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Engineering students win innovation prize

Northeastern University student-researchers have won the Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation from the National Braille Press for designing a low-cost, retrofitted Braille embosser.

The students developed the innovative technology for a senior capstone project under the direction of mechanical and industrial engineering associate professor Gregory Kowalski. The team members included engineering majors Ben Braggins, Molly Brown, Patrick Cleary and Jeff Witkowski.

Northeastern University’s Office of Technology Innovation and Commercialization has filed a provisional application for a patent on the product, which maintains Northeastern’s rights for up to one year.

The National Braille Press, a Boston-based, nonprofit Braille printing and publishing house, sponsored the project and plans to market the printer as an inexpensive alternative for public and private use by the legally blind.

Existing Braille embossers cost between $2,000 and $6,000 and print between 15 and 78 characters per second. The embosser developed by the Northeastern students would cost about $200 to make and print one character per second.

Speed, said Kowalski, is secondary at this point in the project’s development to making sure that the visually impaired have affordable access to printing essays, e-mails and other word documents. He noted that having low-cost Braille embossers in schools that can’t afford the more expensive models would “level the playing field” between blind students and their peers.

Students designed the prototype of the Braille embosser using an inkjet printer. They replaced the ink cartridge with two independently motor-operated embossing wheels that print half a character each. When the embossing wheels apply force to a series of pins, the pins puncture the paper in the formation of the correct Braille character.

The entire process is controlled by computer software written in the Visual Basic and C++ programming languages.

Brian MacDonald, president of the National Braille Press, met with students throughout the project to discuss its development.

Paul Parravano, chair of the National Braille Press, praised the students for their engineering craftsmanship and creativity at the award ceremony, held in the Microsoft New England Research and Development Center, in Cambridge.

“This type of thinking can revolutionize how the blind experience technology,” said Parravano, adding that the students built the Braille embosser with an understanding that affordability and accessibility have made it difficult for the visually impaired to use technology like everyone else.

The pressing need for an affordable Braille embosser initially surprised Brown, who traveled from California to accept her award. “It’s cool to do something that really matters,” she said, noting the difficulties of turning design concepts into an actual product. “Our work paid off because people are actually going to use this.”

“This can help people and that’s the most important thing,” added Witkowski, who noted that the design of the mechanical system is unlike that of anything on the market today.

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