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Braille keypads to make smartphones accessible to blind

Mon, 10/23/2017 - 10:54 -- geeta.nair

A cab, a meal, a new outfit, bank transactions are just a few screen taps away with smartphones. But navigating the digital world can be slow and cumbersome for a visually-impaired person.

Identifying this problem, entrepreneur and engineer Vijay Raghav Varada has developed a Braille keypad called 'Tipo’ which can be attached to smartphones to improve accessibility.

Vijay has been interested in making devices accessible to the blind since 2014 and it was while working on a project on Braille laptops for keyboards that he learnt of the smartphone problem.

"I interacted with many visually-impaired people and I realised that most of them preferred to use feature phones. It was not that they could not afford a smartphone but they found the interface difficult to use,” Varada said.

Smartphones do have a talk-back feature to help the blind use the device but typing on it can be slow and people may not be comfortable using the feature in public spaces, he added.

Varada, who is the CEO of 3D printer manufacturer Fracktal Works, worked with colleagues and friends Lyle Rodricks, Ayushman Talwar and Prashant Sharma to find a solution.

After nearly five months of interacting with visually-impaired people, designing and coding, they developed Tipo.

Letters, numbers, and characters in Braille, which are a combination of dots, can be typed by pressing a combination of keys on Tipo. There are a total of eight keys, including commands like space, enter and delete. The keypad is made by 3D-printing and is attached to a smartphone via USB.

The software and hardware for the keypad are all open-source so that whoever needs it can access it and even help improve it. "Right now it is available only in English but Braille script is available for several Indian languages as well. Anyone who is interested can take the code and work on making such devices for these languages or even foreign languages,” he said.

The team is now testing the prototypes with users to understand how to improve it. They will work on improving the ergonomics, typing speed and even use higher grades of Braille script where entire words can be represented in one combination.

The team is also working on an application which will help those who don’t know the script to learn it using the keypad.

Varada said that since this was a 'weekend project’ for them, they do not have commercial interests in the product. The cost of one keypad is about Rs 300 now and they may choose to tie-up with NGOs or government organisations to subsidise the keypad further and make it available for free. 

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