Enabling the blind to access printed content
Bangalore: The Internet along with other technological innovation is changing the way people access content. Some organisations are using these technologies to help disabled or handicapped people get access to education that would have been too costly or impractical otherwise.
The Gift of New Abilities, a project started by A.G. Ramakrishnan, has built a technological tool that enables any blind person to access content that is printed. Ramakrishnan is a professor of Medical Intelligence & Language Engineering (MILE) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore.
Ramakrishnan’s Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology can convert any printed book into a Braille book in a matter of minutes. Its current accuracy rate is 94-98%, the former BPL executive said.
Ramakrishnan started working on developing the technology after an earlier project which was more ambitious failed. A senior professor friend of his suggested that he do a project on artificial retina to help the blind—an endeavour that required cooperation from other agencies.
“For nearly five years, we ran around trying to coordinate with other agencies because the work involved experimentation with animals. We as engineers weren’t fully qualified for the entire project, so we had to seek help from other agencies such as NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences). Somehow, we couldn’t get the support we wanted as everyone was busy with their own work and research. I spent five years on this, but nothing happened. So, I gave it up because my promotion was also getting affected. After that I thought that if we can’t get support from other agencies, we should do something purely in the engineering domain,” Ramakrishnan said.
As part of his failed project, Ramakrishnan has been in touch with various blind organisations and schools. He knew about the exorbitant printing costs for Braille books.
“We can get a printer for Rs.10,000, but a Braille printer costs Rs.700,000. People talk a lot about doing something for the disabled, but most of it is just lip service. Even other software which is less expensive is not affordable for the blind,” he said.
After being granted funds from the central government, Ramakrishnan decided in 2007 to create an automatic book reader/convertor for the blind for his next project at IISc.
He distributed his OCR technology free of charge to several organisations that work with the blind including the RCMCT Worth Trust Rehabilitation Centre in Chennai. The technology converts books in Tamil and Kannada to Braille form. It works on an on-demand basis currently.
The OCR technology has been used to convert more than 500 Tamil books and deliver them as Braille books to hundreds of blind students in Tamil Nadu, Ramakrishnan said. These blind students only have to pay the cost of Braille paper.
Ramakrishnan is working on enhancing his technology to meet an international standard called Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY), which governs standards for digital audio books and computerised text. DAISY-certified content is used by people with blindness and other learning disabilities as a substitute for printed text.
“A DAISY book has all the features that a normal digital book has. So you can bookmark pages, jump back or forward, etc. Hopefully, by early next year, we will be ready,” Ramakrishnan said.
Ramakrishnan works with a team of some 10 people to run his project. Convincing people to work on the project is tough and attrition is a problem, too, he said.
“The research students who come to IISc are very highly qualified. Many of them want to work with companies like Google and Microsoft. Very, very few people are interested in working on a project like this which deals with Indian languages, as it is not glamourous. Occasionally, you get one or two people who are committed,” he said.
Apart from the OCR tool, Ramakrishna is also working on several other language recognition technologies. He has built a text-to-speech engine for Tamil and Kannada.
Ramakrishnan said he now plans to set up a company to license his technologies.
“A company asked us to license the text-to-speech engine to them. They wanted to use it to make announcements at airports in Tamil and Kannada. Then there is another project regarding the Tamil natives in Singapore. They want to digitise books about the contribution of Tamil people to Singapore and they want to put it up on the National Library of Singapore. Some few hundred books have been commissioned to be digitised as part of this. The company that has the contract wants to use our text-to-speech technology. But the people who have approached us for all these projects said that commercial agreements would be tough unless we set up a company. They’ve said they will support us in starting the company. So we’re working on this,” Ramakrishnan said.
Ramakrishnan graduated from IIT Madras and joined BPL in the late 80s. After working there for more two years he quit the company, as the pay wasn’t good enough.
Ramakrishnan went to work in the US to set up an alternative therapy research centre lab for a former professor. He returned to India in the mid 90s. Apart from a one-year spell as a research scientist at Hewlett-Packard, he’s been teaching at IISc since. “The advantage of being in an institution like IISc is that I decide what I want to do. Whether others think it is great or not doesn’t matter. I’m able to get funds for what I want to do and that is one of the best places to be in,” Ramakrishnan said.
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