Innovative Braille Device

Innovative Braille Device

Polymer Braille, Inc. is a small business funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) though the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program. Polymer Braille grew out of a North Carolina State University research project and aims to build a tablet-style device with a screen made up of essentially an array of Braille dots which can display roughly a full page of information at a time and then change its contents like any other screen. Current state-of-the-art braille devices are expensive, have high power demand, and are limited to 2 lines of text.

Project Description

Polymer Braille consists of a small academic research team from North Carolina State University focused on developing an electroactive polymer to drive single-dot actuators to enable visually impaired people to access digital information in a mobile tablet computer. At the time of this project, Polymer Braille had secured a one-year SBIR Phase I Grant.

What We Did

Our project was to build the prototypes, electronics, software, hardware, and mechatronics required to produce a working demonstration and to support Polymer Braille in marketing and development efforts, allowing the research team to focus on the development of the electroactive ceramic polymer driving the project. With our help, they were able to complete the milestones needed to secure a SBIR Phase II Grant and to attend the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show.

This project had some significant project management and technical hurdles to overcome, in addition to the usual product development challenges. For one, the thin-film piezoelectric actuators were still being developed in the lab while the product prototypes were in development, which made a project a bit like building the aircraft in flight. Additionally, the actuators required high voltages (300V – 600V) to actuate correctly, requiring a separate power supply and switching circuitry form the rest of the system.

Instant Startup
Polymer Braille Inc. started with the intellectual property, the research program and the Phase I SBIR. Paladin Robotics filled in the rest as their “instant startup” by providing people, software and equipment needed to take the project from an early phase research project to through a Phase I SBIR grant and a $1M Phase II SBIR grant. Since we already had everything that Polymer Braille needed outside of their research lab, they had huge time and space savings compared to other startups in making the most of their funding.


Figure 1: the row controller pcb design

While the actuators were in development, we were responsible for progressing the prototype. To this end, we developed:

  • the motherboard, which provided supervisory control of the braille cells, high voltage supply, and the device interface with a computer,
  • the row controller (Figure 1), which provided an addressable, expandable interface for the edge-mounted cell controllers at the correct mechanical spacing for the mechatronic system.
  • The actuator controller (Figure 2), which provided the actuation control for two 8-dot braille cells edge-mounted on top of the actuator PCB.

We provided turnkey electronics design and development for Polymer Braille covering system architecture, embedded systems development, PCB design, manufacture and assembly.


Each of the PCBs developed included a microcontroller that required programming for its specific function. We provided all the embedded systems engineering for the project, writing the software for:

  • Each of the microcontrollers
  • Custom drivers for connecting the device to a PC
  • Automated testing and validation
Early works-like prototype

We produced proof-of-concept, looks-like, and works-like prototypes as well as technology demonstrators and functional demonstrators.

Early designs substituted LEDs for the braille dot actuators to keep the hardware and software development on schedule and decoupled from the development of the thin-film actuators, while minimizing the non-recurring engineering costs. In fact, the actuator cells were designed so that, during manufacture, a few changes to the bill-of-materials and to which parts were populated would allow the same PCB to be used for the actual actuators instead of LEDs.

Prototyping services for this project included CAD design of electronic and mechanical components, 3D printing, manufacturing, and assembly.

Mechatronics & Rapid Prototyping
In addition to working software and electronics for the prototype, Polymer Braille needed a mechanism for converting the motion of their piezoelectric part into actuation of each braille dot. Several methods were investigated including micro-fluidic hydraulic actuation. We developed, simulated, manufactured, assembled, and tested actuation methods.

Strategy Consulting
We assisted Polymer Braille with both engineering operations and business operations. As part of our strategy consulting, we developed and assisted with the execution of:

  • A business plan
  • Development and product cost analysis
  • Manufacturing partner assessment
  • A marketing plan
  • Startup funding and investor facilitation
Polymer Braille at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show