SEPTEMBER 2012: Whenever science and humanity come together, the world rejoices. This time it’s a device developed by Nagendra Setty, CEO of Ideas Unlimited. Setty, with his team, has developed a device which assists the visually challenged in learning the Braille system of reading and writing. The product, officially called the interactive braille tutor with speech assist capability, eliminates the need for a teacher to be with the students at all times.

The first question that comes to our mind is “What made them think of developing such a device? Are the teachers not doing a good enough job or is it more of a ratio problem?”

Conventional braille teaching relies on the use of a wooden plate that has six dips representing a Braille cell and a glass marble that has to be placed in the dips to form a Braille character
Conventional braille teaching relies on the use of a wooden plate that has six dips representing a Braille cell and a glass marble that has to be placed in the dips to form a Braille character
Braille tutor unit
Braille tutor unit

Setty clarifies, “It’s more of the latter. In India, the number of Braille teachers attending to individual students is quite bad. We can’t expect them to be able to attend to all of them but there was one school that I visited where 50 students were being attended to by a single teacher. That’s not helping anyone in any way. On the contrary, it’s actually quite detrimental to the teaching process. It was only a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ such a device would be designed and I’m just thankful we could do it.”

Remote unit
Remote unit
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The conventional system
Conventional braille teaching in India still relies on the use of a wooden plate that has six dips representing a Braille cell and a glass marble that has to be placed inside the dips to form a Braille character. Usually, the children drop the marbles on the floor and therefore teaching where one teacher can teach many students, Braille teaching is a 1:1 system as the children are blind and have to tune to the sense of touch to learn Braille. During the initial stages of learning, the teacher has to arrange dots for each child in the class, then take it to each child and verbally speak out what the arrangment means. This has to be repeated every day until the children become skilled in the script. At the end of the day, the teachers, most of whom are blind themselves, are exhausted due to both verbal and activity overload.

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The interactive tutor
The interactive braille tutor device comprises a braille tutor unit and a remote unit. The braille tutor unit has six slots, each of which houses a wooden bead. The beads come out in various combinations to represent a particular letter of the English alphabet in Braille. There are a couple of features that make learning fun. The device interacts by way of speech, which reduces the monotony of not having a human teacher. The quiz mode allows the students to test their learning.

The product demonstrated by the team teaches Kannada and English along with numbers and symbols, using Kannada as the medium of instruction. It has been designed such that the Braille character data as well as the digitised speech data is stored on an SD memory card inside the unit. By changing the content of the SD memory card, one can easily customise the product to provide training in different media of instructions and teach different (even foreign) languages.

Salient features
1. Speech assist. The device speaks each character before changing the pattern in the Braille cell. This helps extensively in self-learning and reduces the effort of the Braille teacher.
2. Handy remote control. User-independent learning, designed for single hand and thumb operation.
3. Minimum buttons. All of which can be reached out by the left- or right-hand thumb, thus doing away with awkward grappling with the remote.
4. Memory included. A 2GB memory card has been included to assimilate the data of at least twelve languages.

The device was designed and fabricated in Mysore using locally available components. Keeping Indian conditions in mind, it is provided with rough industrial-grade enclosures for ruggedness.

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The remote unit assists the child in picking up Braille quickly. It has seven buttons, viz, quiz/learn, first, last, previous, next, language and answer. The features are so simple that it takes only a few minutes of orientation by the teacher for the student to learn its working perfectly.

The first prototype was made nearly three years ago. It had an 8-bit Atmel AVR (ATmega32) controller inside. The device had captive beads with just one Braille cell and produced simple beeps in the speaker. When Setty presented it to the local school for the visually impaired, the teachers and students at the school took to the concept like fish to water but wanted to add speech capability to the device. That is how the device got that particular feature.

The second prototype was built with speech capability as a technology demonstrator. “Our company developed the speech playback software from a controller’s flash memory, through a speaker which was integrated by junior engineers into the second prototype they had built,” shares Setty.

“We developed the third prototype in-house and addressed the memory problem. We put a 2GB SD card inside the device to store all the sounds. Proprietary software was developed to read the SD card and play audio files in a synchronised manner in real time. The audio is reconstructed from wave files using pulse-width modulation. After getting the software and hardware right, we conducted field trials of the device. It’s then we realised that teaching Indian languages and abbreviations required two Braille cells,” explains Setty.

Version 2.0?
Setty has already conceptualised the improvements he wants to see in the final (fifth, if you were counting) prototype:
1. Two Braille cells, instead of the present one, to make sure the complete Bharati Braille can be taught including matras of Indian languages
2. Built-in battery and charging capability for operation in remote/rural areas where power outages are quite frequent
3. Locally made improved solenoids (with high push force)
4. A headphone socket interface
5. Volume control facility

Finally, the team started work on the fourth prototype in April this year. They still had one technical challenge to crack—the imported solenoids were too expensive to make the product viable and too low in force. This was a critical aspect to be addressed before the product was formally announced.

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So the team worked with a Mumbai-based company, to design a coil for the hybrid design of a solenoid and linear motor to multiply the force of the solenoid. The solenoids are driven by Darlington transistor arrays.

Judgement day
Setty is pretty excited about the product and how it will be received by the focus market. The product is expected to be ready for release in October this year.

“We have not announced it formally, as of yet. But we have certainly demonstrated it in various blind schools and NGOs, who are very keen to know about the production date,” informs Setty.

The author is a tech correspondent at EFY Bengaluru