'Mobility is important to a blind person'

Exceptional feat

Back in 2003-2008 at IIT Delhi, Rohan Paul never imagined that his Smartcane device for the visually-impaired would make way for an esteemed honour to his and the country’s name. Out of the four Indian winners in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Review’s prestigious list of ‘35 Innovators Under 35’ is Delhi-bred Rohan Paul, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Labs. Each year since 1999, 35 innovators are selected annually by the editors of MIT Technology Review for the work they ‘believe has the greatest potential to transform the world.’

As part of a project at IIT-Delhi and his association with the National Association for the Blind (NAB), it did not take long for Paul to look at the specific needs of the blind. Paul who is currently at MIT, United States, tells Metrolife on a Skype call, “It started as a mundane, regular activity. From there I learnt that mobility is important to a blind person.
 Though the white cane is good to detect objects on the ground, it cannot detect objects above the ground.

There have been cases where blind people have hurt themselves on the face, head, chest etc.” He adds, “Many things came out of those interactions and observations of real-life scenarios from how do they pick up the cane to how they walk and handle themselves. Another factor was affordability as Ultra canes in the US cost around 1,000 dollars as well as reliability which is a huge issue with many canes not being able to withstand for long. These revelations indicated the fact that mobility is very important for social integration.”

In a country which is home to one-third of the world’s 13-15 million blind population, an affordable obstacle detection system for the blind, Smartcane, uses ultrasonic sensors. “Mechanism has been important from specifications to product co-creation. Vibratory patterns increase when the person is closer to the obstacle with the range being three meters which gives enough time to avoid a collision. It is not a replacement to cane. It is an attachment to the white cane. In fact, when the cane breaks, the attachment can be fitted to a new one,” he says.

Thirty year old Paul explains, “In 2007, we reached a stage where a mother came and asked me, ‘when can her child use the cane?’ That is when we realised  that there needs to be a transition of the research gap between prototype and product involving the commercial acceptance and manufacturing of a low-cost and a tested final product.” In order to reach that goal, he says, “We also made NGO Saksham and Phoenix Medical Services in Chennai come on board as IIT, all alone, could not have managed to distribute and provide to the end-users. We also needed to mobilise philanthropic capital which was supported by Welcome Group in United Kingdom.” He narrates, “The transformation period was from 2010-2011 till 2014. During tests in 2012, users reported 95 per cent fewer collisions. We also validated the device across India including National Institution for Visually Handicapped in Delhi, Simla, Chennai and Hyderabad.” 

He agrees that the research and design from the prototype to the final product, “was hard and a struggle as not many schemes were there to support.” The device which was released on March 21, 2014 also has manual, audio materials, and a guide for special educators. “Technology is one part. The experience of walking or being mobile is another,” he tells Metrolife.

Paul has termed his 50 Dollar device for the blind a “people's product” and “a humble tribute to the Mahatma.” He says, “Even the minutest details have been taken care of from the shape of the device to the colour. Many people think that blind people do not need colour but it is the first thing that they show to their friends. They are in fact, hyper-sensitive about how the cane matches with their look and also whether it fits in their bag.”

Talking about his feat, Paul who is going to marry a Delhi based girl in December this year, says, “Smartcane is successful because of its user-validation. He sums up, “My contribution has been to realise how end-to-end development in a developing country like India can enable lifelong learning and visual navigation.”


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