As technology goes about making gigantic leaps and bounds, there are a few technocrats who watch this progress from a different perspective. Some feel it necessary to harness this progress to address the needs of the forgotten sections of society. Through their efforts, they work towards bridging the digital divide between various segments of the people, and in the end, ensure that technological advancement benefits a larger populace. One such venture is being undertaken at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. Developed under the aegis of the IIT by Professor Anupam Basu from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, this endeavour called Sparsha is aimed at extending the benefits of computer engineering to the millions of visually impaired people.

As estimated by the World Health Organisation, there are 38 million blind and 110 million people with low vision all over the world, and this large chunk of society is unable to gain from the mammoth information explosion that has revolutionised our way of living - all because of lack of availability of technology and appropriate adaptation to their special needs. "Our vision is to remove the digital divide between the visually impaired and the sighted world," says Anupam Basu, the man behind the development of Sparsha. "This, we believe, can be achieved by the development and use of Text to Braille translators, screen readers and other accessible technologies. With such assistive technology, the blind can obtain information from the Internet and convert it into Braille for their use. Sparsha also allows them to communicate with sighted people with the help of reverse transliteration from Braille to normal text," he continues.

(Braille is a system of tactile reading and writing, named after its inventor Louis Braille who developed it at the age of 15. Each Braille character or 'cell' is made up of 6 (3X2) dot positions. Sixty-four possible combinations are available by raising any one or a combination of dots. This system exists even today, 150 years after Louis Braille worked out its basics. Efforts to provide reading systems to the blind, based on computers are an ongoing process. In this field, Braille translators play an important role.)

Braille translators are not a new phenomenon. There has been considerable development in this field with translators such as the Duxbury Braille Translator or WinBraille already in the market. But these have failed to reach the masses, especially in developing nations like India because of two primary reasons - firstly, the high costs, and secondly, they do not support regional vernaculars, particularly Indian languages.

A system on which Sparsha has been deployed

Sparsha has been developed with these two shortcomings in sight. Narrating the process of its creation, Basu says, "It began with the development of a low-cost tactile Braille reader at IIT Kharagpur, which generated a lot of enthusiasm. However, attempts to get it out into the commercial market failed for lack of sponsors, and I ended up publishing the research," he says. Then, in 1999, Basu was approached by the Ministry of Information Technology to develop a complete Braille Information System for the Indian language documents. They decided on an industrial partner -- Webel Mediatronics Ltd -- who would be responsible for maintenance, manufacture and deployment. The result was the Bharati Braille Transliteration System (copyrighted by IIT), the predecessor of Sparsha. The technology for Bharati Braille Transliteration System was transferred to the partner, who deployed the system to more than 30 blind schools, with funding from the IT ministry.

Later, it was felt that the system could be enhanced further, with features like mathematical symbol transliteration, line drawing conversion and speech driven interfaces. Thus, Sparsha was taken up, distinct from the Bharati Braille project.

"By mid-2003, Sparsha was ready to be launched with its initial features in place. Developments and deployments of Sparsha are not funded as yet and are being carried out on our own, as IIT decided to detach itself from its industrial partner and function individually," specifies Basu. Currently, it has been successfully fitted up at national-level institutes such as the National Association for the Blind, Delhi, National Institute for the Visually Handicapped, Dehradun, Vivekananda Mission Ashram, Chaitanyapur, Haldia, and the Blind Persons’ Association, West Bengal. It has also been sent out to individuals and organisations that have placed a request for the same with Basu's team at the IIT.

Here's taking a look at some of the salient features of Sparsha. This is what makes it an invaluable asset for those visually impaired people grappling with technology -

1. Tansliteration from text into Braille: Sparsha can accept input text in large number of file formats, allowing the visually impaired to access information from a wide variety of sources. It accepts both English as well as Indian language texts (Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu, Oriya, Kannada) and translates them into Braille.

2. Proof-reading: Page by page viewing as well as its editing allows users to proof-read the Braille text before it is finally printed.

3. Printing: Sparsha can support almost all commonly used Braille printers or embossers, and the IIT also plans to support newer Braille printers.

4. Conversion of mathematical expressions: Sparsha has a mathematic and scientific notation engine that can translate complex mathematical and scientific expressions into Braille, thus obliterating the need for tedious manual translation. This has proved to be a boon for those visually impaired students who want to pursue higher studies in science and maths.

5. Sparsha-Chitra: Sparsha-Chitra, a module that can display geometrical figures and elementary pictures or drawings as a pattern of Braille dots, has been integrated into Sparsha. Braille text and graphics can now be combined and printed too, helping visually impaired students to work better on subjects like geometry, geography, biology. etc.

6. Reverse Transliteration: A coded Braille file can be converted into corresponding visually readable text, enabling a visually impaired person to communicate with sighted persons via email.

7. Sparsha integrates normal keyboards with audio feedback to enable sightless people type in through normal PCs. It is also being integrated with a Text-to-Speech system to provide Screen Reading and File Reading facility.

"Sparsha is a very successful project if the metric be the feedback from the users," says Basu. He has even been approached by NGOs from Sri Lanka to extend it to Sinhalese. The governments of Orissa and Tripura have evinced an interest in setting up Sparsha.

But this is not enough. As Basu puts it, "A technology must reach the people to really effect the change," and in the case of Sparsha, deployment and distribution remain critical issues. Currently, its assembly and distribution remains free of cost; the work being done by IIT students working in related areas. Yet, there are financial impediments in its widespread acceptance by the end user.

Unlike the consumers of other computer products, the target population in India for Sparsha is economically challenged. Though Sparsha is being given away free, it requires low-end PCs and Braille embossers to be purchased, and often that is beyond the reach of its intended users. To this end, Basu is working with select NGOs in order to make Sparsha available to the blind student community as well as in the industries that can employ sightless people.

"In order for tools like Sparsha to be more accessible, the government will have to step in to an extent," opines Basu. He observes that commercial viability is often an issue with the industries (especially the large-scale ones) to tread into this area. The market is niche, and the consumer segment often economically backward. "Given such a scenario, the government should support and encourage small-scale industries and start-ups to work in this sector. It should be more sympathetic to such R&D and help small entrepreneurs to tie up with development agencies for manufacture and deployment of such technology. This will be a definite help," he continues.

And he should know, given his years of research towards assistive technologies for the physically challenged. Along with Sparsha, Basu has also initiated Sanyog, a project that aims at breaking the language barrier and making communication more “natural” for everyone through the development of visual languages. The goal of the project is to develop iconic communication tools and techniques for specific as well as generic usage. Its immediate applications include Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) tools for the physically challenged, which includes people with cerebral palsy, speech impairments and other motor neuron disabilities. It is currently being field tested by the spastic children and teachers at the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy.

All these ventures are being explored under the umbrella of the Communication Empowerment Laboratory at IIT Kharagpur, which Basu has founded with support from Media Lab Asia and other funding agencies. The objective of the laboratory is to develop affordable technology for bridging the digital divide. Special focus areas are assistive technology through Indian language speech processing, natural language processing, artificial intelligence techniques and embedded system development.

"The government will have to step in to help small entrepreneurs to tie up with development agencies for manufacture and deployment of such technology." -- Anupam Basu
Pointing out that there are a number of institutes and researchers engaged in similar work areas such as developing tools for the visually impaired, or rural literacy for example, Basu says that further progress could be made if the results of these efforts are shared. "Industries often underplay the research done by the institutes. The academics are also sceptical about sharing ideas in fear of not getting due credit," he says. He suggests that a possible solution could be to form consortiums. The participating institutes and researchers working on a project should be regarded as partners and the product thus developed will be in the name of the consortium and the proper credit will be recorded in the name of the participants.

Given the need of the hour to develop tools that will guarantee more equality in the use of technology, this technocrat's thoughts are worth thinking about. A coming together of technology, people and values, an effort to direct scientific research towards the needs of the underprivileged, and a fight to free the latest developments from the bonds of limited accessibility are what will guarantee that a society has indeed bridged the digital divide.