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Coming soon, a cheap kindle for visually impaired

Thu, 10/10/2019 - 10:55 -- geeta.nair

A kindle for visually impaired students is expected to hit the markets in six months — one that wouldn’t cost a bomb. The International Institute of Information Technology, Bengaluru (IIIT-B), has tied up with IT firm Touchetech Labs and non-profit organisation Vision Empower to produce what may be India’s cheapest Refreshable Braille Reader (RBD), or the kindle for visually impaired.

Originally conceived by Paul D’ Souza 

from Touchetech Labs, the product’s manufacturing had hit a roadblock due to paucity of funds. The IIIT-B campus team is now re-engineering the prototype and re-designing it to bring down the cost to the range of Rs 15,000-20,000, almost one-fourth of the price of Braille readers currently available in the market. In fact, the device, which comes pre-loaded with textbooks, stories and graphics, may be cheaper than the standard Braille books; students from Classes I-XII can make use of them.

The idea to develop such a product in India, which is home to one-fourth of the world’s population of visually impaired persons, was to help millions of such students in the country have access to affordable Braille technology, says Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti, IIIT-B faculty member who helms the RBD development project.

“A large chunk of visually challenged students in our country won’t be able to afford the available Braille readers. Hence, this product, which was originally made by Paul D’ Souza from Touchetech Labs, needed to be re-engineered and designed to make it more portable and cheap. The heavy pricing of such products is usually due to the elaborate software and hardware. So, the first step was to replace the sophisticated hardware and introduce simple algorithms to bring down the price,” Chakrabarti said.

He said the RBD would include thousands of text files and books for students. The prototype of the kindle is currently undergoing user surveys. Through Vision Empower, an NGO works with visually challenged students across schools in Karnataka, they have handed over the RBDs to potential users for feedback and to ascertain the practical uses of the product, Chakrabarti added.

Researchers at IIIT-B have also used Artificial Intelligence-backed technology to test the kindle for any kind of inaccuracies. “We have developed an automated stress testing system, which uses AI and Machine Learning that gives instant feedback on the working module of the kindle. This also helps avoid manual checking of the device, which would lead to increase in cost,” he said.

The device, which may come handy for millions of blind people in India, was originally conceived by D’Souza about 10 years ago, but had hit a fund crunch roadblock. D’Souza later applied for a government grant in 2010 to scale up manufacturing of the device and made 10 protypes in 10 years. “I collaborated with US-based firm Sapient, from where I worked to make the device more affordable and portable. Later, Vision Empower approached me and we took the help of the IIIT-B faculty,” D’Souza said.
Rajagopal of Vision Empower said that Braille books are quite costly and wasn’t affordable for all students. Hence, the development of such a technology was much-needed, he said.

“All kinds of Braille technology available in Indian markets target adults. Such kindles need WiFi connectivity and similar requirements, which is not feasible for students. We have loaded everything from storybooks to multiple-choice questions in the (new) product. We have distributed the products to students on a pilot basis and the response has been great,” Rajagopal said.

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