Class at Johns Hopkins University, soon a sleek, handheld, needs-no-batteries appliance may be on the market that allows sightless readers to jot down Braille notes up to six times quicker than the old "punch one dot at a time" stylus method. Best of all, its inexpensive and self-assembled design is a godsend to Third World countries, where illiteracy among the blind is epidemic. The project team has dispersed for the summer, but we caught up with some of the members in two separate interviews--first with supervising Conn and student Mark MacLeod, and then MacLeod, student Penny Robinson, and senior machine shop coordinator Eric Harden. They're all proud of the device that their "Team IBRAIL" created, and rightly so.

City Paper: How did this project get started?

Andrew Conn: The National Federation of the Blind [NFB] sponsored this project. They said what the world needs is an inexpensive way to create Braille. There are wonderful machines, typewriter type machines, electronic machines that cost $5,000-$6,000, but if you're poor and blind, wow--that's a mountain. They hoped we could keep the costs down to $50, or maybe $35, for pieces and the parts. But that's it. They didn't tell us how to do it. And so we started the process for this project, or any project, by defining the so-called elements of [the device]. And so we brainstorm--all of us, the whole class--for ideas.

Mark MacLeod: The first brainstorming session I can't really recall, but I know pretty early along the road we were talking about a typewriter. That is the most common method for mechanizing Braille writing. They have the Perkins Brailler, which is the first way to make Braille . . .

CP: What is that like? I've never seen one of those?

MM: It looks like a typewriter. It has six keys along with a space bar, and each key corresponds to a dot in the Braille character--are you familiar with Braille?

CP: Yeah. So if you press down one key, that's the upper left dot, another key's the middle left . . .

MM: Yeah, you got it. And there have been many versions of Braille writers since then that are very similar. Now you have electronic methods which have more features, but they're more expensive and they're still not quite portable. And also, cost was an issue. Eventually we came up with a pen concept. One of the sponsors had talked about something he envisioned. He said, "Think about a pen in hand. Think about how you can go down the street, and if you see a sign or billboard, all you've got to do is take out a pen and paper and jot something down." But a person who writes Braille doesn't have that same convenience. He has the slate and stylus method, and that's a slow method, and also it's strenuous.

CP: And it's not like the kind of thing that you could put in your handbag and take with you.

MM: Oh, yeah, you could, yeah.

AC: Yeah, they do. That's the cheapest, smallest, easiest--except it's slow. Tedious. A skilled Braille writer gets pretty quick with it, but still, they've got to punch every dot.

CP: So what was the solution for speeding up that process?

MM: Try to accomplish up to six dots in one push. We eventually decided that the Braille pen was risky, because it had never been done before. But it had real promise. And that was the beginning.

CP: Tell me about the finished device you've created.

Penny Robinson: You hold it with one hand. There's a series of six buttons in sets of three, and a blind person would be able to press the individual button or different combinations of the buttons. You select different combinations of buttons, and when you move the device down it will create different indents.

CP: So one or two keys, it's like playing the guitar, and you need to hold down two strings on the fret at once.

AC: Perfectly said. You grab it, push down the keys you want, and then go to the next one.

Eric Harden: With that, you're at least five times faster because you're doing one cell at a time instead of one dot at a time. Based on the manual technology they have there, they're already leaps and bounds ahead.

CP: How does it work?

AC: We can't say a whole lot about it other than the functionality.

CP: How come?

AC: It hasn't been patented yet. And, frankly, what's inside there is pretty unique, pretty clever, beautifully simple. And as soon as a patent is applied for, we'd love to tell everybody about it. (laughs)

CP: Was there any prototype testing?

AC: One of the interesting challenges is that the points of contact with the NFB were blind. We couldn't show them a drawing of what we had in mind. The students had to create clay models, cover them with tinfoil, and give them to these people who could then see, literally see what we were doing. Because their sense of touch and the way their brain works is such that they can feel this baby and see it. And that's how they helped us to make the decision as to which way to go.

Everyone wasn't always so excited about [our design]. After the initial excitement about the pen, Penny made a Styrofoam model and we brought it to our first sponsor. And when we put it in her hand we expected her to jump up and down and scream, but she basically was like, "`Uh . . . '"

PR: I think she hurt your feelings. (laughs) You were like, "`Maybe you should hold it like this, see how this feels.'"

MM: Yeah. And then afterward--

PR: "`I don't know. Go work on this some more.'" But she came back here to meet us and she said, "`You know what? I think you guys might have something.'"

EH: It's also difficult to start with a Styrofoam model and, for a lack of a better word, envision how the thing's going to work when you don't have anything mechanical that's actually giving you something to feel. So in her defense, it's a little difficult to start with a block of Styrofoam and say, OK, I know it's supposed to do this.

CP: Yeah, how exciting is an iPod in Styrofoam?

PR: (laughs) We had fake buttons!

MM: The first prototype was horrendously uncomfortable. So we made something that fit a palm. We found with the ergonomic improvements of the second model, the ergonomics showed that you could have gains in leverage. And it was much easier [to use].

CP: How did you guys work together as a team?

PR: We always had a deadline where something was due, and when it got close to the deadline we'd split things up. We met every week twice a week, for two hours.

EH: I think it kind of evolves into who is best suited to do what. They found early on that Mark is really good with the CAD [computer-aided design] work, so he did most of the computer rendering and modeling and stuff. And then there's accounting, and brainstorming, and different coordinations. With all the teams and all the senior design courses, [what] it comes down to is, OK, you're best at this, so you do this. So they're not constantly reinventing the wheel.

CP: So where does this device go from here?

AC: We're going to be delivering the third prototype, which has little springs in it which will drive those pins down to make the whole thing move quicker. One of the tasks the team had was to come up with what would it cost to make these in a large quantity. The final cost [per unit] at the end of this school semester was $10.05. The target had been $35 or maybe $50, so that was very pleasing. And if we add some springs, we'll still be good.

CP: How has this experience changed you, as far as your skills or passion for engineering?

MM: It makes me feel ready. I'm ready now. I'm confident in industry. Before I was a scared little kid--I was scared when I took on this project. We brainstormed and I got to see the design process and to work with a group--that's important. Now I can say with confidence that I can go in industry. I know what I'm doing now. And that's important.

CP: Is there an aspect of IBRAIL that you're especially proud of as an engineer?

MM: The most significant thing about this project, the most important thing, is its novelty. It is something that creates Braille in a different way. I think that was important to the NFB, to make something different to open up innovation. We didn't just make another typewriter. We designed a new way to make Braille.

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