Young Indian innovator Sumit Dagar has invented the world’s first smartphone for the blind. The Braille smartphone will have many of the same features as current smartphones, enabling blind people to benefit more fully from the technological revolution.
Dagar developed the idea for the smartphone during his studies for a Master’s degree in interaction design at the National Institute of Design. During the program he travelled to many isolated villages in order to talk to non-users of technology and learn how they could become future users. He realized that while the developments in smartphone technology were greatly benefiting those with access to them, they were further marginalizing those without access. He found that disabled people, specifically blind people, were especially isolated by technology. As Dagar explains it, “the technology is making them even more disabled.”
According to the World Health Organization, there are over 15 million blind or sight-impaired people currently living in India. These people make up more than one per cent of India’s total population. The adaptive technology that is currently available to blind people leaves a lot to be desired. While screen reader technology converts text on a mobile phone screen into speech, in India regional dialects and accents can make the English-language artificial voice difficult for a lot of people to understand. There is also a lack of privacy for the user as text messages and emails are read aloud by the automated voice.
Dagar is working on two prototypes of Braille phones, the first-generation phone and the smartphone. Dagar’s first-generation Braille phone can display 10 Braille characters at a time and has a music player, e-mail client, calendar and GPS navigation. While this is an advancement on current technology, the smartphone will be truly life-changing for users. The Braille smartphone will not only allow for easier and more private communication with friends and family, but also has a variety of features that will make everyday life easier. The Braille phone will have sensor technology that can inform the user of the distance to various objects, as well as scan and inform users of the colour of objects in front of them. Dagar’s plans include a camera that translates text to Braille and allows users to ‘view’ a face using their sense of touch. The smartphone will also be able to generate a map that users can follow or could use to find their way home in emergencies. The screen will be touch-responsive, like existing smartphones, so users can input information and make phone calls easily. Dagar believes that this smartphone become more of a ‘companion’ for people with visual impairments than a phone.
The changing Braille characters and display screen are made possible by the use of Shape Memory Alloy technology. These metals expand when heated then contract back to their original shape. The Braille phone has a grid of pins that are manipulated by the Shape Memory Alloy technology to move up and down as necessary. These raised pins formulate the Braille characters, and on the smartphone’s high-resolution screen will convey other touchable patterns such as shapes, figures and maps.
The price point for the first generation of the Braille phone is estimated to be between 7,000 and 9,000 RS ($125 – $165 CAD). Dagar says that while it is challenging, he is trying to keep the smartphone affordable as well. It is rumored that it will cost around 11,000 RS ($200 CAD).
Dagar has been working on developing the Braille smartphone since completing his Masters degree in 2010. In October 2012 he formed a company called Kriyate Design Solutions and currently works with a team of six people. They are testing their work at L V Prasad Eye Institute if Hyderabad and are being funded by Rolex Awards through their Young Laureates Programme.
It will still be a few years before these phones hit the markets. Dagar is scheduled to have a working prototype of the smartphone midway through this year, although the addition of the touch-responsive screen is not scheduled until 2016.
Many are hopeful that Dagar’s Braille smartphone will help inspire others to focus on creating accessible technology, such as ATMs and computers, for the visually impaired.
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