In search of light

Five technological ideas identified by NASSCOM Foundation that try to make life easier for the visually impaired.

Written by Nandagopal Rajan | Published:January 30, 2011 11:33 pm

Albert Einstein once said it had become “appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity”. But of late,some Indian innovators have been trying their hand at technologies that have humanity as one of its key features. These innovators want to ensure that as technology makes giant strides it also helps the differently-abled among us take small steps towards an easier life and a secure future.

Earlier this month,NASSCOM Foundation,which works towards galvanising corporate social responsibility in the Indian IT industry,and Genpact announced the 21 finalists of its Third Social Innovation Honours. The honours are a bid to recognise innovation in the use of information and communication technology for social development.

Interestingly,in the shortlist are five ideas that try to make life easier for the visually impaired. With the world’s largest visually impaired population of over 15 million,this is one field where India has to make serious research and technological advances.

Explore

‘Explore’ is a software application that serves as a single platform to help the visually impaired,or cognitively impaired users,obtain education,connect socially and team up for better productivity. It uses automation and speech interfaces along with software-simulation of Braille device on the keyboard to communicate with the application. As it is totally software-based and doesn’t rely on hardware devices,Explore is a cost-effective option for the average computer user.

Samiran Saha,Siddharth Shah,Ankit Koradia and Ramesh Patel,all computer engineering students at Mumbai’s VES Institute of Technology,have also extended Explore’s accessibility to a few other frequently-used third-party applications and browser. The group says their primary aim is to enable differently abled children educate themselves and discover the virtual world of the computer. “Project ‘Explore’ aims at providing accessible education and socialising opportunities for people suffering from disabilities. Users can be home and still take lessons from the best in the field,” explains Saha.

“We want the users to be able to lead normal lives and empower them with global opportunities for their individual development and progress,” says Saha,adding that they intend to execute a random pilot run for the application,and later extend its scope across the nation. The software has already been tested and reviewed by experts at the National Association for the Blind in Mumbai and the group is working with project partners and organisations to ensure a smooth deployment by July 2011.

Multiline Refreshable Braille Display

A tactile display is a plate with tiny raised dots that you “read” with your fingertips. A refreshable tactile display,on the other hand,can show different information—which is refreshed at a certain frequency,usually under the control of a computer. Bangalore-based Paul Gerard D’Souza’s mechanical multi-line Braille display tries to reduce the prohibitive costs of this technology by using cheap equipment and easily available technology.

Based on sliding beams,this low-cost device,as small as a laptop computer,aims at restoring Braille as a primary means of literacy and information exchange for the visually impaired. It can also help overcome speech synthesiser problems associated with accents,speed,and availability of language interfaces.

“This device is relatively unknown in India and in most developing countries at present due to the prohibitive cost of more than $3,000 per device. I have developed new technology that has broken the single-line barrier (max two lines) using conventional technology. This breakthrough will permit a Refreshable Braille Display to be made,having multiple lines,hitherto unknown,” says D’Souza,who is in the process of getting a grant to complete the advanced prototype.

Blind Helper

This wireless PC developed by Mohit Khanna and Anurag Mishra of Meerut lets the visually impaired operate the computer from any corner of the house. The Blind Helper PC comes with a special seven-keys wireless keyboard,side hub and E-Vision software. Since no Braille keyboard is needed,this PC becomes much cheaper than other computers intended for the visually impaired.

The user sends commands to the PC via the seven-key wireless keyboard,which are received by the PC Side hub and transferred to the E-Vision software. The software then interprets the signals and transmits corresponding information to the user in speech form. The system is wireless,allowing the user to operate the computer from anywhere in the house even as others use the computer for other purposes. Khanna and Mishra say the same system,with some minor modifications,can also be used by people suffering from other debilitating diseases.

Camera Mouse

The Camera Mouse is a CCTV gadget that helps low vision persons read small print and write in small spaces. Using a high-tech CMOS mini movie camera linked to a television,the device gives full colour images with magnifications of up to 20X. At just Rs 2,400,it costs a tenth of similar imported devices,says M S Raju,founder-president of Visakhapatnam-based Vision Aid India,which has developed the device.

The society has already provided the device to 300 senior citizens and low vision students. Raju hopes libraries across India will use the device to open large-print sections for low-vision readers. He says the Camera Mouse is safe for use with low energy consumption,simple to connect with a solitary wire,has a shatter proof body and can be used in lit as well as darkened rooms.

Blind with Camera

Along with gadgets and devices,awareness about technology can also be an empowering factor for the disabled. The Blind with Camera programme helps the visually impaired learn the art of photography using various tactile,audio clues,visual memories of sight,the warmth of light and cognitive skills.

Under this programme,photography workshops are conducted for the visually impaired,teaching them ways to create a “mental image” before they take a picture. Apart from physical photography workshops conducted at schools and eye hospitals,the Mumbai-based Beyond Sight Foundation has launched an e-school (www.blindwithcameraschool.org) to spread the initiative beyond physical boundaries.

“Diminished senses don’t mean a diminished life. We have already trained around a hundred people,some of them with 100 per cent visual impairment,in photography. As many as 30 of them have taken it up as a hobby,” says Partho Bhowmick,who is behind the foundation. Bhowmick explains that it takes his students about 48 hours of training to learn this kind of photography,adding that they usually use point and shoot digital cameras for learning.

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