Technology for the Blind

iSTEP 2013 student team

A graphic printed as a braille pattern

Technology for the Blind

Eight Carnegie Mellon University students and recent graduates spent their summer working on technology to assist visually impaired children through the Mathru Educational Trust for the Blind in Bangalore, India.

Among their impressive accomplishments: enhancing three technologies created by previous CMU researchers. They include two forms of Braille Writing Tutors, and software that enables blind students to experience graphics by printing them out as braille patterns.

"It's exciting to see how the device helps. When you see the students so excited by the games we created, when they are laughing and happy, it makes it all worthwhile," said Shree Lakshmi Rao (A'13), one of the students competitively selected for the innovative Student Technology ExPerience (iSTEP) internship that enabled her and the others to travel to India and put the skills they learned at CMU to use.

She was joined in Bangalore by Madeleine Clute (CS '14), Maddie Gioffre (E'15), Poornima Kaniarasu (CS '13), Aditya Kodkany (E'15), Vivek Nair (E'15), and Avia Weinstein (MCS'14) from CMU's Pittsburgh campus, and Aveed Sheikh (TPR'14) from CMU's Qatar campus.

"It's a wonderful experience working alongside a multi-talented, international team and collectively trying to make a difference," Sheikh said.

The iSTEP internship is a global effort, with TechBridgeWorld remotely supervising from CMU's campus in Pittsburgh.

The goal of the Braille Writing Tutor is to provide an affordable and accessible means for children and adults in underserved communities around the world to learn how to write braille using the locally available slate and stylus method.

The original version of the device, which is connected to a computer, provides immediate audio feedback as the user writes on the electronic slate with the stylus. The tutor also teaches the basics, guides writing, corrects mistakes, provides opportunities for practice, and motivates students through educational games.

"We have to keep in mind the restrictions that the Mathru Trust faces, and implement the features of the tutor accordingly. For example, to work around any problems with internet connectivity, we had to make sure that a library of images could be built," explained Kodkany. "And the user interface had to be easy and accessible enough for both blind teachers and those who did not have too much experience with computers in general."

The iSTEP 2013 team also researched the feasibility of connecting the tutor to an Android smartphone instead of a computer, for added portability. They also significantly enhanced the newest standalone version of this tutor, which is based on the original tutor, has onboard computing and is battery powered, which makes the device even more portable, while maintaining affordability.

A new course offered this past spring by M. Bernadine Dias and David Kosbie called "Software Development for Social Good" produced new code written by CMU students that the iSTEP team incorporated into their projects. Dias is TechBridgeWorld's founder and director and an associate research professor in the Robotics Institute. Kosbie is an assistant teaching professor in the Computer Science Department and a volunteer at TechBridgeWorld.

In addition to software development, the iSTEP team maximized their time with the Mathru school by conducting extensive interviews and user tests, and analyzing data in order to fully understand the impact of and potential improvements to the tutors. The CMU interns also trained the Mathru teachers to effectively use computers and other technology available to them at the school.

The team also assessed the needs of a new multi-disability center in preparation for the iSTEP 2014 team to return to Bangalore next summer for continued work with Mathru.

Relive the iSTEP 2013's journey in India by reading their daily blog and Twitter feed, liking their Facebook page, and watching their videos on YouTube.


Team photo:
Back, l-r: Vivek Nair, Poornima Kaniarasu, Aveed Sheikh, Avia Weinstein
Front, l-r: Aditya Kodkany, Madeleine Clute, Madelyn "Maddie" Gioffre, Shree Lakshmi "SL" Rao


Related Links: iSTEP website | iSTEP Blog | TechBridgeWorld | Mathru Educational Trust for the Blind