Imagine a smartphone for the visually impaired.

A phone that provides the same kind of game-changing tools that most sighted smartphone users have come to take for granted over the past few years.

Sumit Dagar has done more than imagine one. He’s created it.

An interaction designer and sci-fi short film maker from Delhi, India, Dagar describes himself as “insanely passionate” about design, and more so about design thinking. He created the Braille Phone with the express purpose of empowering India’s visually impaired population to overcome the many obstacles they face both in their careers and in their daily lives. (India is home to 22 percent of the world’s visually impaired population.)

The phone uses a haptic touch screen, which is comprised of a grid of tiny, height-variable bumps, allowing users to "feel" information. At its most basic level, the phone can be used as a translator — scanning text and converting it into braille — but that’s just the beginning.

Facilitating independence

Using height mapping, the phone can also display visual imagery, and even video and animation, not to mention maps, charts and other graphic forms of communication that are ubiquitous in modern life. The result is a device that could better facilitate independent travel for the visually impaired, and allow access to a much broader range of printed and visual resources that are readily available to the rest of the population.

A prototype display of Sumit Dagar's Braille smartphone

Photo: Sumitdagar.com

The phone is currently being prototyped. As Dagar explains on his website, this prototyping is set to proceed much faster than expected, thanks to the recognition the project has received of late, not to mention a handy cash injection of $50,000 from a major innovation award:

“After several years of getting hands-on with design, these days I concentrate on building the Braille Phone and its family of devices. Rolex honored me with its prestigious Young Laureate award recently (December 2012), which means that I get to implement this project much sooner and with even more uber-features to play with.”

Rolex officials aren’t the only ones who have been taking note of Dagar’s work. He’s been featured in Fast Company, National Geographic and the Herald Sun of Australia, to name but a few media outlets. And his talk as a TED Fellow explaining the Braille Phone concept has been making waves around the world. (You can see that video below.)

But there’s more to Dagar than the Braille Phone. In fact, the phone seems to be an extension of a broader passion for exploring and celebrating how the increasing humanization of technology through ever-more-intuitive interfaces can bridge the gap between humans and the tools we use, and consequently lift all of us to better achieve our potential. It’s a theme that runs through Dagar’s work directing short sci-fi videos.

Exploring technology through film

In “One Degree of Separation,” Dagar depicts a future in which humanoid robots are tasked with health care, education and other social work for the rural poor, exploring how human acceptance of change can present an obstacle to technological advancement, even when the benefits are self-evident: “The idea of humanizing technology is the theme of this movie through Dee’s character. The researchers of today are aiming to humanize technology, they aim for as intuitive an interface as possible between man and the machine. The ultimate aim of converting human-computer interaction to human-human interaction has been envisioned here.” (See a clip from the movie in the video below.)

[short film] One Degree of Separation from sumit dagar on Vimeo.

Whether Dagar is making phones or making films, it’s clear that he plans to continue making waves. Following the announcement of the Rolex award, he posted this to his website about the prospects for the year ahead: “Looking forward to a super-awesome 2013!”

Here’s hoping he’s right.

Read about other innovators and ideas at The Leaderboard. If you have a story suggestion for this year-long project, please contact us.


 

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