Where Einstein Meets Edison

A Smartphone for the Blind

Say you are running late to a meeting with a friend. You would simply communicate the delay to your friend through a text / call. But what if your friend is blind and can’t read?

According to the World Health Organization, 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired, of which 39 million are people blind[i]. Sumit Dagar has a breakthrough solution to help them use mobile smart phones.

While the Blind do use a phone for basic functions such as receiving calls, more advanced features such as instant messages, email, internet browsing, maps, etc. are still out of their reach. These features are integral parts of everyone’s day-to-day lives. Moreover, the Blind are also dependent on others to use their phones. Sumit Dagar has designed and prototyped a revolutionary product that could change how the Blind use mobile technology: the world’s first Braille smartphone.

Currently, blind interaction technology converts text data to speech. It is expensive and oftentimes, the text is in English without a translation to other native languages. Sumit has designed a technique around touch and not speech. A touch interface will convert input, say a SMS into ‘elevating and depressing’ bumps[ii] like patterns which can be touched and deciphered. This will thus be a refreshable braille display which only displays text.

Sumit and his team are also testing the use of ‘Shape Memory Alloy technology’[iii] (technology yet to be finalized) – based on the concept that metals expand and contract to its original shape after use, where the screen will use pixels to vary height[iv] to create ‘elevations and depressions’, thus creating the content in a Braille pattern. This mode would enable two-way communications. The phone also uses ‘haptic touch’[v] (haptic refers to interaction through the sense of touch[vi]). For example, upon entering numbers to add a contact, a vibration will communicate that the task has been successfully completed and the contact has been added. Future versions of the phone will convert images, figures, maps, games and other multimedia items into the requisite height map pattern[vii] (height maps is technology used for display in 3D computer graphics). So an image or a visual element can be scanned through to convert it into Braille element ‘highlights’ – which will give the user an idea of what the visual is about. Such a feature can be used to get a feel of the objects, people, visual emotions, or the surrounding environment.

As an interaction designer, Sumit believes strongly in bridging the gap between users and technology; and the design of his phone strives to make the convenience and benefits of a smartphone, accessible to the Blind, currently non-users of the technology.

This idea did not suddenly hit Sumit in a moment of inspiration; Sumit came up with his idea, now his passion, through slow and constant discovery. While pursuing his Master’s degree in Information and Interface Design, Sumit spent considerable amount of time interacting with “non-users of technology”[viii] – people in rural and semi-urban areas who do not use technology frequently, trying to understand how they perceive technology and how could they use it in the future. “A Bullet (motorcycle) road trip from Hyderabad to Bangalore was my Eurkea moment” says Sumit.

Sumit realised that advances in technology have failed to touch and substantially improve the lives of many, especially the disabled and handicapped. Fired by a desire to address this problem, he brainstormed and experimented extensively with ideas before settling down on creating something for the Blind.

After an extremely tumultuous ride and even having gone bankrupt, Sumit is now having his work recognized. “There were numerous challenges along the way, but it was my love for design and a drive to have a positive impact, that kept me going. I had a lot of fun all along” says Sumit. Sumit is a recipient of the prestigious Rolex Young Laureate (2012)[ix], one of the MIT Technology Review India’s 2013 ‘Top innovators under 35’[x], a TED Fellow[xi] and has been recognised as one of the most interesting TED fellows of 2011 by Fast Company.[xii]

Sumit is collaborating very closely with L V Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad – a WHO Collaborating Centre for Prevention of Blindness[xiii], and IIT Delhi, one of India’s premier engineering and research institutes; for research and developing the prototype. Sumit has now also incorporated a new company Kriyate Design Solutions to roll out this product, which was recently incubated at Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship, at IIM Ahmedabad. The phone, which will initially target an Indian audience, is currently in the prototype stage, and will be developed over 3 phases. “The 1st stage prototype, which will be basic, is scheduled for release in mid-2014, and the final phase with a gamut of multimedia features will be released sometime in the next 3 to 5 years. As the phone is still under development, the costs are fluctuating, and though the phone can cost as much as $400; we are specifically working towards pricing it under $200,” says Sumit.

This phone and technology will undoubtedly be an extremely empowering tool, giving blind users the benefits and convenience of a mobile phone, which were until now inaccessible. If you ask Sumit, he will tell you that “I do not want to make a phone for the blind – I want to make a companion for them. I want to give superpowers to the blind, like the ones mobile phones have given everyone else.”

About

Naman has an undergraduate degree in Engineering with a specialization in renewable energy, and currently works in the Renewables space, in Business Development for CLP India - one of the largest wind power developers in India. Naman has written on a variety of topics from renewable energy, to climate change, to social development for a number of publications including NextBillion.net and Your Commonwealth.

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