Real Leaders

Shedding iSight on Blindness

The value of intuitive design in products has become increasingly important among developers, from how a vehicle adjusts its seats to how the navigation works on a smartphone. Abhishek Syal of Arise India decided to include blind people in this revolution. Simplicity of design for a mass market is Abhishek Syal’s motto, and in developing a new device for the visually-impaired, which helps them navigate maps unaided, Syal is putting this idea to work.

In addition to keeping the complex workings of his device hidden from the user, he has also explored existing technology and how it can be put to new uses. The result of Syal’s tinkering has produced a remarkably simple, yet effective, device. “I deploy an ordinary webcam as a pointing device, linked to a computer. This is mounted on an ‘exploring’ board, on which a tactile diagram of the geographic area is placed.

This map or diagram has raised objects on it which the visually challenged user can explore and understand without any sighted assistance,” he explains. “While the user explores this diagram with his fingers, the webcam tracks their movement in real-time on the computer screen, with the cursor following the exact screen image of the 3-D diagram in front of the user. Pointing to an object sees it selected on the computer screen and information is spoken through the computers speech software.”

The impact in India is potentially huge, a country with 15 million of the world’s estimated 37 million blind people.

“Imagine a class of 15 students, where the teacher simply goes to every student’s desk, holding his or her hands and explaining the diagram. The  student then goes home, needing only to memorize the positions of the diagram. This is far simpler than many other complex systems that have been developed for the visually-challenged.” Most of these students don’t do science or math after eighth grade because of a lack of adequate tools for understanding the topic. “We want to make basic concepts of trigonometry, geometry and maps understandable. This will help people visualize the world,” says Syal. He realized he was onto a good thing when he saw his device transforming the perception of learning, resulting in a change of  attitude for the better.

Schools for the blind were initially apprehensive about adopting Syal’s approach, citing  fears around ongoing technical support and upgrades. Syal’s solution was to start Arise, a research-oriented non-profit, to develop and deliver these tools, including free support and maintenance. Plans to license the technology to other companies to generate research funding are in the works and Arise hopes to grow the organization into a social enterprise.

A broad thinker, Syal believes that technological advancement will be in three major areas: biotechnology, nanotechnology and energy technology, with disruptive interventions in these sectors resulting in radically changed business models. “It’s already clear what information technology has delivered –  access to information for the world’s citizens and help in bridging the divide between rich and poor.

The poor now have a better chance to understand how the world works and the richer countries have been encouraged to outsource routine tasks,  freeing them to develop ‘thinking economies,’ which capitalize on future trends. Technological advancement in biotech will enable access to healthcare and food security.

In nanotech, access to cheaper luxuries such as automobiles and gadgets and in energy technology, a shift from consumers to ‘prosumers,’” explains Syal. While the world explores these exciting new frontiers, the blind now have a chance to become a part of it.


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