University of St. Thomas students design scanner to help visually impaired community

Updated: December 12, 2019 07:57 PM

Engineering students at the University of St. Thomas are working to help almost 90,000 blind and visually impaired people in Minnesota. 

Students have spent the last three years writing software and designing a machine that can help recreate images from braille textbooks.


Experts say it can cost up to $25,000 to convert an elementary school textbook to braille.

Converting the diagrams for those textbooks is much more difficult.

3-D pictures, called tactile graphics, are often handmade. There are 40,000 of them stored at State Services for the Blind (SSB) of Minnesota in St. Paul.

"If for some reason we were to have some sort of disaster at work — fire or flood — all of those tactile graphic masters could be destroyed, and once they are destroyed, we wouldn't have them again," said Allison O'Day, a braille specialist with SSB.

After three years of work, students revealed their scanner at a school design event this week. Student Charles Lundquist said it takes five separate scans of a tactile image and stitches them together electronically to make a three-dimensional digital version.

The students' creation, a tactile diagram scanner, will preserve the master images electronically and allow for them to be recreated.

Dr. Tiffany Ling teaches the class.

"Sometimes they are engineering needs that have been there for a long time, and other technology is catching up to the point where these problems can be solved with existing technology, and nobody's really tackled it yet," Ling said. 

Henry Martinson will graduate next week and says this has been his most rewarding project to work on.

"Knowing that you were able to do work that is going to help State Services for the Blind of Minnesota do their their amazing work for the blind community and visually impaired community has been so great," Martinson said. "I could not be more proud of what we made." 

The scanner will be delivered to SSB in the coming weeks.

There has already been interest from other states in the students' design.

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Jessica Miles

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