Bonnie Wang and her team developed a tool to translate English text to Braille in real-time.

Bonnie Wang · Materials Processing Engineer · Northrop Grumman

For Bonnie Wang, studying materials science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was perhaps an inevitability. “I have always been interested in physics and chemistry in high school. When I was deciding my major freshmen spring, Materials Science and Engineering seemed to be the major with the right blend of physics and chemistry with applications in many fields,” she says. “I love the breadth of knowledge that Materials Science and Engineering uncovers, and the myriad of possibilities that it enables, from engineering silicon wafers in the micron scale to testing airplanes.”

Her enthusiasm for innovation led her to team up with fellow MIT students Jessica Shi, Grace Li, Charlene Xia, and Chandani Doshi to create Tactile, a tool that translates English text to Braille in real-time. With a target price below $100, a fraction of the price of other options currently on the market, Tactile has been lauded by Forbes as “a quantum leap forward for the blind community.” After receiving a $10,000 grant from the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, Team Tactile filed for a patent with the support of the Microsoft Patent Program.

Tactile was originally conceived for MIT’s annual hardware hackathon, MakeMIT. The process of realizing their idea into a tangible device was exhilarating, but stressful. “While prototyping from scratch at the hackathon, it was really hectic because we only had fifteen hours to build our prototype, and our table was cluttered with electronic parts, sketches, and water and food wrappers,” she says. “We were finally able to finish a working prototype thirty minutes before the deadline, and we were all really excited to see our teamwork coming together.”

The project gave Bonnie the chance to gain real-world experience. “I’ve had the opportunity to do back-of-the-envelope calculations, drill holes in aluminum, and try all these hands-on aspects of materials science that I hadn’t been exposed to before,” she told the MIT Technology Review in April.

Team Tactile graduated from MIT in June 2017, but are still dedicated to continuing the project, Bonnie says. “We are in the progress of incorporating the camera and Braille pins into one device and continuing to reduce the size of the Braille pin linear actuation by using cheaper mechanisms.” Bonnie herself will soon begin working at Northrop Grumman as a Materials Processing Engineer.

Her advice for others? “I would encourage other aspiring engineers to not be afraid to take action and to seize unexpected opportunities. When I started Tactile with my team members, we thought of Tactile as a fun weekend hackathon project that we can work on as a group of close friends. But now it has grown to something so much bigger because of the many opportunities that were presented to us throughout the journey by mentors, friends, and competitions. If we didn’t pursue those opportunities that were presented to us, we would have never been able to achieve what we have now.”