BrailleMe – Revolutionizing Braille Displays

Braille literacy is and has been a crucial matter in the country. Assistive technology in developing countries like ours has not reached homes and institutes catering to the visually impaired owing to its exorbitant prices. However young minds today and turning to Social entrepreneurship and mining effective, affordable solutions for persisting problems of the country, thereby filling the existing gaps. Walking on the same path are Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai alumnus, team Innovision is creating BrailleMe – the world’s most affordable Braille display.

This exceptional invention has received global recognition. Best Global Hardware Social Innovation – ASME (American Society for Mechanical Engineers) Hardware ISHOW, Best ICT Innovation for Accessibility by Nasscom Foundation, Path Breaking Social Innovation – IIGP (India Innovation Growth Program), Best Social Enterprise – Sankalp Award , USISTEF – US India Science and Technology Endowment Fund are some of the recognitions for the team.

Tell us about team Braille Me. 

BrailleMe has been developed by our company Innovision. The company was founded by IIT Bombay alumni Shyam Shah and Surabhi Srivastava with the aim of developing assistive technology solutions with a focus on innovation for affordability. The assistive technology products in the market today have all been designed by developed countries like the United States, where price has not been an important factor for products. Thus the existing solutions like refreshable Braille devices and software like JAWS among others are very expensive making them unsuitable for users in developing countries like India. We wanted to use our engineering background to develop technological innovations that should bring down the cost of critical assistive aids. Innovision has a team of young innovators and entrepreneurs looking to develop solutions for the Indian market drawing from their understanding of the needs of the target users. Our team also has persons with visual impairment who have been an integral part of the product development specially its features and in-house testing. The company has been incubated at IIT Bombay since its incorporation and has been mentored by experts at XRCVC, NAB, Saksham, Enable India and others.

Why did you choose to create a smart braille display? How did the journey begin? 

Our journey started in our final year of IIT, when my co-founder Shyam visited a blind school with a relative and the challenges of access to material and declining literacy and employment were introduced to him. Our research of the sector and our interactions with organizations working in this space suggested that there was an acute shortage of accessible material for the visually impaired in India. Traditionally printed Braille has been the medium for education and literacy in schools but was bulky and expensive with limited content being transcribed into Braille. With the world going digital, the assistive technology solutions that have come up are majorly audio based in English and have limited applications for education since they lack a script. They are also unsuitable for India since they offer limited regional Indian language support especially for schools where education is not English medium. Thus we aimed for a Made in India Digital Braille solution, which would focus on the needs of the local community and would thus be affordable, multi-lingual and robust.

 

BrailleMe is the world’s most affordable smart braille display. Tell us about the features in detail. 

BrailleMe is a smart Braille assistant targeted at digital accessibility for the visually impaired community. It is the first low cost digital Braille solution and a Made in India assistive product. BrailleMe enables reading and typing in Braille both in stand-alone mode like a tablet and by pairing with computers and smart phones. It has a 20 cell standard 6 dot Braille display made of electronically moving pins and a 6 key Brailler keypad for typing in Braille. The Braille screen or reading interface is identical to printed paper in Braille with the embossed dots substituted by the pins thus not requiring any new learning from user. The interface is refreshable with Up and Down arrows to move between lines similar to scrolling on a computer or mobile for content. There are 20 cursor routing buttons – one under each Braille cell – for positioning the cursor, for editing by clicking on the button below the desired character – similar to a computer. The device also has additional buttons – space, back, enter and key combinations for other commands. The key features of BrailleMe are as follows –

 

  1. Bluetooth & USB – The device can connect to a computer via USB and work with NVDA. It can also pair via Bluetooth to smart phones and tablets to provide Braille and audio support.

 

  1. SD Card support – it can be used in stand alone mode to read, edit and create new files in Braille on the device itself. This would be useful in schools as a Braille kit, for note-taking in colleges and meetings and also as an e-book reader.

 

  1. Screen Reader support – In addition to being a digital Braille solution, Braille Me allows works with the existing audio software for the visually impaired giving the benefit and comfort of both Braille and audio in the price of a single device. It would support Talk Back for Android, Voiceover for Apple and NVDA for Windows in the first version.

 

  1. Affordable – BrailleMe’s innovative technology has given it a 10 times price advantage over all competitor products in the market while satisfying all the critical Braille parameters like refresh rate, battery drainage, life cycle, Braille cell shape and size, etc.

 

  1. Multi-lingual – the multi language capability of Braille Me for regional Braille makes it much better suited for the education or personal needs of users in different geographies instead of the English only support of competitors. The device has been tested for Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati, Malayalam Braille currently and would also be tested for Telugu, Tamil and Kannada. This would be of use particularly to schools who face challenges of regional Braille material.
  2. Battery – the battery has been designed to last for a minimum of 12-15 hours on a single charge in order to last a user for a full school day or in their office. It also has a fast charging feature with full charge in 1.5 hours.

The device is portable, lightweight and robust for better user experience. More details about BrailleMe can be found on our website – www.innovisiontech.co

What was the research and testing process you undertook? 

We started work on BrailleMe by extensive technology R&D to develop an innovative technology for Braille cell actuators – i.e. the mechanism of moving the pins representing each dot of Braille – Up and Down. Our initial research had shown us that this was the cause of the high cost of competitor products, which were based on piezoelectric actuators with the same technology being used for all refreshable Braille Displays. We started testing out different technologies for the Braille cells and after 1 year of R&D we had developed a magnet based actuator technology for Braille cells that would provide us approximately a 10 times price advantage over existing products. This technology has been tested rigorously for mechanical performance and satisfies all the global standards for refreshable Braille. We have also filed patents for this disruptive technology and it has also been validated by Penn State University in the US and the American Society for Mehcanical Engineers. Once the technology was developed the product development was carried out with inputs from sector experts like NAB, XRCVC, NFB, NBP etc. since the idea stage. The device has been tested with users both in-house and with leading organization in India and the US. The user interface and the software has been developed on the basis of the user surveys, testing, feedback and insights of the visually impaired themselves. With key features like layout, battery time, commands, translator app, lcd support, etc. being added on the basis of user suggestions. The device has also been tested for the rugged Indian conditions of high temperature, humidity, dust, voltage fluctuations as well as drop tests and spill tests for better functionality.

Assistive technology is expensive. How did the team manage to make Braille Me affordable?

Assistive Technology has the power to revolutionize the day-to-day life of persons with disability. Magnifiers, screen readers, hearing aids, mobility aids among others have all been path-breaking innovations opening up new opportunities for their users. But most of these products have been built in developed countries like the United States of America and Europe where user incomes and financial assistance through government schemes is much higher and thus affordability has never been a critical factor for them. This has been one of the biggest shortcomings of these products since the majority of the target users are living in developing countries like India. When we started working on BrailleMe our key focus was on making digital Braille affordable for India. We realized upon research that the Braille cells were the most expensive component of all the Braille devices in the market, which were using piezoelectric crystals for moving the Braille pins. We researched other physics principles that could be used to move the pins and tested them in the lab. During this process we found that our design of magnetic actuators was able to bring the cost down significantly. Though people had tried using magnets in the past they were unable to prevent the magnets from affecting each other at the distance of standard Braille. Thus our team of engineers and designers came up with a new design to solve this challenge. We have filed both Indian and US patents for our magnetic Braille cell technology and this has also been recognized by leading global technology organizations like the ASME – a US organization – who has awarded us as the best hardware social innovation globally.


What could be the direct applications of your product? Where all do you think it can be of great use?  

BrailleMe has been developed to aid in the digital accessibility of both content and devices by the visually impaired community in their own script of Braille. The key applications of these could be in the following areas –

  1. Education – Since Braille Me allows a user to read, edit and create content in digital Braille it can be used as a substitute for a Braille kit in special schools with the syllabus in text being loaded onto the device itself. It would reduce the cost of printed Braille content and its bulkiness too for students. Additionally it would allow for a lot more content to be accessible especially in regional Braille for Hindi, Marathi, Tamil Braille etc. It could also be used for writing exams with the question papers being provided on SD card in text format and answers being written on BrailleMe for submission reducing need for volunteer scribes. BrailleMe can also be used to teach Braille using Brailler keyboard instead of stylus, which is tiring and slow. We have tested this functionality with a few schools and teachers.
  2. Inclusive Education – there is a huge shortage of special educators and most teachers in integrated schools do not know Braille. Additionally the teachers who know Braille also tend to read Braille visually rather than by touch. On their inputs we have developed a BrailleMe app for smart phones where the phone app acts as an LCD screen for BrailleMe upon pairing via Bluetooth. This app shows the content which is on BrailleMe in Braille as its corresponding sighted text on the phone screen. This can be used by sighted teachers and parents to teach their visually impaired kids even though they do not know Braille in touch form.
  3. Computer based Training – Since BrailleMe can connect to computers via USB and pair with screen reader software like NVDA it can also be a useful Braille aid for training new users on using computers and can be used to access computers in colleges for higher education and in the office as an assistive technology solution. This functionality has been used by IIT Bombay and Xavier’s College students and has also been tested by Enable India and Saksham.
  4. Employment – Computer based jobs from a large share of employment opportunities for persons with visual impairment specially in sectors like banking and financial sector, web accessibility coding, BPO jobs, data entry, medical transcription etc. For most of these jobs digital Braille would provide additional benefit and improvement in efficiency such as – better accuracy for coding, transcription and banking due to Braille script instead of audio; better efficiency in BPO and call operator jobs since audio and Braille can be complimentary and reduce time for switching between audio lines.
  1. Library / Content Accessibility – BrailleMe can also be used to increase the content accessible to users in Braille since it can auto translate text to Braille in multiple languages. It can also be used as a Braille e-book reader by means of portals like BookShare, Sugamya Pustakalay, etc.


Tell us about the feedback you’ve received from your current users. 

Innovision is currently gearing up for Pan-India launch of BrailleMe in addition to global launch at the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference in San Diego in March 2018. The patent filed Braille actuator technology at the heart of BrailleMe has been tested extensively and satisfies the recommended performance parameters for refreshable Braille globally. The prototypes of BrailleMe have been tested with leading institutions pan-India (Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore) like XRCVC, Sarthak, Saksham, Enable India, NAB, Samarthanam and ICRC, Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, ALIMCO etc. The US phase of testing has also been carried out with NBP, NFB and Perkins – key institutes in the sector for feedback. BrailleMe is currently exploring strategic partnerships with CSR initiatives, Govt. Bodies, Blind Schools, Vocational Training Centres and Distributors. The feedback has been very encouraging and has helped us develop BrailleMe better. We have received Letters of Recommendation by XRCVC (India) and NBP (US) for BrailleMe. Nasscom Foundation, which has a focused “Disability Initiative”, has awarded BrailleMe as the best ICT innovation for accessibility. We have also seen great response from PhD students at IIT who have used the device for Thesis presentations in their higher studies. We are also currently engaged with schools to test out multi-language and other features under CSR pilots. We have received interest from the Maharashtra education dept. and the CM fellowship program in Haryana for field trials of BrailleMe. Units of BrailleMe are currently deployed at partner organizations across India. We will also be engaging with the key bodies like Braille Council of India, ADIP committee etc. in the upcoming month.


How could one order Braille Me and how much would it cost? 

BrailleMe can currently be ordered through filling out a form on our website – www.innovisiontech.co . Once an interested user has shared their details we try to arrange a demo of the device for them through a partner organization and share product material for their reference. Once the user confirms their order we then connect them to a distributor in their region and process their order post payment. The training and after sales support will be provided by our Distribution partner. We would also be creating training modules through audio-video guides for the users via our YouTube channel. The device is currently prices at INR 25,000 + 5% GST for direct orders. The price for bulk orders or organizational partnerships can also be discussed. Interested organizations can write to us at – bd@innovisiontech.co

Braille literacy is very low in our country. Do you think Braille Me can play a role in increasing that number? 

A key motivator towards the development of BrailleMe was to solve the challenge of declining Braille literacy and its relevance in the present scene. Braille has been the only script for the visually impaired and is critical to their literacy similar to the need of pen and paper for reading and writing for a sighted person. But Braille material is faced with a large number of constraints –

  1. Braille transcription and proof reading is a time consuming process for creating Braille books thus leading to limited books being converted to Braille – with the Braille translator built in to BrailleMe the volume of content accessible in tactile form will increase significantly.
  2. The cost of printing Braille books is very high and there are very few Braille presses to cater to the needs of a large user population. Since BrailleMe is a digital Braille aid it can reduce the need for printing and can thus increase the overall cost of accessible Braille material per user significantly similar to computer and soft copies of digital content specially books.
  3. Currently Braille is the medium of instruction in schools but the aids needed for employment are computer based and mostly in audio. Thus there is limited application of Braille upon graduation from school. Since BrailleMe enables computer access and training in Braille it would help increase the relevance of Braille in training and employment opportunities at a lower cost to audio aids like JAWS.

We believe that all these factors should help BrailleMe in playing a critical role in increasing Braille usage and overall literacy in the long term as has been seen in developed countries like the US.


With increasing audio based devices and technology, Comment on the use of Braille and its importance. 

BrailleMe is the only affordable Braille and audio based technology solution in the market currently. While it has its focus on Braille, since it is the only script for the visually impaired it has also provided the complimentary support of audio based technology through screen reader support. While audio solutions have seen increased adoption for digital accessibility they have their own limitations like – lack of privacy when working with speakers, challenges of impact on hearing due to prolonged usage of earphones, language limitations (English mostly), a decline in spelling and grammar accuracy and accent issues. While audio is a great technology solution in the absence of a script it has thus been limited in real use applications as can be seen by need for a scribe / writer, focus on Braille literacy for employment opportunities etc. Braille is critical to a visually impaired person in the same way as literacy is to a sighted person. While audio software is available even for sighted it is not the preferred solution in place of pen and paper or text books / files and keyboard. BrailleMe has the power to become the pen and paper and text book and keyboard for the visually impaired in their own script Braille and their own regional languages.

We are excited to launch BrailleMe in India and hope to bring about a positive impact and open up new opportunities in education and employment. We would love to hear back from our readers at White Print. In case any additional information is required or you have any queries, please write to us at info@innovisiontech.co or call us at +91 8291406811.

 

 

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