They are helping blind walk safely, and this new innovation by IITians will now help them read effortlessly!

They are helping blind walk safely, and this new innovation by IITians will now help them read effortlessly!It took IIT Delhi 8 long years to come out with the perfect walking stick for blind - 'Smart Cane' - that could help them in navigating their way amid obstacles, and when they finally did last year, one of India's biggest e-commerce company Snapdeal decided to sell it on their portal. Several blind people now make use of it in their daily lives!

On my recent visit to IIT's Open House event this year, I came across something that made me feel we would soon see yet another great success story after Smart Cane by the masterminds at this premier institute. Just like Smart Cane, they have been working on what's called 'Tactile Graphics' - books with images that consist of raised lines and textures so that people with visual impairment can perceive images by using the sense of touch.
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The innovation can help persons with visual impairment read diagrams and figures in subjects like maths, science, economic, geography etc very easily.

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There are two challenges, however, before students can make a breakthrough in this regard. One is to come out with a cheap technology for printing these graphics at low cost. Secondly, the cheap technology should be able to create accurate and good quality tactile for students.

The existing technology used abroad involves using swell paper and the printing process costs around Rs. 200 per sheet. Microcapsules of alchohol are embedded in the sheet and when heated these capsules explode, creating a raised surface on the paper that makes the graphics readable for the visually challenged. While this technology produces high-quality graphics, it is expensive and isn't ideal if the graphics need more height variation.

Tactile Graphics, on the other hand, uses a process called embossing and thermoforming to cut printing costs to around Rs. 20 per sheet. The process involves using a 3D printer to print the mould, which is then pasted on a printout of the graphics. A plastic sheet is placed on it and it's put inside a forming machine, which heats the sheet and the result is a low-cost print of Tactile Graphics.

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However, the one problem that needs to be addressed is accuracy. Accuracy is very important in areas like geography, especially in the subject of maps, where it is critical. Manual processes of making molds is highly inadequate in such cases. Even in simple geometric shapes, smoothness gets compromised without high accuracy.

Till last year, their technology wasn't producing as high-quality sheets as those printed using swell paper, but it was found to be better for dots of variable heights and was a lot cheaper. Rs. 20 per sheet was a price that could keep books affordable even if the quality was not as good as the sheets printed using swell paper. As for accuracy, IITians are not far away from getting desired results. They are now making molds using software and 3D printing which provides the key components for meeting the accuracy needs of molds.

Why I felt this could do wonders like Smart Cane is because of two reasons. One, it's a wonderful concept that can make a significant change in the lives of the visually challenged on a mass level, and secondly the students and professors have been relentlessly working on making a cheap version just like Smart Cane. And let's just say when there's a will, there's always a way!