Indian tech startups hope to change the world for people with vision disabilities

MUMBAI: An afternoon at the Blind People Association in the sweltering heat of Ahmedabad four years ago changed Gunjan Gupta’s life – and may potentially change the life of 12 million people with vision disabilities in India. Gupta, then barely 20 years old, was on a fact-finding mission for his final year engineering project on devices for people with vision disabilities.

He learnt two things: one, the blind were completely dependent on Braille script. And two, they relied mostly on sound to get through life. After two sleepless nights, Gupta started work on Tellmate – a wearable pair of glasses which processes images for a people with vision disability, converts it into sound and whispers it in the ear using hearing aids.

“A person looking at a printed textbook or magazine will be able to read by listening to it. We have the functionality of reading printed text in English language. We are trying out the Hindi language,” Gupta, a graduate of Nirma University, told ET. He plans to add more regional languages soon so the person can use the product without learning any new language, Braille or otherwise.

Gupta, who is going to market soon, has brought down the cost of the device down to Rs. 3000 only when similar devices globally costs around Rs. 25,000 apiece. He uses free software Tesseract, an optical character recognition engine for various operating systems, and minicomputer Raspberry Pi to make Tellmate.

285 million people are estimated to be people with vision disabilities worldwide of which 39 million are blind and 246 have low vision, according to World Health Organisation statistics. India has the world’s largest blind population at about 12 million. And startups across India are beginning to create cheaper and locally customised products for this underserved segment.

Bombay, Surabhi Srivastava with co-founder Shyam Shah has invented a tablet for people with vision disabilities called ‘Braille Me’ for Rs. 20,000, a tenth of price of its global competition.

“It is an input and output device wherein the content can be read and typed. You could insert a USB drive and the files can be read by this Braille device. You can pair it via Bluetooth to a Smartphone, computer or a tablet,” Srivastava explains. “You can also whats app, send emails by typing messages in English Braille which would get converted into visual English characters. “Innovision, the startup that makes Braille Me, is in the final stages of testing the device.

In Chennai, another engineer has developed a touch typing tutor called FJ Typer, a software application, to help train children with poor vision. All keypads today come with Braille markings on the keys for alphabets F and J. Using those two keys as a starting point, a visually impaired child can start accessing the other keys. Every time he or she types something correct, the software gives them an audio prompt and tells them which letter to type next, if wrong.

“I used to teach children with low vision. These children really struggle when faced with keyboards. If you are completely new to the system and don’t know where the keys are, kids struggle a lot,” said Narayanan Ramakrishnan, who returned to India after completing his Masters in the US.

Assistive technology as a space is underserved in India. Products available in India have been primarily been developed in the western world where affordability is not a criteria. A retail organised market for these devices is almost non-existent in India. In the West, assistive technology products are sold directly to users through retail stores or ecommerce channels.

“The challenge from the business point of view is the monetisation process, like what would make sense from a pricing model, especially to pitch to institutions who are providing any sort of training,” said Ramakrishnan, who is looking at a licensing model for training institutes.

Braille Me’s Srivastava wants to go to market through education and government institutional channels because the awareness levels are quite low and initial training will be required. Tellmate’s Gupta plans to distribute the product through blind people organisations, NGOs and rehabilitation centres like eye clinics and ophthalmologists. He is exploring a rent plus subscription model at Rs. 30 a day.

“People with disabilities don’t have income to afford assistive technology. We don’t have a network to reach disabled people. As the market is small, costs are higher,” says Shilpi Kapoor, founder CEO of Barrier Break that sells imported assistive technology products in India.

Tellmate, Braille Me and FJ Typer along with other assistive technology companies were showcased at Microsoft’s first assistive technology summit in India in May. “Startups have the agility and the time to innovate and experiment with and on technology,” a Microsoft spokesperson told ET.

Source: Economic Times

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