BENGALURU: Meet a Bengalurean Paul D’Souza, who has developed Touché, which works as an e-reader for the blind.The device, a Refreshable Braille Display, has a display area or a window where there are hundreds of small pin like projections that can be felt like the embossed Braille dots on paper.
Paul explains, “These dots change as the text is being read. The result is a device that could be likened to an e-reader (like the Amazon Kindle) for the blind. Books in text format can be stored on the device or loaded using USB pen drives. The device has WiFi, ethernet and HDMI ports as well. These would be useful for transferring data or software to the machine.”
Yamuna, a visually impaired 24-year-old student at The Deepa Academy For the Differently Abled, is currently pursuing her BEd. She says, “Touché is very helpful. We can study with it. We can take notes. My friends have also found it easy to read using the device.”
Also parents, teachers or friends who do not know Braille would be able to read the text on a monitor, connected to Touché. He adds, “With about 10GB internal memory that can be used for a library, it is estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 books or documents can be easily stored on each device.”
Each device also comes with four USB ports. The device is an e-reader at present but Paul plans to include a keyboard/ writing or notepad option later.
The Science Geek
Paul says he has been inquisitive about how things worked all his life.
“I was encouraged to do anything that whetted my curiosity. My mom gave me a Ladybird Book at age of 5 on ‘Magnets and Magnetism’. I learned some basics about circuits, batteries, electricity and so on. This was the beginning of a love for electrical and electronic stuff.”
Encyclopaedias in the school library became his companions. He was inspired by famous inventors such as Thomas Edison, Michael Faraday, Isaac Newton, James Watt, Alexander Graham Bell.
He says, “There was also an interesting story about a famous clockmaker named John Harrison in my Radiant Reader (a series of school textbooks) in grade 2. John Harrison had made the first chronometer. My fascination for horology (study and measurement of time) has continued to this day and has resulted in an impressive collection of vintage clocks, watches and associated machinery.”
He adds that this hobby also led to acquiring skills in precision mechanical engineering which gave him necessary grounding and foundation needed to design the various small components that have been used in making this Braille Display.
Inspiration for the Device
Eight years ago, while listening to a hymn by a choir, he thought what if the dots on the music score could come out of the page. “If that happened, then someone who is blind would be able to read music. Then my mind set about designing something that could produce those dots electronically so that the blind would be able to read them.”
During his research, he found that Braille displays do exist but they are very expensive.
“Also, the computer revolution had left the blind behind. Text to speech software and recorders were offered to them as aids to adapt to the new technology. But there was no bridge between tactile literacy and other forms of literacy. We have generations growing up who know how to listen to speech on computers and mobile phones but are technically illiterate. In the West, this problem was recognised and there is a fresh emphasis on Tactile Literacy. Braille became more encompassing and moved from 6 dot to 8 dot. In India, many do not know about 8 dot Braille becoming the new standard.”
This convinced him to do something in this regard. He then set about trying to get people interested in Touche. Many did not believe that such a device can be developed. “So, to prove that it could be done, I made a small 5 line prototype. Strangely, no one was interested any more, but I entered the device into a competition sponsored by National Geographic called ‘Shaping the Future’ where I won an award.”
This was the beginning of a series of different prototypes. “I made a prototype that we refer to as Touché 01 -(or Touché Blue because of its colour) that was demonstrated at Bengaluru’s first Mini Maker Faire in October, 2015. My friend Chandana who is 100 per cent visually impaired demonstrated the device by translating messages that the public wrote on a laptop, but she read in Braille on Touché,” says Paul.
He met a team of engineers from Sapient Razorfish at this fair who offered to help him with software and product development.
By September 2016, he developed a working 8-dot Braille Display and demonstrated the sleek new machine publicly at Bengaluru’s second Mini Maker Faire. He says, “The software allowed the user to load books that would be translated into Braille in real time. Over the next few months, we worked at refining and making parts that could be used for mass production.”
On April 4 and 5, he conducted tests with over a dozen students at Jyothi Seva School for the Blind and at Deepa Academy for the Differently Abled. He adds, “We had two young children, some teenagers and a few working girls as well as blind teachers who tested the device. I think the joy and excitement that we witnessed was sufficient confirmation that the devices were working as desired and now we are going to use the feedback we received to try and incorporate suggestions and changes that might be needed before we go to production. It might be another few months before we reach production.”
Anita Mary, principal, Jyothi Seva Home For Blind Children, says, “It is quite interesting. It will be very helpful if it is made available at cheaper rates. So, when the visually impaired are tired of listening to the texts and carrying so many books, they can use the device.”
Another student Divyashri M K says since several books are stored in the device, it is easy to search and read but as she is more used to braille script, she finds it a bit difficult. She adds, “It is a bit heavy to carry. Also, it would be more comfortable if we could read more than a line as moving on to next line and reading takes a bit of a time.”