Sunday, February 23, 2014

Aids for the Visually Handicapped

IEEE Region 10 Humanitarian Technology Conference 2014 (R10 HTC) is to be held during August 2014, in Chennai, India. This offers students an opportunity to carry out innovative projects which could have a social impact. The conference has a broad focus, but I will discuss one specific sub-area here, as I have explored this area to some extent.

Technology for the visually challenged
Look at a very simple device that sells for 30 British Pounds. Visit   It seems to have been publicized from 1968. It must have benefitted millions of users. I looked for research on user experience and found a very nice paper from the same era, brimming with ideas. Visit

This ultrasonic torch shows how valuable a simple device can be. In addition to giving an idea of obstacles in one’s path, it can even give some indication of the nature of the surface ahead.
Of course, there are a number of researchers working in this area, as illustrated by a couple of relatively recent papers:

This area is rich for technical exploration and invention. You could use auto-focus mechanisms exploiting infra-red light, which work in broad daylight. Considering the large volume of production, I would expect necessary components to be commercially available at reasonable prices.

Cell phones have a lot of the infrastructure required to create an ultra-sound beam, to pick up the reflections and process them. Suitable additions to a phone can make implementation easy.
Signal processing techniques enable you to vary the frequency of the signal carried by the beam. This can enable sophisticated probing of the obstacles ahead of a visually challenged person.

It is not pure technology
A lot of technologists learnt a good deal from Steve Jobs work! He made it painfully clear to them that they will fail in the absence of respect for good design ideas and concern for the user experience. He taught that we should not make a device a mere tool, but something that it is a delight to own and use. This point of view is particularly important when we design anything for a visually challenged person.

It is also a matter of business
Innovation cannot stop with ideas, patents and publication.
The Wikipedia says that “Term of every patent in India is 20 years from the date of filing of patent application, irrespective of whether it is filed with provisional or complete specification”. Visit
The patent system provides a limited time to the inventor to “work” his invention and get a benefit; in return it compels him to disclose his invention for public good. 

Do we have entrepreneurs carefully watching for patents that expire? Do they consider manufacture and sale of devices covered by such patents? Do potential entrepreneurs among students look for these opportunities? No one stops an entrepreneur from innovating and inventing. One can always patent a new invention which vastly improves an old device covered by an expired patent. This gives a double strength – a tried and tested idea no longer covered by a patent and a new idea of one’s own covered by a new patent.

A Challenge
Let me conclude by proposing a challenge that may attract some of you. Can we manufacture and sell a device to help the visually challenged at the price of a reasonably good low-end cell-phone? I have in mind something that would cost about 2,500 Indian rupees (say 40 US dollars).
Srinivasan Ramani

1 comment:

Srinivasan Ramani said...

What about possible student projects? I would recommend developing an app designed for low-end smart phones. High end phones offer voice based navigation facilities (see Siri on i-phone). But imagine a low end smart phone speaking out your location in terms of nearby land marks (like "You are at No 11 bus stop for going towards city. You are facing the street. You are facing North." Along with a hands-free listening mechanism, an app like this will benefit nearly a million users soon. Read up on Google maps API. Visit
I think you can avoid the hassle of interfacing directly with the GPS facilities.

Srinivasan Ramani