CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – An Orange Park High graduate is the winner of a prestigious competition for pragmatic innovation for work she and her team did in creating a real time, pocket-sized …
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – An Orange Park High graduate is the winner of a prestigious competition for pragmatic innovation for work she and her team did in creating a real time, pocket-sized text-to-braille converter.
Charlene Xia, 22, is part of a six-woman team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students to win $10,000 as the winners of the 2017 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.
The competition is a national collegiate invention prize program supported by The Lemelson Foundation, which celebrates young inventors that have designed and built prototypes of inventions to solve social problems.
The competition awarded four undergraduate teams and five graduate inventors a total of $115,000 for their ideas, according to an April 19 announcement. The money will go to further fund research.
Xia’s invention, dubbed Tactile, translates printed words into braille by translating a block of text onto a refreshable display of moveable dots the user can run their fingers over to turn any pamphlet, menu, or book into a readable form.
“We all believe that this would be amazing to help the visually impaired community have access to information that we have every day,” Xia said.
Tactile won the competition’s “Use It!” category for their invention.
“It is so important to have people who have the capacity to solve social problems and to invent novel solutions,” said Stephanie Couch, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “We want to celebrate the tremendous accomplishments of the Tactile team and Charlene and these other student prize winners, because it is creative and inventive mindset that has made America great.”
Couch said additionally, Xia’s team is a role model for women in an industry overpopulated by men.
“We have a real diversity challenge,” Couch said. Only “10 percent [of innovators] are female, 90 percent are male, so there are some real gender issues.”
Xia, a graduate of Orange Park High’s engineering academy, developed the design with her team last February during a hackathon, a marathon for software developers and techies. The team was provided with materials and mentorship during a 15-hour period until they had finished their first prototype.
Since then, the team has gone through multiple iterations of the device until they were able to refine it into a size slightly larger than a smart phone for portability.
There are no real-time translators of this kind currently on the market that will translate braille directly from paper. Many translators will only translate online documents, and often those devices can run a user thousands of dollars.
Xia and her team hope to take Tactile and put it on the market for a fraction of that cost. Current estimates put manufacturing costs for the device around $100. The team hopes to make Tactile much more affordable than other similar devices.
Growing up in Shanghai, China, Xia more or less stumbled upon her love of hands-on design work when custom remote control car construction was the prevalent fad of the day.
“In my neighborhood it was popular enough that they built a racetrack that you could race against your friends,” Xia said.
She took the enjoyment she got from building her custom racers into a classroom setting when she moved to America in 2005. Those who remember Xia recall her as an extremely motivated and engaged mainstay of extracurricular activities who absorbed every opportunity for community involvement and lifelong learning.
“She’s very smart, very interested in making society better and very interested in helping others – she was a great role model for any student that crossed her path,” said Paul Parker, who served as director of Career and Technical Education for the Clay County School District the year Xia was a senior, witnessing her work at the OPHS engineering academy.
“She took all the extra courses that could be taken,” he said. “I wish every student had her drive. They would be very successful without her brains if they just had her drive.”
Xia said the Tactile team is currently in a waiting period while their patent is reviewed. When approved, the team hopes to market and sell the device to consumers who, otherwise, would be stuck with braille translated books or nothing at all.
Xia said they’ve already received great reviews from device testers, who are blind.
“Ideally, we want to see our invention come to life, one thing that we believe that this device will fill an unmet need,” Xia said. “We do want to get it commercialized within the next two years if everything goes well.”
Until then, the team is still involved in shrinking down the braille converter to an even smaller portable size.