MADURAI: Their worlds are so different that D Tamilselvi and Co had to rack brains for years, specifically from 2014 to 20, to help the children with autism experience what reality looks like.
Years of toil and many discussions with psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, special educators, children with autism parents and observing special children, the efforts of the IT department Associate Professor of Thiagarajar College of Engineering and her students - Sai Naveena Shree and Bhavani Devi - bore fruit when they developed a digital virtual-reality device to help the kids overcome the challenges posed by real life.
Now, the team is busy taking efforts to make the device available in the market, that too, at an affordable price. Recently, they were recognized with one of the innovative project with 'CII Industry Innovation Award 2021' at the 27th DST-CII Technology Summit for Thiagarajar College of Engineering.
Ask Tamilselvi who has a PhD in Robotics, she would admit though she developed a robotics tool for the special children initially, it was a failure. "From 2014 onwards, she started studying the behaviour of children with autism, training imparted to them by therapists at Spark Vidhalaya, Rakshana Child Guidance Centre, and Ahana Hospitals. She got the spark from there and ended up developing the supporting tool using Augmented and Virtual Reality technology," she said with pride glowing in her eyes.
Tamilselvi said the turning point came when she noticed the children with autism getting disconnected from the real world and travelling into a virtual world while wearing Head Mount Device (HMD). "Virtual reality makes the transformation and interaction spontaneous and stimulates the children to respond naturally," she said.
She also credited Professor Sathya Prakash, Ashland University, US introduced by Dr.Abhai Kumar, Principal, TCE, who gave guidance and therapies at International Level, for helping her in the endeavour and they have research publication at International Journal. In 2018, Department of Science and Technology's Cognitive Science Research Initiative (CSRI) recognized the research project and sanctioned 34 lakh for sponsored project. . From 2018 to 2020, they have setup the Virtual Reality Lab and assessing the device on special kids at various centers, fetching positive results," she said. They have MoU with M/s. Kewaunee Bangalore based company support for the students to develop VR based projects in a professional way.
She pointed out usually children with autism show hesitancy in mingling with people. Elaborating further on the device, the professor said, "Before taking the children to some place, for example Tourist places, we will introduce them the place to them virtually in prior. When they start enjoying it, it will be easier to take the kids to adopt to the particular place," she said adding the device helps improve eye contact, concentration level and response positively.
In future, team is planning to create a 'cave-based virtual world' which will y be the first-of-its-kind in the country for addressing the special children therapies.
Naveena said both Bhavani and herself hail from rural backgrounds and know very well the challenges being faced by special children. "We will be satisfied if we could help reach our innovation to rural masses," she said, adding they got recommendation for patent in Augmented Reality(AR) and are yet to get one for Virtual Reality(VR).