Many of India’s millions of blind people have been left out of the smartphone revolution, increasing their isolation in a fast-moving world. Sumit Dagar is designing a prototype of an affordable Braille phone that will open the door to technology.
Sumit Dagar is a 29-year-old, Indian visionary whose technological skills, inventiveness and passion for design have prepared him for a place among today’s young, hi-tech entrepreneurs.
Over the past decade, Dagar has made his name as an “interaction designer”, designing devices and software that are both user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing. His Braille phone is attracting attention. In 2011, he was selected as a TED fellow to present his Braille smartphone concept at the TED 2011 conference in the United States.
He also makes short films, which is, he says, the perfect means of getting to know how people live. “I spend substantial time travelling, talking to people, understanding their lives, writing a story around them and then making short films about them. This helps me connect with a variety of people and also refreshes my thinking.”
Connecting with people radically changed his views of his country several years ago when he visited isolated villages for his studies for a Master’s degree in interaction design – he quickly noticed how the rural population had failed to benefit from today’s technological revolution.
“Living in large urban areas in India, the economy is growing fast, and we can enjoy cool tech, cool gadgets. But I realized that rural communities, just two hours away from the city, are 10 years behind.
“Part of my degree was to talk to non-users of technology to see how they could become future users. It was very clear from these discussions that they had no idea of what technology was. This led me to think – how can we design technology that is accessible for them? And then I noticed that disabled people, and especially blind people, are particularly isolated by technology. Technology is giving everyone superpowers, but many blind people are not able to tap into these cool new features, and the technology is making them even more disabled. So I decided to do something that could reach out to this population.”
According to the World Health Organization, 22 per cent of the world’s 285 million blind or sight-impaired people are in India. Some agencies estimate that 15 million Indians are blind.
Dagar’s ambition is to make life far easier for the visually impaired by creating a Braille phone. The idea of adapting mobile phones for use by blind people has been around for a decade. For example, screenreader technology that converts text output on a mobile phone screen into speech has been available – at an additional cost to the user – for many years.
Dagar’s vision is dramatically different, as he is building a phone from scratch with the specific design and capability for blind users via a tactile system based on the Braille alphabet. “I discovered when consulting with blind people that speech output was not necessarily the technological solution that people were looking for,” he explains. “Speech may suit some, but for others, especially in India, there is a problem with the English-language artificial voice; many blind people in my country will just not understand it. Another disadvantage of speech is the lack of privacy when users’ messages or emails are read out by a talking phone.”
The Braille phone will use a simple framework: the screen technology will use pixels to vary height, rather than colour, as on a normal smartphone. A high-resolution screen will therefore be capable of conveying simple Braille text, as well as various shapes, figures and maps. Users will be able to “view” a face using the sense of touch, or follow a map to find their way home. Like existing smartphones, the screen will be touch-responsive, so users can input information and make phone calls easily.
Crucially, the phone will be priced reasonably. “The first generation of the Braille phone will certainly be affordable,” he predicts. “It will be a basic phone, not yet developed into a smartphone, and will ideally be priced at the lower end of the spectrum, around 7,000-9,000 RS [US$126-165]. The real challenge will be in phase 2, with the aim of introducing smartphone technology to enhance the user’s experience, but without driving up the cost prohibitively.”
Dagar developed the Braille smartphone concept in 2009, when he was working on his Master’s degree. He continued to work on the project after his studies finished, but it was the brave decision to leave full-time employment to devote time to the Braille smartphone project that marked a major turning point.
The funds from his Rolex Award are a huge benefit, as he was struggling to work full-time on the project and to earn enough to survive. But even more useful, he says, is the publicity he has received and the doors that have been opened to him since the news got out. “It’s as if I’ve become the Prime Minister of India,” he explains. “I’ve been covered by almost all media, from local papers, in the local languages, to national business magazines. I was recently listed by Business Today magazine as ‘one of the 66 reasons to keep faith in India’, in a special article for the 66th year of [Indian] independence.
The Rolex Award has also been useful in making contacts in the technology field, for example, in forming a collaboration with the Indian Institute of Management’s Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship, in Ahmedabad. The collaboration came about, Dagar explains, thanks to an introduction by a Rolex Awards jury member, leading Indian-American entrepreneur and philanthropist Gururaj “Desh” Deshpande.
Teamwork and consultation with various agencies (technical, business, visual impairment) are crucial to the Braille phone project. A hospital for blind people in Hyderabad has given Dagar an invaluable understanding of the needs of blind people; the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi is providing the technology for the phone’s Braille display; a colleague in the Indian city of Rajkot is leading on the electronic materials.
Dagar plans to have a working prototype of the smartphone ready by mid-2014. The next phase of development through to 2016 will accommodate the touch-responsive screen. A later, third version of the phone, will incorporate diagrams, shapes and images, allowing India’s sight-impaired users to transform their lives by joining the technology generation.
Published in 2013