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A self-learning device for the blind

The device gets its name from disability rights activist Helen Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan
Last Updated : 05 March 2022, 03:22 IST
Last Updated : 05 March 2022, 03:22 IST

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Annie by Thinkerbell Labs Ltd, Bengaluru — an innovation showcased on business reality show ‘Shark Tank India’ — is being hailed as a game-changer in Braille literacy. Designed like a gaming console, the device allows visually-impaired children to learn, read and write in Braille on their own.

The device gets its name from disability rights activist Helen Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan.

“Annie assumes that you don’t know any Braille. It teaches you from scratch,” says Dilip Ramesh, chief technical officer, Thinkerbell Labs. “It schedules lessons, gives feedback and immediately tells you what is wrong. It renders a personal touch by welcoming a child in the voice of their teacher,” he adds.

Prototypes

The makers claim that Annie is a first-of-its-kind Braille literacy device. And like
any other innovation, it underwent several iterations. The first prototype was a large Braille cell (a combination of six dots that are either raised or lowered forming
different symbols to denote each letter of the alphabet) connected to a speaker and keyboard with alphabets.

It was called Mudra then. It received positive responses but after further R&D, the team found the device wasn’t interactive.

A Braille keyboard was added to the second prototype. Braille slate, speaker, Wi-Fi capability, headphone jack and other features were integrated subsequently and field trials were done. Currently, Annie is in its sixth iteration and is user-friendly, the team says.

Aesthetics were not given much importance in the first few prototypes. “But we added more colours when we realised how important they are in children’s lives. The outer part is in white while red, blue, green, orange, purple and yellow feature on the keyboard pad and the sides,” he explains.

Alignment

Annie is designed for long hours of usage, typically for children between 5-15 years of age. However, four-year-old kids can also use it with a pre-Braille module. “Our design ideology was to keep the device as simple as we can,” says Dilip.

Annie comprises twin large cells on the top left and six standard-sized cells on the top right with a speaker between them. Under the Braille cell in the body is the keyboard, below which is the digital slate, navigation keys and space bar. The power button is on left side, and the headphone jack and volume turner on the right.

“The speaker is placed at the top, away from the keyboard. This ensures that the fingertips don’t interfere with the speaker and the sound quality. The keyboard is designed as per the standard Perkins Brailler (a Braille typewriter). The keys are tactile, soft and easy to press and make a sound when clicked. The child can feel the keys easily,” he explains.

Earlier, the volume control was part of internal settings but later, the team added it as a small physical wheel on the side. “Children grasped this quickly,” he recalls.

Considering poor Internet connectivity in remote parts of the country, Annie can be used in offline mode as well. It comes pre-loaded with recorded lessons, which can teachers can impart.

Adoption

More than 500 units of Annie have been sold in India – to 50 blind schools and institutes across 16 states. Around 450 units have been sold abroad and pilots are on in several countries, says the team. In the next three years, Thinkerbell Labs is set to deliver 2,100 units to a US distributor, calling it Polly in the American market.

Languages

Annie is available in nine different languages, including Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, and Malayalam. “We are working on adding Arabic, Spanish and Italian. With the help of a translator and a language template that we have built, 200 hours of content can be added in any language,” Dilip explains. Users can also choose from accents of UK, US and Australian English.

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Published 04 March 2022, 17:47 IST

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