New, cheaper gadgets for the visually impaired

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Annie Samson and Geetanjali Atri

New Delhi, Feb 6 (PTI) Even as technology has made itpossible for the blind to use the internet, to click photosusing special cameras and to undertake activities that areeffortless for the sighted, innovators are now seeking to aidthem further with new and cheaper gadgets.

Currently, the visually impaired are able to read andbrowse through various web pages on the internet one line at atime. Paul D Souza, a Karnataka-based engineer has created amultiline refreshable display that gives a visually impairedperson instant access to the computer revolution.

"My device is like a monitor for the blind where they canread by feeling the Braille dots on its surface. The dotscreated by raising or lowering small pins simulate the bumpsof an embossed page and the text changes as the online pagerefreshes itself," Souza told PTI.

He says such devices are currently being used incountries in the West but at costs that are very prohibitivein India.

"Technology has not changed for the last 30 years. Peoplecontinue to use the single-line display device which costs asmuch as USD 3,000. I have tried to create a five line � 20characters per line � display at a cost of USD 500. It''s alsothe first device in 14 years to meet NLS Braillespecifications," he says.

The engineer, who is a college dropout, aims to bringdown the price further to USD 200 which is much cheaper thanthe existing models.

While over 15 million people in India fall into thecategory of the visually impaired, Souza says he wants topromote literacy among the blind. "While there are many saythat Braille is unnecessary when there are computers which canread out text aloud, I think it will make these peopleilliterate."

Souza is a finalist shortlisted for the Third SocialInnovation honours given by the Nasscom Foundation. Thehonours are a bid to recognise innovation in the use ofinformation and communication technology for socialdevelopment.

Like Souza, two undergraduate students from Meerut havedeveloped a "blind helper" - a 7 key keyboard to help thevisually challenged operate not only a computer but also otherelectrical appliances in their house using "smart-homeextension cables".

"It is difficult for a blind person to operate a normalkeyboard with 104 keys. Blind-helper is a Braille freetechnology that operates with the help of e-vision softwareusing dot net technology," says Mohit Khanna, who has teamedup with a fellow student at the Bharat Institute ofTechnology. .

The device has 5 navigation keys and the remaining two keys are a substitute for the escape and enter keys in anormal keyboard, he says.

"As the system does not require Braille, so even aBraille Illiterate blind person can also use it. Also, thesame system with some minor modifications can become usefuleven for paralytic people, or those with Parkinson�s and evenAlzheimer''s diseases," says Khanna.

Another student team from the VES Institute of Technologyin Mumbai has designed the project "Explore", which aims toenable the differently abled to educate themselves anddiscover the virtual world of the computer.

"Our solution helps visually impaired to educatethemselves through talking textbooks, connect to socialnetworking sites like Facebook etc and thus collaborate withthe world. The software assimilates Braille keys on thekeyboard and output is provided through speech therebyreducing the need for costly hardware," says Samiran Saha, whois leading the student team.

Saha says his team''s innovation will be useful forgovernment organisations to demographically track the literacylevel of the differently abled as well as assist NGOs andchild welfare organisations to suitably channelise theiractivities and collaborate.

Khanna and Saha figure in the 21 finalists from acrossIndia who have been shortlisted for the Genpact Nasscom Socialinnovation awards.

Apart from individuals, several organistions that havecreated solutions to aid the visually impaired have also beenshortlisted for the award which will be announced on February8.

Mumbai-based Beyond Sight foundation has created a uniqueproject that enables blind people to click pictures. Itconducts workshops that encourages the blind to use theirsenses of hearing touch , various visual memories, the warmthof light to create a mental image before they take a picture.

The Camera Mouse project from Vision Aid offers a smallcamera-based device that helps people suffering from long-sightedness to read and write. The camera magnifies the scriptand displays the magnified view on the user''s television. PTIANS

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