While on one hand, ‘Siri’ and ‘Alexa’ are performing our menial tasks on a single voice command, at the same time, even now, over eighty-five lakh Indians with hearing and speech disability find it extremely difficult to communicate properly with the rest of the population. Though the standard Indian sign language is prevailing for decades and vehemently used in the country, very few of the ‘hearing-abled’ people learn it willingly.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
To bridge this gap, Jaipur-based Sonant Technologies has developed a futuristic device for individuals with hearing and speech impairment. Named as ‘VOIS’, the device converts the text entered through a tactile glove into speech which is conveyed through a speaker. In addition, any interactive speech is converted into readable texts for the user, which is displayed on a wristband screen synced with the device. Recently, the device received considerable appreciation from the Prime Minister himself and presently it is awaiting a patent.
From a hobby project to a hope for millions: Sonant Technologies
“During my childhood, I was in close acquaintance with a neighbour who was hearing and speech-impaired. That was how I learnt about the day to day struggles faced by these people. In the absence of a proper mode of communication, they are forced to stay isolated from the mainstream,” Abhinav shares with Efforts For Good, adding that the urge to discover a solution to this crisis had always been at the back of his mind. As an engineering student, Abhinav started working on a prototype of the device as a ‘hobby project’. “I tested the basic version of the device on my neighbour. The ray of hope gleaming in his eyes after a trial usage, motivated me to devote myself to this project full-time,” he mentions while sharing how he surrendered his dream to pursue higher research abroad to make ‘VOIS’ a reality today.
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The device comprises a pair of smart gloves with several ‘touch points’ – each of which represent a particular letter, word or sentence. “As of now, we have programmed the device to work only in English and Hindi, but we are working to incorporate around 80 other regional languages as well,” declares Abhinav.
The device can be used in three distinct modes – Sentence Mode (where each distinct spot designates a frequently used sentence or phrase, as customised by the user), Word Mode (each spot represents a regularly used word) & Full Language Mode (each touch spot corresponds to one alphabet or sound). When these spots are touched accordingly, the desired sentence/word is spoken out through a speaker.
Additionally, the ‘VOIS’ comprises a Listening Mode, when someone’s voice is converted into corresponding text for the deaf user, which he or she can easily read from the screen on the wristband.
Another significant feature of the device has to be the ‘Essential Alert’ system. “I knew a couple, both hearing-impaired, whose guilt feeling knew no bounds when they discovered that their newborn baby has been crying for a long time at night. The ‘Essential Alert’ system can be a saviour in such cases,” Abhinav explains, “Critical sounds like alarms, the crying of a baby, the doorbell ringing, a car honking on the street will be converted into vibrations of different patterns and intensity, alerting the user in time.”
Appreciations aplenty from the PM himself
‘VOIS’ is scheduled to be commercially launched by March 2019, in an affordable price range. It has already garnered international attention through a number of innovation conclaves and entrepreneurship competitions, most of which ‘VOIS’ has aced. Abhinav Vashishtha and Abhishek Gupta co-founded Sonant Technologies, which manufactured this technological marvel. “Our company has received financial and mentorship support from the State and Central Government. At the Indo-Israel Summit, this year, PM Narendra Modi and Israeli PM Netanyahu seemed to be visibly impressed by our device. In fact, PM Modi has even appreciated the product more than once in his speeches,” shares an excited Abhinav.
“They don’t trust us easily”
More than one unscrupulous agencies have duped the hearing-impaired community with promises of magical solutions to their limitations, causing the people to grow sceptical, even apathetic in some cases when Abhinav approached them with his device. “They do not want to be treated with sympathy or be deceived. That is why it took us a long time to blend in with them, understand their daily struggles and needs,” he shares.
How ‘VOIS’ can impact the society
“In Western countries, hearing and speech-impaired persons are able to read and write perfectly correct sentences. They are working as doctors, engineers, lawyers and what not. Whereas, look at India, where these people have no opportunities for accessible education, skill training and employment,” regrets Abhinav, when asked if they feel their device will bring forth a change.
The sign language in India is so poorly taught and communicated that only a handful of people with hearing or speech disability will be able to articulate a proper sentence. “If they want to say “My friend’s name is Rajesh”, most of them will end up arriving at “I friend Rajesh,” he reveals. With ‘VOIS’, the spirited duo is hoping to do away with this hindrance.
After testing their device on around a hundred people in India and over twenty people in the UK, the founders are content with highly positive feedback.
“Though the usage of the device involves an elaborate training procedure, we are working day and night to make it more comprehensive and user-friendly,” Abhinav assures.
The significance of the name
The founders have thoughtfully christened the device as ‘VOIS’ – derived from the French word ‘vois’ meaning ‘to see’. “We are opening a new vision for the hearing and speech-impaired community while gifting them a voice,” elaborates Abhinav.
Efforts For Good applauds this amazing innovation and hopes lakhs of Indians are truly benefitted from it.
After a particularly long session where we had asked students to come up with their project ideas, Siddhi and her friends from 7th grade of Zilla Parishad School in Mulshi confided in us that they were unable to agree upon the problem for which they would build a solution. As we finished motivating them to keep looking, Siddhi observed that the school bell hadn’t rung in a long time. As we realized the same and went about trying to find the person-in-charge, her group told us that this was a regular problem at their school where classes spill over when the peon forgot to ring the bell and those who brought books by the timetable were affected. As they explained this to us, it became evident that they finally decided that the group would build a solution to this problem, to benefit their entire school. Today, her automated bell system hangs proudly on the walls of the school, with the principal requesting the Pi Jam team to install it, after resounding with the need and vision for this solution.
The school bell at Mulshi
The Zilla Parishad School in Mulshi, a district lying about 40-50 km away from Pune, has a majority of its students coming from low-income farmer families. Surrounded by beautiful greenery on all sides, it is a small co-ed school operational till Grade 8. Siddhi was one amongst the many wide-eyed 7th graders, who had never before had the chance to interact with technology and looked forward to the Pi Jam classes with a lot of hope, and more importantly – brimming with questions! Similar to all other girls in the class, Siddhi and her group were anxious about using wires, batteries and electricity – things they were earlier afraid of and were always told to stay away from.
As they ploughed through circuits and were introduced to more complex electronics, this group quickly became adept at completing the tasks given to them and understood the scientific concepts behind each with ease. They would always wait after class to ask more probing questions about the session or try to understand more about each piece of technology they used.
The day after Siddhi’s group finalised their project idea, they approached us with three different plans of actions and we sat together to figure out which would be sustainable and most efficient in execution. Over the next few days, they fine-tuned their prototype and built a working model of an automated bell system, hooked to a 7 segment display, programmed to ring by itself at the right period intervals, working tirelessly with the Pi Jam team who provided necessary guidance and the motivated for the group to arrive at decisions through their own logical reasoning. Siddhi’s was also the lucky team whose solution was adopted and implemented by the school.
As we said our goodbyes to the class, we were tailed by students who were pointing out problems in their homes or school for which they hoped to build technology-based solutions over the year.
How Pi Jam started
During my tenure as a teacher in an under-resourced government school in Pune, the harsh reality of my students’ future hit me. While our industries are unable to provide suitable employment opportunities for graduates who have completed professional courses and are from renowned schools and colleges, I wondered what chance my students stood.
Every child in my class had their own story, came from economically difficult backgrounds and still attended school each day with the dream that education would change their lives for the better. As a teacher who promised them that coming to school and performing well in studies would catapult them out of poverty and lack of opportunities, I began researching into what I could provide them with, which would groom them to become powerful individuals that the industries would value and hire.
It became evident to me that every one of them had smartphones, but did not know how to navigate simple functions in a computer. While I was reading into what industry leaders wanted from their future workforce, I came across problem-solving, design thinking and creativity as some of the essential 21st-century skills. Together with my team of co-founders, we built Pi Jam Foundation (section 8 not-for-profit company), where we use affordable, low-cost technology as a means to teach students algorithm forming, problem-solving, design thinking and a creative outlet to use theoretical knowledge learnt in schools by building technology-based solutions.
All about Pi Jam Foundation
We encourage our students to actively look for problems around them, in their schools and homes, and equip them with skills and knowledge that allows them to build their own solutions for such problems using technology. This makes the essence of education important and relevant to the learners too. Through our workshops and labs, our students have built amazing solutions like an automated school bell system, a water monitor that rings an alarm when a farmland is flooding and smart street-lights that conserve energy. The imagination of these children are limitless and have the ability to change the face of the Indian creative workforce.
We’ve had many such stories across the duration of our interventions. 8 of our student projects have been successfully implemented by their respective schools. This is the essence of education that Pi Jam Foundation believes in – turning students into active problem solvers and a part of the creative future workforce of our country.