Smart help for blind wins Indian MIT innovator award

NEW DELHI: When Rohan Paul started working on an electronic navigation device for the visually-challenged during his under-graduation at IIT Delhi in 2005, he had no idea where the innovation would lead him.

Smart help for blind wins Indian MIT innovator award

Rohan Paul

Aditi Tandon

Tribune News Service

New Delhi, August 18

When Rohan Paul started working on an electronic navigation device for the visually-challenged during his under-graduation at IIT Delhi in 2005, he had no idea where the innovation would lead him.

Today SmartCane, the device, has earned Rohan the honour of being MIT Technology Review’s Innovator Under-35 for 2015.

The award was presented at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) today, with the scale of Rohan’s achievement clear from the list of past winners, which includes Google’s cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Facebook’s cofounder Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s chief designer Jonathan Ive.

The introduction to Rohan’s work, featured in the latest edition of MIT Technology Review, reads: “To create an affordable obstacle detection system for blind people, this MIT postdoc began by simply asking them what they needed.” Each year since 1999, the Editors of MIT Technology Review, have selected exceptionally talented young innovators whose work they believe has the greatest potential to transform the world; 35 innovators are selected annually.

Ask 30-year-old Rohan how it all began and he recalls his 2005 visit to the National Institute for the Blind in Delhi. The visit was part of an IIT course that required students to develop solutions for real-life problems, something Prime Minister Narendra Modi now calls “Make in India”.

“We heard how the visually challenged get injured after hitting high objects the white canes they carry can’t detect. These objects can be trucks, branches, open windows, parked vehicles or just walkers. SmartCane was born out of the urge to help such people,” says Paul, currently at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Labs as a postdoc.

Created as a student project at IIT Delhi by Rohan, his IIT teachers, NGO Saksham and industry partner Phoenix Medical Devices, Chennai, SmartCane was launched last year. It hopes to reach over a million people worldwide.

Rohan explains why the product is important, saying, “It is a sleek handle-shaped attachment which fits on the traditional white cane the visually challenged already carry. During tests in 2012, users reported 95 per cent fewer collisions with SmartCane. It sends out vibrations of different kinds to alert the users.” The device costs Rs 3,000; comparable devices globally cost Rs 65,000 plus. Also, while the traditional white cane can detect only low hanging objects from 0.5 meters, SmartCane can detect low and knee-above obstacles from three meters. It, therefore, prevents unwanted contact. 

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