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Making the world a more equal place

A lab in IIT-Delhi is working to create gadgets and apps to empower the visually impaired

Geetanjali Krishna 

Making the world a more equal place

I walk with my eyes closed, ivory cane in hand. As I near a wall, the cane vibrates. It keeps vibrating until I change to a safer course. Within a few minutes of use, this cane makes the world becomes a more easily navigable place while walking blind.

Developed by Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi's Assistech Lab, the "Smart Cane" guiding me is way smarter than the ordinary ivory cane. But it isn't the only innovative product this laboratory has designed to bring a qualitative change in the lives of the visually challenged. Assistech works in conjunction with Saksham Trust, a non-governmental organisation for the visually impaired, to provide solutions to the everyday problems they face.

Walk into the Assistech lab and you're greeted by an inter-disciplinary group of students, faculty and researchers working on a variety of new products - Braille displays, tactile maps, atlases and mobile bus route finders, to name some. "Our mandate is simple. We conduct surveys to understand specific problems that the blind face - and then help our students come up with technology-driven solutions," says M Balakrishnan, one of the lab's co-founders.

It all began 10 years ago when Balakrishnan met Dipendra Manocha of Saksham Trust. Manocha, who is visually impaired, said he wanted to support research on technologies that improved the quality of life of the blind. Assistech was, thus, born with this practical stance, with research being directed by the unique problems posed by those who would eventually benefit from it. One of the early successes has been the Smart Cane - its first, and so far, only product to have gone commercial.

"We developed this when many of our blind friends shared their experience of the ivory cane," explains Balakrishnan. "While it is an invaluable aid, it only detects low-lying obstacles by touch. Our friends reported frightening repercussions when they accidentally touched a stranger on the road, or, even worse, a sleeping dog."

The Smart Cane uses ultrasonic ranging to detect objects in its path, sending out four different vibratory patterns to alert the user about exactly where and how far the obstacle is. A joint effort of IIT-Delhi, Chennai-based private manufacturer Phoenix Medical Systems and Saksham Trust, Smart Cane is now available for Rs 3,000 in India, while similar devices abroad cost upwards of Rs 65,000. Over 8,000 units have sold so far. Assistech plans to market Smart Cane in the neighbouring countries as well. "Much of this has been possible as the development costs of the Smart Cane have been covered by UK agency Wellcome Trust," says Balakrishnan.

Another project, sponsored by the communications & information technology ministry that Assistech is working on, focuses on creating low-cost non-visual teaching aids for the visually impaired. "Our focus groups revealed that visually impaired students find it tough to study subjects like science and geography that have tables, maps and diagrams. While there are plenty of Braille textbooks available, the technology for creating tactile maps is prohibitively expensive," says Balakrishnan as we walk through the lab. Assistech has been working to develop a low-cost printer of tactile graphics using embossed lines, textures and Braille labels. "We want to create technologies that are scalable. In a country like India, this means that they have to be low cost," he says. While imported tactile sheets sell at about Rs 100 per sheet, Assistech's version costs between Rs 5 and Rs 10.

The lab's latest offering has an even broader scope. "Blind people find it difficult to independently use buses as they can't read the bus number," says Balakrishnan. "We've created a radio-frequency-based solution called 'On Board' that has a mobile-like handheld user module, and a module installed inside the bus," says he. At the bus stop, when the user presses the query button on the handheld module, it reads out the numbers of the buses in vicinity. The user selects the number of the desired bus. This activates the module in the desired bus. A lit bulb alerts the driver that a person with special needs is waiting to board. On Board has attracted the attention of BEST, which wants to install it in 1,000 buses. "People at BEST reported a higher degree of sensitisation among the drivers who participated in On Board's field trials," says Balakrishnan. "Now we are actively looking for industrial partners to manufacture this product commercially and those who can help us subsidise the product's initial cost."

What we have created here is unique, says Balakrishnan. "Students of physics, engineering, design and information technology work together here. The fact that their projects tangibly benefit people with visual disabilities makes it even more rewarding for them," he says.

In fact, every year, there are a couple of IIT students who eschew lucrative corporate placements to complete their projects at the Assistech lab.

Therein lies the significance of Assistech's achievement. Not only has it successfully shown that research in an elite institution like IIT need not be abstract and esoteric, but also that it can become more prolific and innovative when it is actively directed by the needs of its beneficiaries.

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