The story of how world’s first self-learning Braille device ‘Annie’ was made

A dialog that began at a breakfast desk between Aman Srivastava and three of his associates from BITS Pilani, Goa, quickly took the form of a analysis undertaking. It will definitely led to a prototype removed from the buddies’ realm to think about. That’s how Bengaluru-based Tinkerbell Labs developed “Annie,” the world’s first self-learning machine for instructing Braille to visually impaired children.

Though there was a world push in direction of inclusive training, Srivastava, 28, noticed a spot between lecturers not adequately skilled and the shortage of the suitable instruments wanted to supply early training for the visually impaired. “Whenever you educate your little one ABC, the kid doesn’t be taught ABC simply due to your instructing. It’s always proven the letters and alphabets in every single place, in each e-book, each signboard and that was fully lacking in case of instructing youngsters with visible impairments,” he explains.

Annie, Annie Braille device, Annie aman Srivastava, electronic Braille device Polly, Tinkerbell Labs, startup india Srivastava says designing a {hardware} product remains to be a problem in India as a result of few digital part producers and the shortage of a {hardware} ecosystem in India. (Picture credit score: Thinkerbell Labs)

Srivastava says when he and his group began engaged on Annie in 2016, they discovered that the normal instructing methodology for visually impaired college students required one-to-one hand-holding, which could possibly be intensive in nature. “We realised that we might construct one thing that amplifies the effectiveness of a particular educator by growing an answer designed to cater to not one however a number of college students on the identical time. What would that world appear to be?” he instructed in an interview.

Srivastava describes Annie as a literacy device, a Wi-Fi-enabled digital Braille machine that helps a toddler with low imaginative and prescient to learn, write and sort. It has been designed across the idea of audio-tactile, which makes studying extra interactive for a kid with visible impairments. The machine teaches Braille—an embossed studying system which permits blind or visually impaired college students to learn utilizing their fingers—in English, Hindi or whichever native language they’re comfy in. The thought is to cowl all the fundamental elements of language first and as soon as a toddler turns into literate, they use that data of literacy to be taught different issues like vocabulary, sentences, comprehension, and so on.

Annie, Annie Braille device, Annie aman Srivastava, electronic Braille device Polly, Tinkerbell Labs, startup india The training methodology to teach visually impaired college students remains to be previous, however a tool like Annie has the potential to vary that, claims Srivastava. (Picture credit score: Thinkerbell Labs)

The design of Annie has gone via a number of iterations, which Srivastava says is a typical apply in designing a product from the bottom up. Within the early variations of Annie developed in-house, the machine had just one giant Braille cell with audio however later it was determined so as to add a number of commonplace cells. “The design has developed primarily based on practical necessities, which is that if it’s important to educate from courses 1 to eight, what all do you want hardware-wise?” Srivastava says.

Srivastava recollects the group constructed 50 to 60 prototypes throughout 5 to 6 variations earlier than commercially beginning deploying Annie in 2018. Early prototypes of Annie had been fully white and the vibe was precisely the identical as a washer from IFB. However through the design course of, Srivastava and the group needed Annie to transcend that white color. “We actually needed Annie to have a playful, vibrant, console-type design. We had been impressed by Xbox and Nintendo consoles of the previous and the design labored for Annie,” he provides. In actual fact, Annie’s center portion, the place the typing module is, mimics a online game console. “Most assistive devices have been boring, however we needed to vary that with Annie,” says Srivastava.

Annie, Annie Braille device, Annie aman Srivastava, electronic Braille device Polly, Tinkerbell Labs, startup india The design of Annie has been impressed by Nintendo consoles of the previous. (Picture credit score: Thinkerbell Labs)

Srivastava sees Annie as a full-fledged pc which might be up to date identical to a smartphone. The machine controls the tactile show that youngsters can contact and really feel which then exhibits phrases, alphabets and letters to them. There are completely different buttons for various duties, much like how a laptop computer works. Annie is a linked machine and might be remotely enabled—it’s doable to maintain monitor of scholars’ efficiency.

However Annie isn’t only a {hardware} machine, clarifies Srivastava. In actual fact, Annie has a {hardware} layer, a content material layer, and a software program layer to it. Srivastava and group labored with the UK’s Royal Nationwide Institute of Blind Folks (RNIB) in addition to India’s Nationwide Institute for the Empowerment of Individuals with Visible Disabilities to develop the content material which is as per completely different grades of Braille that works on Annie. The content material, which consists of alphabet studying, listening to sentences and video games, is absolutely digitised and made interactive in nature. “We needed to design a brand new system the place if a toddler goes unsuitable, Annie can right them instantaneously in real-time after which the progress is recorded and that may be given to a instructor, dad or mum or faculty authority as and when required,” he says.

Annie, Annie Braille device, Annie aman Srivastava, electronic Braille device Polly, Tinkerbell Labs, startup india Thinkerbell Labs is a younger, Bengaluru-based startup, which focuses on assistive tech. (Picture credit score: Thinkerbell Labs)

The notion in direction of assistive tech is altering shortly and extra individuals, particularly buyers, are rooting for accessible platforms and {hardware}. “Folks [Investors] need to put money into {hardware}, they now need to have a look at tangible issues,” Srivastava says. “Once we initially began, everybody would ask to copy the idea of [Annie] on a cell phone app however the issues functionally required for a kid to be taught can’t be placed on a smartphone as a result of a telephone is just not tactile in nature.”

“In tech, inclusion has to return to tech. It must be seen as one more buyer downside and fixing results in worth creation and ultimately enterprise,” he says.

For Srivastava, the acceptance of Annie—bought as Polly within the US—has opened new alternatives for the younger startup within the west. TIME Journal not too long ago named Polly probably the greatest innovations in 2022. The {hardware} of Annie and Polly are the identical—the one distinction comes with regards to the software program and content material designed maintaining the US curricula in thoughts.

Annie, Annie Braille device, Annie aman Srivastava, electronic Braille device Polly, Tinkerbell Labs, startup india Srivastava says the concept behind Annie was to design an answer which might assist visually impaired youngsters be taught quicker. (Picture credit score: Thinkerbell Labs)

Since its launch, as many as 400 models of Annie are up and operating throughout colleges. Only recently, Srivastava’s firm signed a cope with the American Printing Home for the Blind, a non-profit organisation, the place Tinkerbell Labs will present 700 models of Annie yearly for 3 years. Fairly than promoting the {hardware} individually, Srivastava makes cash by deploying Annie on the idea undertaking. “It’s precisely like supplying and establishing computer systems in class labs,” he says. “One Annie undertaking prices round 7.5 to 9 lakh relying on a faculty, what number of college students are there, what number of lecturers must be skilled and what number of units must be deployed,” he provides.

Srivastava and his group are presently engaged on a number of new variations of Annie with extra content material. There are additionally plans to develop the regional language assist on Annie, together with Malayalam, Oriya, Gujarati, and Punjabi.

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