Hasselt-born prodigy builds Braille printer from Lego

Summary

Twelve-year-old makes invention available at low cost after learning of how expensive Braille printers are

Beyond child’s play

A 12-year-old boy originally from Hasselt is stunning seasoned technology experts at Silicon Valley and beyond with his low-cost Braille printer, which he built primarily with a Lego kit. Shubham Banerjee (pictured below) has now put step-by-step instructions online, so that anyone can build and improve the device, which he’s called Braigo.

Braigo began with a simple flyer that arrived months ago at the house of the Banerjee family in Santa Clara, California, asking for donations to help the visually impaired. Like many curious kids would do, 12-year-old Shubham asked his father how blind people read. Dad Niloy, who works for technology company Intel, told him to look it up online. For most kids, that’s where the story would end.

But Shubham’s interest grew when he learned how expensive Braille printers are. The devices, which render text as tactile Braille cells, usually cost at least €1,500.

A big fan of Lego, Shubham decided to build his own Braille printer using a Lego Mindstorms kit – which costs around €250 – and some cheap add-ons. With this basic equipment, he created a Braille printer for education, teaching and home use.

“It took me three weeks, breaking and re-assembling about seven different models, before I settled on one type and could program it,” Shubham explains on his father’s blog. “My dad was my guide whenever I got stuck. He sat down with me at the kitchen table and helped me while he also continued with his conference calls and work. I started working on Braigo after I finished my homework and on certain days, I was awake until 2.00. But it was worth it.” 

The printer works using a normal drawing pin to push holes in a roll of paper, one letter at a time. Each letter takes between five and 10 seconds.

Shubham’s invention attracted a lot of attention at his school’s science fair, but it also caught the eye of the international media – especially when he started posting YouTube videos to show how it works. All the building instructions and software are available for free at the online community page for Lego Mindstorms. 

Skilful and humble


“I am just 12 years old; there are much more knowledgeable people in the world who could take this idea and enhance it,” explains Shubham. “Braille as a language also has a lot of variations around the world. In any case, the benefits are for visually impaired people. That’s the reason I am giving my work away to everyone who is interested.”

My father has always encouraged me to play with toys that helped me to create stuff

- Shubham Banerjee

Since then, Shubham has received testimonies from blind people, including some at the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center and Henry “Hoby” Wedler, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Davis, and a winner in 2012 of the White House Champions of Change programme that honours everyday Americans doing extraordinary things in their communities.

In a YouTube video, Wedler tests the printer. “I am struck by the innovation of this device and your ability to so skilfully and humbly think about putting something like this together at 12 years old,” he says. “It’s absolutely brilliant, and I tell you with full conviction that you have a bright future.”

He also offered suggestions to improve the device, which is far from finished. Shubham says he is now looking to add more complex Braille language features and test new equipment – like different print heads and thicker paper rolls. “I also want to examine whether voice-to-text features can be implemented so that Braigo can automatically print the words when someone speaks,” he says.

Shubham was born in 2001 at the Salvator Hospital in Hasselt. His parents moved from India to Hasselt the year before because Niloy had gotten a job at the local Philips factory, which closed in 2003. A year later, the family moved to the United States.

About his ambitions for a later career, Shubham is unsure, as you might expect for a 12-year-old boy. “I am only in seventh grade, and I haven’t decided on a study path yet, but I’m primarily thinking of becoming an engineer, doctor or scientist. In general, I love science.”

Shubham’s love for science was to a large extent instilled by his father and by family friends. “Since I was little, my father always encouraged me to play with toys that helped me to create stuff,” says Shubham.  “Additionally, all our family friends are either doctors, engineers or involved in start-up companies. They always talk about new technology.”

You can find the instructions for Shubham’s invention here.

Photos courtesy http://sociotechnocrat.kinja.com/

Hasselt-born prodigy Shubham builds low-cost Braille printer from Lego

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