Ideate and innovate

college students have been invited to come up with access technology solutions for the visually challenged

A few months ago, Microsoft had launched a student technology development competition called Imagine Cup. Imagine Cup 2009 now has ‘accessible technology for visually challenged persons’ as one of the categories. With endorsements and the enthusiastic support from companies and non-government organisations working to empower the visually challenged through technology, Microsoft flagged off this category last week, with an ambitious roadmap of coming out with a product by June 2010.

Companies and educational institutions have tried similar competitions in the past with no significant success. What makes this initiative different?
Of course, we understand the complexities in developing access technology and so have brought in various organisations to partner us in the initiative. National Association for the Blind (NAB) Delhi, who have a wealth of experience in developing software for the blind and Barrierbreak Technologies, who have been dealing with access technology for quite sometime are bringing to the table the relevant technological and domain expertise.
Besides, we are also have various chapters like EnAble India, which is based out of Bangalore, who have been playing a key role in helping disabled people get a job. We believe the involvement of these organisations will make the endeavour fruitful.

How are you organising it?
We launched the project on September 9, 2009 and are welcoming student registrations from various colleges. They can register as teams of three or more and will have mentors from the local NAB chapter (in their cities or regions) or others involved in access technology.
In the first stage, we will provide them with remote assistance in consolidating the idea. Once ideas are short listed, we would let experts from both Microsoft accessibility solutions division (in Redmond) and others like Prof A.G. Ramakrishnan (from IISc) to guide the students towards making a prototype. They can also check the ideas constantly with NAB to see if the solution meets the requirements of the visually challenged. We expect the prototypes to be ready by February 2010 and the product to be  in the market by June.
We have a panel of judges — Dipendra Manocha, Director-IT NAB Delhi, Shilpi Kapoor from Barrierbreaks Technologies, Shanti Raghavan from EnAble India, Shyam Kedre from Softnet — to shortlist and select the finalists.

What are the areas you would like to focus on? Will you allow ideas to be as wide-ranging as developing an Icane (Intelligent White Cane)?
We are in discussion with our partner organisations regarding the kind of solutions we want the students to work on. Some of them have suggested Indian language software solutions, where PC users amongst the visually challenged community have been facing great difficulties. Though there are Optical Character Recognition (OCR) based solutions to access printed materials in English, a similar kind of solution hasn’t been successfully developed to access books and magazines in regional languages.
We are not restricting ourselves in supporting any kind of access solution, but we would like them to be predominantly software-based.

 One of the greatest problems about access technology is that there isn’t so much of a shortage of solutions, but most of them are quite expensive. Will the products coming out of this initiative be affordable?
We would like solutions from Imagine Cup to be locally relevant. In this category, that would mean the solutions have to be affordable as well, besides addressing the real issues. Our partners have also highlighted this problem to us and we are therefore quite keen.

What do you think the students themselves would learn from this?
These are young minds would be at the apex of innovation in the future. Exposing them to access technology would certainly make them understand the idea of inclusion and developing products that are friendly to disabled users. We are given to understand that accessibility has been a serious issue when it comes to technology or technology enabled services. We hope this initiative would go some way in addressing the problem.

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