KANPUR: In his childhood, Prof Siddhartha Panda would often wonder how he could help his visually-impaired cousin live life with more ease.
Nearly 35 years later, he met another man, a researcher with a similar mission. Together, they made a haptic smartwatch that could be a boon for people with impaired vision.
Prof Panda of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and project engineer Vishwaraj Shrivastava, have developed a watch that not only tells time but is also equipped with modern-day features like a heartbeat, step count, and SPO2 measurements.
“Around 49 million blind and 285 million visually impaired persons in the world face difficulty in easily interacting with devices due to the absence of tactile interface,” Prof Panda, who holds a PhD from the University of Houston and specializes in chemical sensors, told The New Indian.
“To address this concern, we have developed this watch so that these people can get along with their day-to-day life, both with ease as well as dignity,” Prof Panda said while pointing out the fact that India is home to about 20 per cent of the total blind people in the world.
Prof Panda and Shrivastava used a fusion platform of two technologies – tactile and vibration – to design their smartwatch at IIT-Kanpur’s National Centre for Flexible Electronics (NCFlexE).
“The watch dial features 12 tactile touch-sensitive hour markers, which are used to read time through vibration-based output. It also creates an interface to select different apps, haptically recognize different apps, and sense the numbers,” Shrivastava tells The New Indian.
It is equipped with two sensors: PPG (photoplethysmography) to read health parameters such as the heart rate and SpO2 and an accelerometer to measure step count to keep track of daily activity.
“These parameters can be individually sensed using the haptic (technology that stimulates the sense of touch) feature. The watch has a special feature, a smart timer, which is used to set short-timers using a simple and unique gesture” Shrivastava said.
“We have used minimum hardware in this watch to ensure that users can interact with it easily,” the engineer added.
While there are smart watches available in the market for blind and visually impaired persons but they cost a lot of money and are not easy to use.
“Vibration-based watches produce a lot of vibrations which makes it difficult for the user to keep count. Tactile watches feature needles that could break or their position can get changed while reading time. Talking watches raise privacy concerns. Braille watches are very costly and everyone can’t afford them,” Prof Panda explains.
“The number of vibrations is very minimal in this smartwatch which makes it easy to use. At lab scale, the cost of the components used in this device is about Rs 1500, which would come down when produced at industrial scale,” he says.
Director of IIT Kanpur, Abhay Karandikar says, “This kind of a watch will be extremely useful for visually-impaired and blind persons. Since we have made it in the lab, the cost is a bit high but it is produced at a large scale, it will be comparable to any low-cost smartwatch in the market.”