Inventors and creators seek to build a more inclusive world with hardware, software and services. The Hindu reports.
For people with visual disabilities, most learning material in school and college has tended to be in Braille, the tactile writing system developed by Louis Braille in 1824, or increasingly in the modern world, via audio. But in workplaces, suddenly they are in an environment where everyone is using standard text on computers, and there is no tool which can easily convert Braille to conventional text and vice versa.
Also, Braille takes up more space than conventionally printed text does; a book of a certain number of pages would need up to eight times that in Braille, and cost eight times as much too. “A schoolchild cannot carry such books without a trunk,” says Surabhi Srivastava. “Less than 1% of published text globally is available in Braille, due to the effort involved in customising it and the high costs.”
Ms. Srivastava and Shyam Shah, co-founders of Innovision Tech, aim to solve the problem with a simple, affordable solution, BrailleMe, a digital assistant that can connect to phones, and computers.
BrailleMe’s reading interface mimics Braille on paper, supplying the raised dots via electro-mechanically operated pins, 20 characters to a line, and input is via a six-button keypad. Text can be transliterated into conventional letters and transferred to other devices, and vice versa. “Our motivation was two-fold,” says Mr. Shah. “Give on-the go access to all Braille requirements, and be a diary of sorts for visually impaired people.” The bigger goal: to improve literacy among visually impaired people, and give them ready access to books.
Innovision was incubated in IIT Bombay’s Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, with an early angel investment round in 2016 followed by a grant from the US-India Science and Technology Endowment Fund. BrailleMe took one-and-a-half years of research and development. One of their biggest challenges, Ms. Srivastava says, is, ironically, Make in India. “Moving from a prototype to manufacturing involves a lot of costs, and there is no good ecosystem for a start-up like us, for mentors and vendors.”
BrailleMe is going through field trials in the USA and India, and will launch on January 4, World Braille Day. Innovision is also talking to distributors and partners in 15 other countries, where they hope most of the demand will come from. Ms. Srivastava says they would like to see the product “in the hands of individuals, not institutions that can typically afford such products.”
When Chandni Rajendran, then a first year Master’s degree project at the Industrial Design Centre, IIT-B, was on one of her visits to the Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC) — where she interacted with students and teachers for her project on tactile graphics — a student said to her, “It would be great if I could play with my sighted friends.” People with visual disabilities, she realised, were excluded from much of computer gaming.
Thinking about this led her to develop a playful interactive device for blind children. Her device, which she calls Tactopus, has an inexpensive camera using image processing technology paired with a book with tactile graphics. The user wears a bright pointer ring which helps the camera tracks her finger moving over the graphics and the device then provides audio accompaniment, like descriptions of the graphics.
Ms. Rajendran chose the name Tactopus with some thought: “Most assisted technology devices have clinical' names,” she says. “While my business is serious, I work with children, where they learn through play.” She wants Tactopus to be a seen as a playful tactile device, handy and portable.
Her company was incubated at IIT-B, and her prototype has also received funding from the India’s Department of Science & Technology’s NIDHI-PRAYAS initiative (National Initiative for Developing and Harnessing Innovations-Promotion and Acceleration of Young and Aspiring Technology Entrepreneurs) and recently made it to the top 10 Socially Innovative Ideas in Singapore's DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia 2017.
Tactopus is now working on content: an atlas and games are in development. The atlas includes an audio introduction, ‘gamified’ responses, and a test to check for comprehension; the games come with questions and audio clues [hear the sound of a cat or car, and guess what it is]. “We’re working on a single-as well as two-player mode,” Ms. Rajendran says.
The aim is to make Tactoplus a generic product even the sighted can use. “It's a universal design principle that if you can design for special needs, your product is of a higher quality.” It can also be used with kids with other disabilities: “I met special educators, who said information reinforced by touch, sound and visuals was very useful for people with learning disabilities. I plan to work with them too.”
This series of mobile apps, created by the Bidirectional Access Promotion Society (Bapsi) and distributed free on the Android platform, enables deaf-blind individuals to communicate using a smartphone. It can also be used by people who are unable to communicate due to other physical or neurological problems.
The project plans to use vibrations so that deaf-blind individuals can read text, wikipedia entries readable, even post tweets. Vickram Crishna, one of the creators of the apps, says, “The output method, or display of information, is through haptics or vibrations and individuals using the app will have to learn Morse code.” For input, he says that since smartphones with attached physical keyboards are hard to find now, Bapsi recommends inexpensive Bluetooth keyboards. “There is now enough computer awareness being taught that knowledge of keyboards is fairly common.”
Mr. Crishna says that funding came from abroad, as they could not get anybody in India to fund a project like this. “For companies that are into big hardware or software, making specialised applications is not seen as a viable market strategy. One of the things we try and create awareness about is that the field of specialised applications is viable in itself.” Apps like the Vibrations series, he says, are important because they address the problem of informal communication. “At that cost for developing apps and communication devices, most people are only thinking of addressing the formal communication problem and not to engage the casual side of the personality. This is equally as important.”
Jellow began as a device created as part of the Microsoft Design Expo back in 2004, at the IDC School of Design, IIT Bombay. The Expo wanted to focus on communication tools for children with cerebral palsy.
The prototype was then very expensive to make; by 2008, it had been converted to a web-based application. In 2015 the project was taken over by Sudha Srinivasan, a paediatric physiotherapist, to see if it could be scaled up and used as a tool that would help children with any kind of communication impairment.
“We ran a number of usability studies, to see if kids were relating to the app, if it was easy to use and navigate,” Ms. Srinivasan says. “We ran these tests with normal children first, before even trying it with children who had communication impairment.” After the changes born of the testing, team created an Android-based mobile app that also utilised Google text-to- voice interface. The app is for beginner-level communication, she says. “Some of the other solutions available at this point require a higher level of cognition. This is for someone just starting off with augmentative communication.”
Jellow uses two sets of icons: six ‘expressive; buttons, three on each side of the screen, for Like, Don’t like, Yes, No, More, and Less; and in the centre, ‘category’ buttons for things like Food, Learning, Places, Fun and People. So, when a user taps the Food and More buttons, Jellow will form the sentence “I want more food.” The category buttons are hierarchically arranged down three levels; a double-tap on Food for example, leads to Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, and tapping one of those would show various food items.
Ms. Srinivasan wants Jellow to help children with communication impairment to connect with the world around them and with their caregivers, an alternative to cumbersome processes like using pictures or flashcards. Jellow aims to be, she says, “A holistic communication solution, available in multiple formats including a downloadable booklet version, a flashcard kit, a desktop version, and an app-based version as well, so that it can suit the communication needs of children with varying needs and abilities.”
Sanjana Aswani and her brother faced many difficulties when trying to arrange transport for her mother, who is disabled. “We found that not only is it difficult to organise, but there was also a kind of stigma associated with disabled people even stepping out of the house if it was not to go to the hospital,” she says. It felt almost like people with disabilities should not expect to go out for simple things like weddings or social events, or out for a meal, or just for the pleasure of getting out.
That’s why she dipped into her personal savings and started Mobicab, in December 2016. The service currently operates with a fleet of 4 cars that are disabled-friendly. Mobicab offers either a sedan, where the front seat detaches to become a wheelchair, or a van, in which customers can take their own wheelchairs. She plans to expand the service to include more vehicles soon.
Umoja began in 2014 by gathering detailed and dependable information about hotels with good accessibility standards, as a service for persons with disability. Umoja’s platform lists over 100 such hotels in 11 tourist destinations across the country. Yeshwant Holkar, founder, says, “The DNA of Umoja is building access to information on scale. If people have access to information they can make better decisions about hotels and where to stay. They can also get information, for instance, about whether the coffee shop or cafe nearby is accessible.”
The company also launched a dedicated travel service in 2016, and it has accessible travel itineraries which include India’s Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur), as well as Kerala and Goa. Umoja also recently published the first wheelchair user’s guide to Goa, covering hotels, eateries and tourist sites and has authored similar guides for destinations in the UK, and was one of the organisers of a wheelchair-friendly beach festival in Goa earlier this year that also featured special chairs in which wheelchair users could go into the sea.
“The other major area we are looking to address is affordability,” Mr. Holkar says. “On the occasion of world disability day, we are launching an Umoja card. Based on feedback from our community we got information about products disabled persons use, and have tried up with partner companies to provide discounts. This could range from areas like food, transport and purchasing things like adult diapers.” The card will allow companies to track what disabled persons — a demographic usually ignored by marketers — are purchasing so they can make their services better.