This innovator wants to be socially relevant

In his Geography class, Mukul's teacher quizzes him about Australia. Aided by his Tablet device, Mukul, who studies in Class VII at the Spastics Society of Karnataka, is able to communicate that he thinks people migrate to Australia in search of “jobs” despite the “hot weather”.

Being speech-impaired, young Mukul taps these words onto his smart, touch-screen device that uses a speech synthesiser to read out his sentences.

The gadget he uses is Avaz, an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device created by Ajit Narayanan, who heads Invention Labs, a start-up incubated at the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai. Last week, Mr. Narayanan was named in the MIT Technology Reviews' list of 35 Young Innovators for 2011 for creating ‘affordable speech synthesisers'.

AAC devices, which have been widely used in developed countries for some time now — most prominently by scientist Stephen Hawking — cost anywhere between $ 5,000 and $ 10,000 (roughly Rs. 2.5 lakh to Rs. 5 lakh). In comparison, Avaz costs Rs. 30,000. This is Avaz's most significant achievement, points out Mr. Narayanan. Fuelled by an ARM processor, Avaz's operation system is built on an Android platform.

The 30-year-old innovator explains to The Hindu that his accomplishments are only partly technological, and have more to do with entrepreneurship. “We were able to take timely advantage of the market when components of smartphones and tablet computers became relatively cheap. What is most important is that we were able to take this product out of the lab and make it available in the market.”

While he believes there is innovation in India, he feels the research here “often operates in a vacuum or in a hypothetical way where we believe that the technology itself will solve the problem”. This needs to change, he says.

Mr. Narayanan, an IIT-Chennai alumnus, returned from the US. in 2007 wanting to invent something “socially relevant”.

On a visit to the Spastics Society in Chennai, he stumbled upon a problem that was as “right here, right now” as it gets.

“There were children who were intelligent and sensitive, but could not communicate, and I knew that I wanted to make their lives better,” he said.

Today, the device speaks in six languages — Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi. Besides allowing users to key in words, it also has readymade templates stored for frequently used sentences, words and syntax, that it strings together to read out a sentence. Currently, around 60 devices have been sold mostly to special schools.

“I want to make sure that every child in India who needs the device has access to it,” says Mr. Narayanan. It's a tall task, he admits, but is one that's achievable by walking that extra mile, source sponsorships or make it part of Corporate Social Responsibility projects. He also hopes that over time his team can take Avaz beyond its current mandate, that is include various interventions to assist people with different kinds of handicaps.

In Bangalore, Avaz is used by students in Spastics Society of Karnataka in Indiranagar, Academy for Severely Handicapped and Autism (ASHA) in Basaveshwaranagar, Fame India in Jayanagar and Deepika Integrated Special School.