Having landed a much-sought-after job at the research lab of a leading global IT major, fresh out of college, Anirudh Sharma was working on cutting-edge product technologies. But what really drove him was something he was doing on the side, in his own time, over weekly offs and after hours, burning the proverbial midnight oil: developing a shoe that he hoped would transform the lives of millions of visually impaired people.
Last month, when Mr. Sharma's work with the haptic shoe prototype was recognised by the MIT Technology Review, which featured him in a global list of top innovators and accorded him the title of ‘Indian Innovator of the Year', he knew that he was on the right track, technology-wise.
Yes, it would open up new windows, offer more traction for his work, and help spread the word. But what really enthuses the 24-year-old is the feedback, the enthusiasm and the joy he saw on the faces of the visually impaired people who tried out the prototype of his invention at an accessibility summit he attended in New Delhi.
“When they told us that a product like this could indeed work for them, and change the quality of their lives, I knew I was on the right track,” he says, visibly excited and eager to talk about this experience.
When Mr. Sharma decided that he wanted to make a product that could potentially improve the quality of some lives, he stumbled upon the fact that there were few practical technological aides for people with disabilities. Technology is yet to touch their lives, or make things easier in the way it should, he points out, adding that even existing technologies for the visually impaired are hugely obtrusive, cumbersome (using voice feedback devices that are tough to handle or camera goggles).
Mr. Sharma's endeavour with the haptic shoe-based technology was to solve this problem.
Called ‘Le Chal' (which means ‘take me there' in Hindi), his shoe-smartphone combination is a simple navigation aide.
The shoe is embedded with hardware (an Arduino circuit board laid out in the sole region of the shoe and vibrating actuators on all sides of the sole).
This embedded electronics layer is connected via Bluetooth to a smartphone that sits comfortably in the pocket of the user. Most of the number crunching, processing and computation that makes the navigation possible happens here, on the GPS-enabled smartphone. Simple vibrations are the language the device uses to communicate instructions to the user.
How it works
So, at the outset, the user speaks into the mobile phone: spelling out his current location, and his destination. Once the instructions are given, the smartphone app (currently developed on the Android platform, and yet to be released in app stores as the product is still in the prototype stage) fetches detailed Google maps and charts out the directions.
Since the app is in sync with the shoe, these directions are conveyed to the software layers embedded in the shoe. So when the user starts on the journey, every time his GPS coordinates change, the software computations are made and conveyed to the user in the form of vibrations.
For instance, if the user must turn left, the vibration actuators on the left side of his shoe start working. The length of the vibrations vary depending on the overall proximity from the destination, that is weak vibrations in the beginning and incrementally longer at the end of the navigation task; this is, of course, to alert the user about a possible turn in advance, Mr. Sharma explains.
What's impressive about the prototype is its simplicity. Mr. Sharma, who was gunning for a tech intervention that would be as unobtrusive and intuitive as possible, says the hardware is fairly low-cost and the circuitry simple. For “obvious business reasons”, Mr. Sharma doesn't reveal (his start-up has applied for two patents on the technology) more details of the technology that layers the sole of his haptic shoe. However, he explains that the circuitry is simple and makes use of low-cost readily available components. In fact, Mr. Sharma says, currently he and his team (most hackers he's hiring on contract for the coding) are working on coming up with a prototype that will hopefully even eliminate the need for a smartphone, using a simpler GPS-enabled gadget instead.
His business associate, a technologist-cum-patents lawyer, Krisplan Lawrence, says he is focussing on the patents bit, as a lot of innovation in India goes unnoticed because of “the lack of focus on IP”.
However, as far as technology goes for the disability sector, the real hurdle is cost. Most proprietary technologies — even simple optical readers or speech-to-text convertors — are hugely expensive.
Most visually impaired persons who do use these technologies for simple tasks such as navigating the Web complain that tech aides are simply unaffordable, with something like a simple reader costing over Rs. 60,000 to Rs. 1 lakh.
While Mr. Sharma feels it is too early to speculate on what the costs would be, he says he is conscious of this huge price impediment.
He hopes his product, when it is out, would cost much lesser than existing interventions, “perhaps, a few thousands”, he says.
“We are working very hard to ensure that the gadgetry we use is as low-cost as it can be. And every choice we make, we are conscious of the fact that our ultimate reward will be when thousands of people will be able to use it, and hopefully, lead a more independent and better quality life.”
Keywords: product technologies