Braille printers cost upwards of $6000, an almost ridiculous price point for something as common as a printer. However, this is the harsh reality for millions of people who are visually impaired. Much of the technology that aids these people is extremely expensive, which also discourages businesses and institutions to implement these technologies to cater to their less-abled clients. We wanted to tackle this issue at TOHacks 2021.
This is why we built Braille-iant, an effective and cost-efficient braille printer, costing less than 15$.
Braille-iant opens the doors for accessibility and inclusivity for the blind, having so many applications. Being low cost, it will be possible for blind customers to have physical copies of receipts, doctors notes, insurance policies, and much more. Good customer service is ACCESSIBLE customer service - and although we live in a virtually focused world, physical copies are still a necessity for important documents. As such, customer satisfaction is improved as Braille-iant makes every customer interaction a more inclusive one.
What it does
Using the Braille-iant GUI, users enter in text they want printed. The Braille-iant printer gets to work and produces braille text by piercing paper. Once the printer is done, one can read the braille by flipping over the paper and feeling the freshly pierced letters.
How we built it
All parts were made using CAD, sliced in Cura, and printed on an Ender 5. With these parts, we were able to create an enclosure that allowed for movement in the x and y axis using DC motors (x axis) and a rack and pinion system with a stepper motor (y axis). This allowed us to move our puncher mechanism made of 2 small rack and pinion systems that convert the micro servo’s rotational movement into linear movement that can poke the appropriate braille text.
As for the software side, we used Python and the pyQt5 GUI library to convert English to Braille. Then, we interfaced the Python code to Arduino using serial output. The Arduino Mega then parses the input and prints out to the paper.
At around 1:35 in our video demo, you probably notice the presence of a large rock on the rack. This was used to apply pressure and prevent the rack from flexing upwards. It worked stupidly well.
Challenges we ran into
1) Piercing the paper - we started with an arm design and then realized turning rotational movement to linear movement was literally easier than we thought so we switched mechanisms midway through. The stress of having to redesign and print a new mechanism during a 24 hour hackathon was immense, but the new design with the 2 small racks and pinions was more efficient and looked amazing.
2) Wiring all of the hardware - for both of us this was one of our biggest personal hardware projects yet! That feeling when you try to figure out why no motors are running for over an hour and then you realize you didn’t connect it to ground 😢
3) Moving the paper precisely. Our stepper motor worked amazing, however the DC motors couldn't not be controlled the way we wanted and thus as seen in the video demo, Braille-iant prints the letters but the spacing within and between letters is lopsided.
4) Doing a hardware hack in a team during COVID. Imagine the difficulty of a regular hardware hack, then double it.
Accomplishments that we're proud of
We’re proud to have a working product, being able to successfully assemble, wire, and program a working printer in 24 hours. Of course, there is much improvement but for 24 hours we are estatic.
Also, the CAD came out amazing (we LOVE all the rack and pinions, both of us had our fair share of designing them this weekend and we’re both super stoked about them).
The aesthetic of our hack is something we are also proud of! The movement of our mechanisms is also superrr clean.
We are also proud of finding a perfectly sized rock that applies proper pressure to the top rack to prevent it from moving that stays on the rack without any adhesive.
What we learned
Rack and pinion mechanisms are GOATED and should be used in all possible applications.
What's next for Braille-iant
We are quite far away from a commercial level 3D printer, but this was a great proof of concept!
As noted, our current printer prints lopsided, a result of us using DC motors without precise motor control to move the paper in the x-axis. A “conveyor belt” mechanism with perhaps a stepper motor (or another rack and pinion haha) will greatly improve our design.
On the topic of improving the design, remaking the top rack to slide more securely and not flex would allow us to remove the rock from Braille-iant.
Faster printing speeds - hopefully will come as a result of improved and more precise hardware. Large buffers of time were allocated to ensure that all parts of the sequence run properly.