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.