Opening door to new technology for visually challenged

Sumit Dagar is a 29-year-old visionary who calls himself an 'interaction designer'.

Written by Purabi Bora | New Delhi | Published: April 11, 2013 3:47 pm

Sumit Dagar is a 29-year-old visionary who calls himself an ‘interaction designer’. His technological skills,inventiveness and passion for design have prepared him for a place among today’s young entrepreneurs. But there is one difference: he wants to put people’s lives before profit.

In conversation with Purabi Bora of Indianexpress.com,Dagar talks about a prototype of an affordable Braille smartphone he has designed that will open the door to new technology:

Q1. What inspired you to come up with the idea of developing a Braille smartphone? How do you intend to make a difference with it?

A:During my student days (as an engineer and later as a designer),it was a long standing motivation to design solutions for minority user groups. Coming from frequent experiences with rural Indian population,I observed a vast gap between technological power of majority user groups and minority user groups (like rural population,disabled users et al). As I delved further into problem finding,I observed a negative trend in this gap,which seemed to be widening further with time. While mainstream users got increasingly more “superpowers” thanks to the technological innovations,minority groups were further left behind.

One particular innovation stood out,recent (at that time) transformation of almost all the interfaces into touch-based systems meant that devices,which were normally usable by blind users were suddenly rendered useless. Ubiquitous devices,including phones and tablets were increasingly becoming reliant on touch/multi-touch systems.

My motivation was to start solving this problem,and in parallel provide a perfect technological solution for the blind users. It should be a technological companion,which provides comprehensive features and is comfortable to use. Hence,the solution was to make a tactile touch screen-based phone — a hand-held device that is feature-rich and as advanced as other mainstream competitive devices.

Q. Why we need this and the difference it will make

A:There are 300 million blind people in the world. Of these,90% live in developing countries,with India having the highest number of visually impaired (38 million). Of these,39 million are totally blind worldwide and 17 million in India. Of the assistive devices available for visually impaired,Braille display-based devices are usually the most preferred solutions. In comparison to speech-based devices,they are quiet and are more accessible universally,beyond limitations of language. These displays cost in the range of Rs 1,75,000 to Rs 7,50,000 depending on capability. Braille Notetakers,which are portable devices with typing functionality costs in the range of Rs 60,000 to Rs 1,50,000. With our first version of the product,we will look to redefine these numbers. This product family will bring upon a revolutionary change in accessibility for blind people.

– It will be competitively priced (priced around Rs. 9000)

– Its USP will be its capabilities and design.

– It will also encourage increased design‐led innovation in assistive technologies for all kind of handicaps.

– At a penetration of 2%,we will look to sell about 3,50,000 units in India in first year

– In following years,we will look to increase this penetration in India and abroad. Our second version product,and subsequent versions,will be one of its kind products that will be launched for global markets.

Q. Give us a brief about your educational background?

A:I did my schooling from various schools in Delhi and pursued engineering in ICT form DA-IICT,Gujarat. I followed it up with masters in Information and Interface Design from the National Institute of Design (NID),Bangalore.

Q. You were chosen as a TED* fellow to present your Braille smartphone concept at the TED 2011 conference in the United States. How the experience was and what did you gain from it?

A:It was the first time the project came to a world stage. It was a great moment of validation,not from the users but from the technologists and the thinkers. I got an overwhelming response from the audience; and continued to attract attention for the next four days of the conference. This led to immense international exposure for my work and a great talk online which conveyed the future needs of the project.

Q. What are the difficulties,if any,you faced initially to make this unique concept a reality?

A: “Difficulty” is a continuum for the project. But at the same time,that is the excitement which keeps one going. The technology is quite challenging,so we have to shift from all-technology-in-house model to collaborate-and-make model. From design front,this kind of project is a first of its kind for this particular user segment. So,we had no guidelines or best practices to refer to. We spent more than a year to conduct studies and devise our own guidelines (which we are happy to share). From financial aspect,raising money for a small user segment is anyways a problem. This being a cutting edge technology,effort for such a user group meant that we were in the dark for really a long time. The Rolex Award came in at the right time and further provided an impetus to the project.

Q. When do you intend to unveil the final product?

A:We are working to complete our first version product by end of 2013 and to subsequently unveil it in 2014.

Q. Please explain the main features and apps which will be embedded in the device? Any tie-up plans with big corporate for the manufacturing of the smartphone?

A:The device will be a completely capable smartphone,and even more so for its user segment. It will have a refreshable Braille display that users can touch-to-read. It will have basic functionalities like phone call,messaging,contacts,organiser,dictionary and more advanced ones like games,music,GPS,camera (yes you read it correct) etc. In context of user,it will have many more contextual innovations,most of which we won’t be able to share yet but some of them are color identifier,currency identifier etc.

Q. Do you intend to introduce the Braille smartphone in overseas market as well?

A:Yes,very much.

Q. How has Rolex Awards for Enterprise helped you realise your dream? How much of a help the title ‘Young Laureate’ is proving to you?

A:Rolex Award has been the biggest milestone for the project. It has taken this work from a work of fiction to a tangible working prototype. As I noted before,funding had been a problem for the project which lacks any instant return-for-investment. For a reputed organisation like Rolex to come in and support our work so comprehensively (with funding,network,mentoring and spreading) has helped the project beyond our imaginations. We have gained from their dedicated and open-minded support. They have encouraged and allowed us to experiment and fail,which has further meant that we explored the field in its entirety. Not to miss,the recognition and credibility that has come since Rolex Award is irreplaceable. Our work is now well known,and is being looked upon by other initiatives. We would love to complete our product someday,and present the first one to Rolex.

Q. Tell us about your other passion for making sci-fi short films? Any new project in the pipeline?

A:As a designer,having spent most of my time pondering upon various aspects of design and life juxtaposition,I have developed an ever-growing interest in storytelling. Storytelling,I believe deeply connects one to another. As an individual,short-flims,designs and traveling are my mediums of choice for storytelling. I am almost always excited to explore any of these three mediums. Being from a technical background,I have been more inclined towards making science fiction movies. In fact,my first international award (Imagine Cup) was for one of my short films.

From short film point of view,two of my films were in development till I got too busy with the Braille Phone work

(*The TED Fellows program brings young innovators from around the world into the TED community in order to amplify the impact of their projects and activities. )

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