Building literacy among the blind with a teen inventor’s low-cost Lego printer

By PBS NewsHour, December 22, 2014

A simple question -- how do blind people read? -- inspired a middle-schooler’s transformation into a tech entrepreneur. Using Lego blocks, 13-year-old Shubham Banerjee created a low-cost braille printer to improve access and literacy for the visually impaired. Special correspondent Jackie Judd reports as part of our Breakthroughs series.

Shubham holding his Braille printer

(Photo by Neil Banerjee)

Watch the imperfectly captioned YouTube video:

Story transcript:

Gwen Ifill: Next: another in our Breakthrough series.

It’s the story of a teenager who’s the founder of a start-up, quite possibly the world’s youngest entrepreneur to get venture capital backing.  That would be compelling enough, but his project makes it all the more unusual.  He is creating a new low-cost braille printer for the blind to improve access and literacy.  And it involves the use of, of all things, LEGOs.

Here’s special correspondent Jackie Judd.

Jackie Judd: At the age of 12, Shubham Banerjee learned how random the universe can be.  One seemingly inconsequential occurs, in this case the ring of a doorbell, and life changes in a big way.

Shubham Banerjee: I looked out.  No one was there.  But I did see a flyer over there, and which asked for donations for the visually impaired.

I asked — I didn’t know why.  I just asked a random question to my parents.  How do blind people read?  They didn’t really have time for me, so they said: “Sorry, I’m busy.  Can you go Google it?”

Jackie Judd: And one thing lead to another.

Shubham, whose previous ambition had been to quarterback his football team, learned that a diminishing number of the blind read braille.  In part, voice recognition technology has taken away the need.  But the now 13-year-old became convinced that the cost of a braille printer, which expands the reading universe for the blind, is prohibitive.

Shubham Banerjee: I found out it was $2,000 onwards.  Many people don’t really have the — are not that privileged to own one.  And that’s when I decided to try and hack together a braille printer and a LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kit.

Jackie Judd: Yes, you heard correctly.  He ordered a robotic LEGO kit.  After seven attempts and many, many late-nights, voila, he had an inexpensive portable braille printer.

Shubham Banerjee: I had to make it myself, program it myself.  And I just seemed to make a braille printer.  So there are actually three motors.  This motor over here, it rotates the paper over here, so you would get the imprint — or output — sorry.  This motor moves the head left and right.  This motor over here moves the head up and down.

Jackie Judd: Shubham’s one-person focus group is Henry Wedler, blind since birth and a doctoral student in chemistry at the University of California, Davis.  Wedler learned about the LEGO printer from a local newspaper story and then got in touch.

Henry Wedler, University of California, Davis: I explained to him what we really need is some way for blind people to be able to produce braille, not necessarily quickly, but sort of on the go, just like sighted people can produce print on a printer.

That sort of printer, that sort of technology has never existed for me or any other blind person that reads braille.

Jackie Judd: So Shubham kept going.  The LEGO version needed a sighted person to operate it.

Henry Wedler: Is there much paper left on this particular one?

Shubham Banerjee: Right here.  This is…

Jackie Judd: And it just wasn’t practical for mass production.

He cannibalized a standard printer and converted it, all with a little help from some new and moneyed friends.  What began as an at-home project, then a science fair exhibit, then a winning entry at a technology symposium eventually lead to attention and dollars from a major player in Silicon Valley.

Intel Capital, the venture capital arm of Intel, where Shubham’s father works, decided to back the project, but did so only after putting the boy through the ringer to make sure no one would question whether this was about nepotism or innovation.

Shubham Banerjee: I started calling my friends, dude, I got funding from Intel.  I was telling my mom.  I was screaming.  I was just really happy.

Jackie Judd: In addition to funds, Intel asked Shubham to experiment with its new microprocessor called the Edison to determine how it could make the printer far more functional for the blind.

ED ROSS, Intel Inventor Platforms: What is inside here is the processor, the memory, the storage and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth so that it can communicate with things around it.  And we made that, you know, super, super simple for people to be able to innovate on top of.

Jackie Judd: And that’s what the eighth grader did.

And is this for a visually impaired person to use?

Shubham Banerjee: Yes.

Jackie Judd: This one is?

Shubham Banerjee: This one, actually, I’m not fully done with it, but sooner or later, we will — or I will actually add voice to text, where you can say it through phone, perhaps, print out A.

Ed Ross: So, you and I wake up in the morning and we look at our phones or we look at the newspaper to find out what is going on with the headlines.  Well, somebody without sight can’t do that.

And so what he had Intel Edison do is, Intel Edison now goes out and grabs from the cloud the headlines from CNN or BBC or “NewsHour” and has those automatically print.

Henry Wedler: You know, we all can listen to a book or we can listen to our computer talk to us, which is what I do with my computer every day, I don’t have a way to print braille easily.

There is something so special that comes with taking a page, opening a book, and reading that page yourself.  I think you can say that as a print reader as well; is that true?

Jackie Judd: Absolutely.

News of Intel’s investment went viral, and the middle schooler is now something of a celebrity in the tech world and even got invited to a White House tech event.

Shubham’s parents created a company called Braigo, a combination of braille and LEGO, to push the invention forward.  His mom is CEO, dad is on the board, and Wedler is a consultant.  It’s a lot for an adolescent to handle, the money, the fame, the pressure to succeed.

You had said it’s hard for him to be a 13-year-old.

Niloy Banerjee, Father of Shubham Banerjee: Yes.

Jackie Judd: In what ways is?

Niloy Banerjee: First of all, he does double work.  He has to maintain his grades, but at the same time, he has also other obligations, especially working with investors, working with technology, you know, people.

Jackie Judd: Do you worry about that?

Malini Banerjee, Mother of Shubham Banerjee: Yes.  As a mom, yes, I do.

I worry a lot because, you know, now people recognize him, you know, that he goes places.  And he is just my baby.

Jackie Judd: Do you see moments where you think the pressure — the pressure got to him today?

Malini Banerjee: Yes, I do.  But then, you know, it’s opposite.  He tells me: “Mom, it’s OK.  I can do it.”

Jackie Judd: No one is saying how much Intel Capital put into the project, but enough to hire engineers to kept testing and refining the printer, which Shubham hopes will sell for less than $500.

What’s next?

Shubham Banerjee: Next is still bringing my company forward.  I do have a couple of ideas that are starting in my head.

Jackie Judd: Like?

Shubham Banerjee: I have secrets.

Jackie Judd: Ah.


Shubham Banerjee: They’re all secrets.

Jackie Judd: But we will be hearing from you again?

Shubham Banerjee: Yes.

Jackie Judd: Most start-ups fail.  But, as Shubham Banerjee has found, life is random.  And he may just be the one to score.

This is Jackie Judd in Santa Clara, California, for the “NewsHour.”

Gwen Ifill: Random, indeed.

We have more on teen inventors, including one high schooler who created a flashlight powered by heat generated from your hand.  That’s on our home page,

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