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Learning beyond sight

Not all people who are visually challenged are braille literate. This understanding inspired two students from the KK Birla Goa Campus of BITS Pilani to devise a unique machine that will help such people to read

education Updated: Jun 12, 2014 11:50 IST
Harini Sriram

Braille, as we know, is a tactile reading system used by the visually impaired. But what does a visually-impaired person do if he or she is not Braille literate? This was the question that prompted Sanskriti Dawle and Aman Srivastav, students from BITS Pilani KK Birla Goa campus to build a unique machine that caters to those who are not Braille-literate.

The device, called Mudra, is a Raspberry Pi (coded with Python) connected to a Braille hardware set, a small palm-sized box with six pegs which move up and down to take shapes which indicates different letters and numbers as per the Braille System. Raspberry Pi is a credit-card-sized single-board computer, developed in the UK to help professional primary and secondary teachers. Dawle says that the device works in two modes: auto mode and browse mode.

“The user is prompted for speech input which is converted to text using Google’s speech API (application programming interface). The response is then filtered for homophones and mapped to one of 36 characters (A-Z, 0-9). Since each Braille letter consists of six dots – each either raised (1) or not raised (0), all of them have been mapped to six digit sequences of 1s and 0s. The resulting character is thus matched with a unique six-bit binary code,” she explains. Auto mode takes the user through all alphabets and numbers. Preloaded voice notes of alphabets and numbers are stored on the device. Synchronously, voice notes are played and tactile output is generated.

Srivastav and Dawle have just completed their second year BTech, computer science engineering, and this is an individual project that they have done out of their own initiative. “It took us about eight months to complete the project,” says Srivastav, “We had done a workshop on Raspberry Pi, and we were thinking of various ways to put that knowledge to practical use. That’s how we hit upon the Braille concept.” Dawle adds that even in a developed country such as the US, Braille literacy is only about 10%, and the situation in India is much worse. Which is why, they feel, their device is unique.

The students faced a number of challenges while putting the device together. As Dawle points out, “We were limited by our own knowledge and understanding of certain concepts. But we learnt something new every day. In fact, we were able to apply some of the concepts taught to us in our engineering syllabus; particularly in the field of digital design, a subject that most of us ignored!”

The duo is in the process of fine-tuning and doing the feasibility tests for the device to check if it can be mass-produced. “We are toying with the idea of using needle-thin Braille dots instead of the standard thick pegs which the model has,” says Dawle.

Mudra is intended to be a low-cost Braille learning device, and it can be used as a teaching tool by Braille educators too. The two students are currently in search of investors to round up money to produce this device. The estimate cost, if produced at a mass scale, will be around Rs. 10,000, they say. This is only a fraction of the cost of the current Braille display which is priced in the range of Rs. 2 lakh for a single unit, they say.