Madhura Mhatre, a graduate student in the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) program at the IU School of Informatics and Computing at IUPUI, recently won the JagStart Elevator Pitch Competition at IUPUI for her concept, Braille Tech. Mhatre received a prize of $2500, which she will use to further research and develop her innovation for the deaf-blind community.
JagStart is an annual event that pits contestants against the clock to pitch their original ideas to a panel of industry judges, and is open to all IUPUI students. Participants learn valuable skills and receive coaching and feedback.
Braille Tech consists of a glove, outfitted with sensors and a mechanism for converting digital braille on a smart phone to a tactile impulse that is felt by the fingers, mechanically replicating the familiar raised dot pattern. Although there are other technologies available like refreshable braille displays, they are expensive—sometimes prohibitively so—and bulky in some cases.
Mhatre envisions that her prototype glove would be produced for around $30 USD, making it more affordable. And because basic smart-phones are ubiquitous worldwide, this approach to braille conversion would be accessible to a larger population.
According to the World Health Organization’s Global Data on Visual Impairments (2010), the estimated number of visually impaired people in the world is 285 million; 39 million are blind and 246 million have low vision.
People who have hearing as well as visual impairments are solely dependent on their tactile senses for their daily needs and for the purpose of communication. The scope of education for such physically challenged people is limited to learning from tactile sign language, print on palm, tactile fingerspelling, braille-embossed books, etc.
Mhatre explains that for blind individuals, searching the internet requires screen reading software that will read out the information on the screen, but this may require a significant amount of time to learn the process. They can also use refreshable braille displays with audio clues to read the content. But people in the deaf-blind community are vision and hearing impaired and cannot use the audio clues to access the web. In addition, many of them cannot afford the expensive braille displays. Thus, they are deprived of knowledge, resources and technologies available to others.
“Apart from reading and communication purposes, Braille Tech will also allow people to learn braille without having to buy braille books, hence it is useful for common people to improve communication with the deaf-blind community which will minimize the gap and increase socialization among them,” she says.
Mhatre, who received her undergraduate education in computer engineering, first became interested in human-computer interaction while working on this project during her studies in India. She and three other female students began working on the Braille Tech design about a year and a half ago. One of her partners remains involved, focusing on the electronics, while Mhatre works on the software side of the project. The pair received valuable feedback about their prototype from the Helen Keller Institute in Mumbai and won a Best Methodology Award at the National Conference for Advanced Engineering Trends in 2016.
Davide Bolchini, chair of the Human-Centered Computing Department and HCI professor says, “Madhura’s project exemplifies the creative human-centered research that our students generate to address issues of high societal relevance, especially in the area of accessible computing. We are proud to see Madhura finding the resources and methods here to further develop her project that she started before coming to IUPUI.”
Listen to the Easter Seals Crossroads podcast featuring Braille Tech
Mhatre plans to work as a user experience researcher after graduating with her master’s degree next year. Studying human-computer interaction has given her a new perspective on product design—one that begins the process with defining the user’s requirements in depth before developing a solution.
Two other School of Informatics and Computing students, Jacob Harris and Cassandra Jones, also participated in this year’s JagStart event.