It was sometime around 1992 or 1993 when a meeting with a visually-impaired friend inspired Anupam Basu, then a young researcher at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur, to work on developing devices that can address the needs of people with different kinds of disabilities, including those with cerebral palsy.
For more than two decades, Basu has been developing technologies for the disabled. Though his first project was restricted to the visually-impaired, a later visit to the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy (IICP) in Kolkata made him aware of the plight of children suffering from speech impairment and neuro-motor disorder. He realised that they needed technological support.
According to Basu, who is now chairman and head of the Centre for Educational Technology and professor, computer science engineering, IIT Kharagpur, children with cerebral palsy are as able as anyone else to participate in mainstream activities, even though it is hard to understand them.
In response to this need for communication, Basu started to work on various interfaces that could address different levels of disabilities.
One of the earliest communication tools he developed was Sanyog—launched in 2004—for people with speech impairment and neuro-motor disorders such as cerebral palsy.
However, this system, according to Basu, was heavy and not child-friendly. He started to work on a lighter system for day-to-day application, giving birth to Aakash Bani, a voice output communication aid.
Aakash Bani was selected for demonstration at the Rashtrapati Bhavan during the Festival of Innovation in March 2016. It was also one of the finalists in the mBillionth Award South Asia 2016, organized by the Digital Empowerment Foundation.
Though conceived by Basu, he does not claim Aakash Bani as entirely his own. “I can’t say whose brainchild this is because, to my mind, it is the user’s brainchild. It caters to their needs, I’m just helping them out," he said.
An Android-based app, Aakash Bani is a joint endeavour between the IIT Kharagpur and the Society for Natural Language Technology Research (SNLTR), a registered society under the department of information, technology and electronics, government of West Bengal.
However, developing this software or even the ones for visually-impaired population was not an easy task. While Unicode is the computing standard which has been used, the software was developed in-house. According to Basu, in general, there were several challenges, starting from getting good and dedicated programmers to getting sponsors and then going to the market and reaching out to the people.
The software assists people who are unable to use natural speech to express their needs and exchange information with other people. Therefore, it stores pre-recorded messages, which are produced in the form of digitized speech when the user presses an image displayed on the device.
For instance, there are pre-recorded messages such as “I need a glass of water". The pre-recorded messages can be customized according to one’s need.
The application has been modified and redesigned so that it can be put into any Android platform, such as smartphones and tablets. The application has three modes: touch, auto scan and switch.
A speech-impaired person, without neuro-motor disorder, can select a desired icon simply through touch, just like anyone else. But for people with neuro-motor disorder, it is difficult to communicate even through touch. For them Aakash Bani has auto-scan and switch modes.
In auto-scan mode, the user can touch any part of the screen and the highlighted icon will get selected. In the switch mode version, the user can communicate through two bright red touch switches—one switch is used to shift the focus or to highlight the icon, while the other will speak out the corresponding messages.
“Initially, I did not think of three versions but then, according to the needs of the users, we have to modify our system to cater to their needs. The first version took around 6-8 months to develop," he said.
Priced at Rs2,000 for the tablet and the software and Rs3,000 when the switches are included, the need is to ensure that it reaches its target audiences, said Basu. According to him, a low-cost platform like Aakash Bani was possible as the nurturing of basic ideas and research was done within the fold of a academic institution, IIT Kharagpur, coupled with the need for less manpower to develop it.
The responsibility for marketing and making it available to the masses lies with SNLTR, a registered society under the department of information, technology and electronics in the government of West Bengal, which promotes research in corpus linguistics, computational linguistics and natural language processing. Initially it was in Bengali, but now the scope of languages in keyboards have been extended to Assamese, Manipuri, Odiya and Ol Chiki
“I’m not a businessman, I cannot market this. SNLTR is the agency from where people can procure the system," Basu said. While he is open to the idea of non-governmental organizations and others collaborating with him and SNLTR to purchase the software, he still feels procurement by the central and state governments would be the best thing to ensure it reaches the maximum number of people at a minimum cost.
A problem faced by him is the lack of coordination between different departments of the government.
Meanwhile, Basu and his team of five programmers are also trying to develop a system which will enable children suffering from cerebral palsy to access the Internet and social media websites such as Facebook.
Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.