Undergrads create handheld Braille writer

Sept. 14, 2006
To help provide a low-cost communication tool for the blind, undergraduates at the Johns Hopkins University invented a lightweight, portable Braille writing device that needs no electronic components.

Steven Booth of the National Federation of the Blind tests a prototype of a handheld low-cost Braille writer designed by students from the Johns Hopkins University.

The four mechanical engineering majors created the writer for an Engineering Design Project class.

"We were looking for a portable writing device that's low tech and does not use a computer," says Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, who has tried out the prototype. "We want to give credit to these students. They did an outstanding job. This was definitely a good proof-ofconcept."

Federation officials said that although the prototype does not perform perfectly, it includes a number of innovative features, such as a button mechanism to create multiple Braille impressions. Organization leaders say the prototype can serve as a key starting point in the group's plan to develop and distribute a lowcost, low-tech Braille writer. To keep assembly and maintenance costs low, the handheld writer invented by the students operates in a purely mechanical fashion. It has six buttons that can be depressed to produce any of the embossed patterns that correspond to a Braille letter, number, or punctuation mark. The device is used with a traditional Braille slate that features rows of rectangular openings or cells. When a piece of paper is inserted into the slate, the device can insert one Braille letter or number into each cell.

Normally, a blind person uses a stylus to poke up to six indentations into each cell, forming one bump at a time. The students' device uses metal pins to emboss up to six marks at once, which could speed up the writing process. Because the buttons are close together, a single finger can depress more than one.

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