Four engineers from Bengaluru are bringing ecommerce to the fingertips of the visually impaired

Prajwala Hegde April 20, 2017 6 min

We’re often glued to our smartphones or laptops, looking for the best deal, ordering groceries online, buying movie or air tickets, booking tables to dine out or reading ebooks. But have you ever thought how visually impaired people navigate the ecommerce space?

Well, four young people thought about it and came up with a device that has opened up the world of ecommerce to visually impaired people by bringing the content of a screen to their fingertips, quite literally, through braille. Braille is a form of writing used by people who are blind or visually impaired.

The device, named Sparsh, is powered by a Dynamic Braille Board (stylised as dBB), an electro-mechanical technology that reproduces the content of a smartphone or a computer on a rolling display in braille. While right now the device is about the size of a small shoe box, the final product will be as small as a digital mouse, with the rolling braille display running on it like a scroller. It is expected to be launched in Bengaluru in two months time.

To help users access ecommerce, the device will route them through a special portal that will convert the screen text into braille in real-time and read it out so the user can select the product at the press of a tab on the device and then go on to payment process  

The device stores in its internal and external memories (SD card). Once it is switched on, a blind student can connect to it with an audiojack and browse the files. The machine reads out the filenames or they can also use the braille display to read and the select the files.

To help users access ecommerce, the device will route them through a special portal that will convert the screen text into braille in real-time and read it out so the user can select the product at the press of a tab on the device and then go on to payment process.

Also read: Tech ninja B R Alamelu beats blindness to be an admired academic

The device is the first of its kind in India, but it’s is not a breakthrough invention — similar gadgets are available in western countries. What sets dBB apart is its low cost. It’s priced at just Rs 5,000-Rs 6,000 while a comparable device in the US costs $2,000, or about Rs 1.28 lakh at the current exchange rate. The starting price of such devices is Rs 75,000.

Sparsh is the brainchild of four Bengaluru engineers — Kiran L Reddy, Rohit Neil, Siddhanth Gaonkar and Vishnu Ramakrishna. While the first three graduated from CMR Institute of Technology in Bengaluru in 2016, Vishnu graduated from MVJ College of Engineering, Bengaluru.

While right now the device is about the size of a small shoe box, the final product will as small as a digital mouse

It was their zeal for entrepreneurship and for giving back to society that brought the young graduates together. They turned down lucrative job offers as they wanted to use their technical expertise to benefit the community at large. Cognizant of the fact that the ecommerce space is out of the reach of visually impaired people, they formed a company called Blank Solutions in Bengaluru to build a device to bridge this gap.

“The visually impaired have been ignored by almost all technology giants,” said Reddy. India is home to one-third of the world’s blind population. According to their findings, of the 1.5 crore blind people in the country, only 5% receive formal education.

Gaonkar pointed out that accessing books and reference material in braille is difficult and expensive in any case, and with payments going digital now, things just got more challenging for the blind. “The dBB’s relevance increases in the less-cash economy India is heading towards as it helps users access ecommerce with ease and for cheap,” Reddy added.

Education first, then access

One notable feature of the dBB is that it helps users learn the braille alphabet all by themselves. It offers real-time speech-to-braille conversion and can be connected to a computer or a smartphone via bluetooth.

The team is planning to launch the device shortly. Keeping ease of use in mind, the dBB is equipped with a long battery life and is portable. Gaonkar underlined that while magnification tools and facilities like text-to-speech do exist, these are not supported by banking firms. The dBB also gives the visually challenged access to online banking.

The young social entrepreneurs plan to take the dBB to blind schools and libraries for the blind across the country. They say they’ve received excellent feedback from students and teachers in blind schools.

Speaking to FactorDaily, Bhavya SN, headmistress at Sri Rakum School For The Blind, Bengaluru, which has 100 students, said, “One page of normal text is three page in braille. So, braille users have to refer to and lug around big, heavy books. If the device is launched in market, it will help us get rid of that load as it’s a small, portable device. That will be of great value to us.” She is impressed with the fact that a single device can store up to 5,000 books.

The dBB is already low-cost but it can become even cheaper with mass production

“One page of normal text is three page in braille. So, braille users have to lug around big, heavy books. If the device is launched in market, it will help us get rid of that load as it’s a small, portable device” — Bhavya SN, headmistress at Sri Rakum School For The Blind, Bengaluru  

While the dBB is already low-cost, it can become even cheaper with mass production. Sanjeev Sukumaran, the mentor of the quartet, said, “If they (the makers) get orders to churn out a large number of devices and funding to support that kind of production, the cost of the device will come further down.”

The dBB is not the four friends’ first endeavour towards a social cause. When Chennai was swept by a deluge after torrential rain in 2015, they had formed a group called ‘Friends in Need’ to raise funds for supplying essential material to the flood-affected people. Also, in their final year of college, they had toyed with making a full-page reader, like a digital tablet, for the blind.

With technology going mainstream, there is a moral imperative for improving accessibility to technology. Innovations such as these will go a long way in ensuring that access.

Also read:

This low-cost innovation from a Bengaluru startup can save premature babies from going blind

What made V Shakthi India’s most followed accessibility activist

We tested 18 government apps, and most are not fully accessible to the disabled

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The ‘Tech Meets Bharat’ series brings to you stories on how technology is impacting and changing lives in hinterland India.

Prajwala Hegde is a Bangalore-based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.