White sticks, dark glasses, a guide dog if they’re lucky – the vision impaired have made do with crude tools to navigate the external world for decades. They’ve coped with danger and inconvenience, frustration and helplessness, and reconciled to a life of dependence. Now, something as routine as a shoe holds out the promise of safety, confidence and independence for millions of people.
With an engineering degree and a passion for tinkering with novel interfaces – and systems that enable more natural forms of interaction that just keyboard and mouse – IT engineer Anirudh Sharma decided to turn his attention to finding a tech solution to the navigation challenges of the visually impaired. But he was clear he didn’t want to rely on their sense of hearing, which is what conventional aids often do. ‘I wanted a more intuitive design involving the sense of touch,’ he says. To understand the challenges of navigating a world without vision, Anirudh studied the commuting patterns of two visually impaired Bangalore businessmen, Chandrashekhar Raju and Santosh Kejriwal.
Le Chal, is an ingenious solution that ticks all the boxes – scalable, effective and cost-effective. The genius is in the simplicity of the idea – to get ‘Haptic’ feedback (relating to the sense of touch) from a user’s shoes. The user spells out their destination on a GPS-based phone that used a specially-designed app (any Android-based phone is fine); a combination of three ubiquitous technologies – Bluetooth, Google Maps and GPS do the rest. Once the GPS establishes the user’s location, Google Maps comes into play and finds directions for the destination. Bluetooth is used to establish ‘communication’ between the phone and shoes, and the user is on his way – vibrators on different sides of the shoes vibrate, indicating whether you need to go left, right or straight ahead.
There was another challenge – Anirudh wasn’t an expert at making shoes; he also didn’t want to limit production to a particular brand or company. His design, therefore, needed to be compatible with generic shoes. The ingenuity of his solution is that it involves installing a circuit board in the heel and vibrators on each side of a shoe, and can be done on any existing pair, at a nominal cost of approx Rs 2000. It’s waterproof, and a proximity sensor in the front of the shoe offers an added bonus: alerting the user to obstacles up to 10 ft away.
A 24-year-old Bangalore boy who till recently worked at HP Labs, Anirudh studied IT Engineering and loved college because it brought him into contact with others equally passionate about design, tech and startups. Recently he, and like-minded innovator Krispian Lawrence, an electronics engineer from the University of Michigan, set up Ducere Technologies, a startup based in Hyderabad that explores their shared passion for design, products and systems. ‘We aren’t in the business of making thousand-dollar shoes – that’s not what we do,’ he says. ‘We don’t want it to cost more than a good pair of shoes, for the idea is to maximise its reach among the millions who actually need it.
He wasn’t sure Le Chal was a good idea till he built an initial prototype and showed it to people around him, which triggered their interest. He needn’t have doubted himself – the Indian edition of MIT’s magazineTechnology Review recently named him Innovator of the Year under 35 for 2012; the award recognises those innovators whose work is likely to have the highest impact locally and globally. The prototype for Le Chal has gone through various iterations as tests progress, with over 25 visually-impaired users part of the testing process; the final goal of freezing tech specs and initiating manufacturing is now much closer.
The Way Forward
He’s hoping to take a sabbatical once Le Chal’s tech specs are frozen and manufacturing initiated, and head to MIT for an interdisciplinary course on Media Technologies. Long-term though, he intends for his research focus to stay the same: novel new media systems, prototyping and computer vision, though fields to which it is applied could vary from assistive technologies to sports to virtual reality.