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Designing screens for the unlettered

For once, illnesses were forgotten as a group of elderly patients beamed at each other in a remote Karnataka hospital. They were hearing a computer speak in the native Kannada. The woman showing them the gadget, 32-year-old Indrani Medhi, was equally thrilled. Salil Mekaad writes.

india Updated: Sep 04, 2010 21:29 IST
Salil Mekaad

For once, illnesses were forgotten as a group of elderly patients beamed at each other in a remote Karnataka hospital. They were hearing a computer speak in the native Kannada. The woman showing them the gadget, 32-year-old Indrani Medhi, was equally thrilled.

Several months later, Medhi found herself on the list of 35 "outstanding innovators under the age of 35" by MIT's Technology Review publication for her research work on enabling even the illiterate to operate a computer.

Medhi was trying to demonstrate a text-free health information system to the patients who were first intimidated by the device, but later had their fears allayed when they saw graphics instead of text.

"This was very inspiring for me — to see how technology could empower an individual and elevate one's self-worth in such unforeseen ways," she says. The software engineer, who found a place in the list of the "50 smartest people in technology" in 2010 by Fortune magazine, is from Guwahati.

Medhi graduated in architecture from Nagpur and studied at the Institute of Design in Chicago. An amateur painter and staunch art house cinema fan, she always dreamed of using technology to improve lives.

"Having grown up in India", she says, "and working in the information-and-communication-technologies-and-development space at Microsoft Research, I got thinking about how to extend computing to sections of the populations that have been excluded."

Sure enough, the text-free user interface was conceptualised.