An Intuitive and Compact Device That Helps the Visually Impaired Learn Braille.

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Knobo is an intuitive and compact device that aids the visually impaired in learning Braille and using the computer.

The Problem

Just like anyone, being educated and literate is essential to the well being of people who are visually impaired. Education gives the visually impaired the opportunity to thrive, contribute to society, and have a successful career. Literacy in the Braille system is so crucial to the employment of the visually impaired that 80 percent of the visually impaired who are employed can read Braille. 

However, in recent years, the Braille literacy rates has been on the decline. Today, less than 10 percent of the visually impaired children can read Braille, where as the number was about 50 percent in 1950. The consequences? Over 70 percent of visually impaired adults are unemployed.

One reason for this trend is the lack of access to a Braille education. There are far fewer Braille teachers in America compare to the number of visually impaired students.

According to the National Federation of the Blind, "There is a chronic shortage of teachers who are qualified to teach Braille. It was reported in 2003 that there were approximately 6,700 fulltime teachers of blind students serving approximately 93,600 students"

Another reason for this trend can be traced to the advancement and availability of personal audio player and text-to-speech technology, which eliminated the need for the visually impaired to understand Braille in order to gather information. While audio gives student information, it doesn't teach them reading and writing skills, such as grammar, spelling, and composition, all of which are essential to literacy.

“Audio can give you information, but it can’t give you literacy,” said Chris Danielsen, a member of the National Federation of the Blind.
According to Jim Marks, a board member of the Association on Higher Education and Disability, "We stopped teaching our nation’s blind children how to read and write."

The solution

The vision for Knobo is a system of computer application and HID (human interface device) that will take full advantage of computer speech-to-text technology to aid the Braille education, rather than harming it. The computer application will serve as a learning platform, where the user will have access to digital Braille courses. In short, the app will be a Duolingo for Braille. The app will output audio instructions, and the student will use the Knobo HID to input Braille and navigate the app.

With Knobo, Braille education will be more accessible than ever, and I hope that this project will be a step towards reversing the trend of Braille illiteracy.

The learning platform for Knobo is still under development. In the current state of the project, Knobo is an ultra-portable HID (human interface device) that serves 2 purposes: allows the visually impaired to learn and practice the Braille system independently, and makes it easy for the visually impaired to navigate and type on a computer.

For the visually impaired who are learning Braille, Knobo is an excellent learning tool. Traditionally, a Braille instructor is needed to confirm that the word or letter that the student wrote is correct. With Knobo, the student will get immediate audio feedback on what Braille letter or word they just wrote, which makes it perfect for when the student is practicing Braille at home, or doesn't have access to a Braille instructor.

For the visually impaired that are familiar with Braille but have no experience with computers, there is a steep learning curve before they can use a keyboard or a traditional Braille writer. With Knobo, they can start typing right away, not to mention it's a far more compact than a standard keyboard, and have an additional scrolling/reading knob.

How it works

Knobo is compatible with JAWS, Voiceover (Mac), and Narrator (Windows).

No device driver is needed to use Knobo. The user can start using Knobo immediately after connecting it to the computer using a standard USB cable.

The six black keys on the right side of Knobo resembles...

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  • 2 × 0805 1uF Capacitors
  • 4 × 0805 100nF Capacitors
  • 1 × TQFP Atmega32u4
  • 1 × 3225 Crystals 16MHz ±10ppm
  • 2 × 0805 22pF Capacitors

View all 12 components

  • What's Next

    Gary Peng10/17/2019 at 23:09 0 comments

    I envisioned Knobo as a HID (human interface device) that will take full advantage of computer speech-to-text technology to aid the Braille education, rather than harming it. 

    After over a year of development, I've successfully created a HID that is compact, easy to use, and manufacturing ready.

    As you all probably know, Knobo is a finalist in the 2019 SuppleFrame Hackaday Prize. I hope that with the funds from winning the prize, I will be able to start mass producing this product to bring it to the hands of visually impaired learner around the globe.

  • Project Video

    Gary Peng10/01/2019 at 06:48 0 comments

    Shout out to my friend Tom Stiel for helping me make this video happen.

  • Manufacturing

    Gary Peng10/01/2019 at 06:41 0 comments

    While I may be a high schooler, I'm no stranger to bringing product from prototype to production, which is proven by the two successful Kickstarter campaigns I ran for my other products.

    For Knobo, the electronics will be manufactured overseas while the enclosure will be manufactured by a local 3D printing company.

    Here are the estimated cost for the production of one unit:

    Electrical components + 3D print material: ~$10

    PCB Assembly: A $25 machine setup fee (one time fee for any amount of PCBs) + ~$5/PCB

    3D printing: ~3 hrs

    Hand Soldering (for key-switches and rotary encoder) and final assembly: 5-10 min


    There is currently no products on the market that takes advantage of computer text-to-speech technology to enable and encourage the visually impaired to learn Braille independently. 

    However, a secondary feature of Knobo is that it acts as an alternative to standard keyboard and traditional Braille writers. In that sense, according to the San Diego Braille Institute, Knobo is better than traditional Braille writer in that it's far more compact and lightweight, have an additional scrolling / reading knob, and above all, extremely intuitive. During my user testing at the Braille institute, visually impaired people where able to start typing out sentence using Knobo right away, where as they had to go through a steep learning curve before using a standard keyboard or a traditional Braille writer.

  • Feedback from the Braille Institute

    Gary Peng09/29/2019 at 20:04 0 comments

    Here are some of the feedbacks we got from Sharon, a visually impaired Braille instructor at the San Diego Braille Institute.

    What she likes about Knobo:

    • Much more compact and portable than traditional braille writers
    • Very simple and intuitive, she was able to start typing right away
    • Allows Braille students to get instant feedback on whether or not their braille letter is correct when they are doing homework or the Braille instructor is absent.

    Features she hope we can implement:

    • Punctuations.
    • Numbers
    • Capitalize letters
    • Compatible with Braille embosser.

    The video interview with Sharon is coming soon.

  • Visiting the Braille Institute

    Gary Peng09/28/2019 at 16:53 0 comments

    Last week, we were able to visit the Braille Institute of San Diego to get some user feedback for this project. More info will be posted later.

  • Switching IDE

    Gary Peng09/22/2019 at 04:46 0 comments

    I've recently switch my IDE to Atom in combination with PlatformIO. I made the switch because how expandable and customizable Atom is.

  • Knobo is a Hackaday Prize Finalist!

    Gary Peng09/11/2019 at 04:01 1 comment

    Proud to announce that Knobo is one of the twenty finalist of the 2019 Hackaday Prize.

  • All Knobo Iterations

    Gary Peng08/25/2019 at 10:23 0 comments

    Knobo v1.0 (Made on 6/3/18)

    My first time designing and manufacturing a PCB. It was running on a Teensy 2.0 with Teensyduino firmware.

    Knobo v2.0 

    Knobo now uses SMT components and a Atmega32u4 microcontroller.

    The PCB of Knobo v2.0 didn't work due to some design flaws :( 

    It was also my first time doing SMD soldering, It took me 3 tries and 3 wasted chips before I managed to solder the Atmega32u4.

    Knobo v2.5

    Removed one of the keys to make the whole thing more compact.

  • Keycaps Update

    Gary Peng08/24/2019 at 06:15 0 comments

    Keycaps are now round to better represent the Braille cell, and the two "special" keys now have a grove to help the visually impaired to identify them.

  • Github Fixed

    Gary Peng08/20/2019 at 18:55 0 comments

    The Github repository should now be visible

View all 12 project logs

  • 1

    All the STL, Gerber, and BOM files can be downloaded from my Github.

    For the keys, use any Cherry-style mechanical key switch.

  • 2
    Placing the Main Components

    Place the Encoder onto the PCB

    Place the mechanical key switch through the 3D Printed case into the PCB below

  • 3

    Use the schematic on my Github as a reference when soldering.

    I chose to hand solder the PCB since I don't have the equipment for hot air soldering. If you also choose to solder the PCB by hand, be sure to use plenty of flux, a good pair of tweezer, and kapton tape to hold down large SMD components.

    I used 3 soldering iron tips:

    • Pencil tip for THT parts
    • Conical tip for SMD parts
    • Hoof tip for drag soldering the Atmega32u4 (follow the video above if you've never drag soldered before)

View all 5 instructions

Enjoy this project?



icewalker wrote 08/12/2019 at 14:54 point

Hello Gary,

May I ask you if you 'closed' the source of your projects, at least this one Knobo?

The link to the github page is broken, is that normal?

Nice project though...

  Are you sure? yes | no

Gary Peng wrote 08/27/2019 at 04:44 point

Sorry for the late reply, the link should be fixed now.

  Are you sure? yes | no

Vlad Conut wrote 08/12/2019 at 11:13 point

Looks pretty cool I always wanted something like this, might still the idea. Though I have to ask, USB mini-b ? 😁

  Are you sure? yes | no

Gary Peng wrote 08/27/2019 at 04:42 point

I choose USB mini-b because it's easier to solder by hand.

  Are you sure? yes | no

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