IIST students take Braille to the next level

A group of students from Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology builds a Braille reader to help the visually challenged to read, both printed and online

April 05, 2018 03:57 pm | Updated 03:57 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

 A visually impaired individual reads using the Braille system

A visually impaired individual reads using the Braille system

Learning and mastering Braille takes at least two years. After all that trouble many find that there aren’t enough Braille books around to read. But what if a visually challenged person could read a regular book just like everyone else? That is what triggered a group of students from the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) to design a Braille reader that can help the needy to read regular texts and documents.

“With this device anyone trained in Braille would be able to read books, texts, documents or newspapers. There are already a few devices in the market, but they are all bulky, costly and difficult to carry around,” says K.V.N.G. Vikram, a second year B.Tech Engineering Physics student who came up with the idea and formed a team that includes British Sontakke, Rahul Kumar, Prashant Kumar and Sumit Kumar Singh, all doing their first year in B.Tech Avionics.

 (From left) KVNG Vikram, Sumit Kumar Singh, British Sontakke, Rahul Kumar, Prashant Kumar

(From left) KVNG Vikram, Sumit Kumar Singh, British Sontakke, Rahul Kumar, Prashant Kumar

Although it started as a project for an innovation challenge, in which they won the first prize in the ‘tech for good’ category, the students soon realised the realities of Braille education in the country. “There aren’t enough Braille books and that is severely hampering their education. Most jobs require you to read some kind of document or the other. During the course of our surveys, we met a highly qualified visually challenged person who couldn’t clear a job interview just because the job involved going through some amount of reading,” says Vikram.

The objective

The target they set themselves was to come up with a device that would be compact, easy to use and one that could help the visually challenged read a newspaper. A newspaper, the students say, presents a unique challenge. It has different font sizes and if they could come up with a reader that could help with reading a newspaper, it could be used to read anything else.

The working prototype of their device can only read one font size but it clearly shows how a finished product would work. “You slide it like a computer mouse on a line and the sensor below would detect words, one letter at a time. The Optical Character Recognition software would then convert the letters into signals that are formed into different Braille letters by the cells,” explains Vikram. All this would happen in less than a second and this duration, he adds, could be brought down for faster reading. The final product would be powered by rechargeable battery and would resemble a computer mouse with six Braille cell holes at the nose end over which the fingers of the user would rest while reading.

Challenges involved

However to take it to the next stage, the students would have to solve issues such as ways to let the users know about space between words and when the line ends. British adds,“All that can be done with the help of buzzers or vibrators or beeps. For shifting lines, users can simply place a finger at the beginning of a line being read, so that when the time comes all they need to do is move the finger down a little to get an idea of where the next line begins.”

But the challenge would be to make it compact enough to fit into the palm of a person, just like a mouse. That, they say, will need another year’s work along with coordination of students and teachers from other departments. The robotics club of IIST has taken the Braille reader as their club project.

There are already audio-books and book-readers in the market. So what difference would this device make? “Listening to someone read is different from reading it yourself in your own voice. That is what we wanted to do with this project, that is, to create a device that can help the visually challenged read any book or text or document they want without anyone’s help,” says Vikram.

Having interacted with different organisations working for the empowerment of visually challenged, the team found that many are not aware of such technology. He adds, “We are not coming up with anything new. All the technology already existed and we are just integrating them into one device.”

They hope others would come up with such devices as they believe competition is the key in making such a technology affordable and user-friendly, just like in the case of mobile phones.

The device

 Braille reader prototype

Braille reader prototype

The box-shaped device has six Braille cells, pins that are individually controlled using solenoids to rise up through the holes to create different Braille letters, in two rows on top and an optical character recognition sensor on the bottom.

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