To help provide a low-cost communication tool for blind
people, undergraduates at Johns Hopkins have invented a
lightweight, portable Braille writing device that requires
no electronic components.
For a class called Engineering Design Project, four
mechanical engineering majors were asked last fall to
produce such an instrument that would cost less than $50.
The more sophisticated and generally more cumbersome
typewriter-style or computer-based Braille writers
available to blind people typically cost much more.
At the end of a two-semester research, design and
testing process, the student inventors came in well below
the target price. They estimate that their Braille writer,
if mass-produced, would cost about $10 in an
easy-to-assemble kit. The team members recently presented
their prototype to the project's sponsor, the
Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind.
"We were looking for a portable writing device that's
low-tech and does not use a computer," said 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-of-concept."
Betsy Zaborowski, executive director of the
federation's Jernigan Institute, said, "The Jernigan
Institute is committed to the development of innovative
tools for the blind. The collaboration with Johns Hopkins'
Whiting School of
Engineering on this project has been very valuable, and
we look forward to additional collaborations in the
The Braille Writer
Photo by HPS/Will Kirk
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
students' prototype can serve as a key starting point in
the group's plan to develop and distribute a low-cost,
low-tech Braille writer. Leaders of the federation, which
has 50,000 members around the United States, believe such a
device could assist many people in this nation and around
the world who cannot afford more expensive writing tools.
To keep assembly and maintenance costs low, the
hand-held writer operates in a purely mechanical fashion.
It features 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.
Presenting the prototype to the federation marked the
end of a challenging lesson in applied engineering for
students Emily Kumpel, Peter Lillehoj, Mark MacLeod and
Penny Robinson. Kumpel and Lillehoj recently graduated;
MacLeod and Robinson expect to finish their studies in
When the students began the project, they decided that
a six-pin hand-held unit would be more compact and more
economical than a keyboard-style Braille writer. Their
first prototype demonstrated that the concept was sound,
but the unit didn't feel comfortable in the hand, so they
produced a second that was superior mechanically and
ergonomically. They have given their sponsor plans for a
further improved model, which will possess a sturdier case
and modifications to keep the pins from sticking.
Robinson, who tracked expenditures, said the team had
to work within a budget of $9,000. "We spent no more than
$5,000, most of it on machining costs," she said. "We did a
really good job at coming in at a low price. And it was
very rewarding. It wasn't just a project to benefit a
company. It was a project that could benefit real people
who need to improve their literacy rate."
MacLeod, who handled much of the computer-aided design
work, said the assignment forced the team members to think
about how the device would be used by people who could not
see it. "We had to put ourselves in their shoes," he said.
"We had to remember that this is their disability. How do
we solve the design problems with that in mind? But this
was a great learning experience overall. It was exactly
what I needed for my education, that hands-on stuff."
Lillehoj said he was most proud of the fact that the
team designed a Braille writer that operates in an entirely
new way. "We ran into some small problems with some parts
of the mechanism, but we were able to come up with
solutions to almost all of them," he said. "I thought it
was neat that our team was able to come up with this new
design that produces Braille through this method. I don't
think it will take that long to train people to use it,
Kumpel said she learned the importance of friendly
collaboration. "Every member of our team was absolutely
integral to the success of the project," she said. "We
learned how to make sure everyone was involved in decisions
about the design and whichever tasks were necessary, as
well as how to balance our schedules and workload. We
weren't afraid to ask each other for help or to ask for
advice. When we were going through the many, many
iterations of the design, every one of us had something to
add to improve the final result."
Producing the portable Braille writer was one of nine
Johns Hopkins projects completed this year by
undergraduates in the engineering design course taught by
Andrew F. Conn, a Johns Hopkins alumnus with more than 30
years of experience in public and private research and
development. Each team of three or four students, usually
working within budgets of up to $12,000, had to design a
device, purchase or fabricate the parts and assemble the
final product. Corporations, government agencies and
nonprofit groups provide the assignments and collaborate
with the students. The course is traditionally a
well-received, hands-on engineering experience for Johns