Published: 19th May 2020
Annie's Song: Why this braille literacy device has excited everyone from Prince William to NITI Aayog
Developed by Thinkerbell Labs, Annie is a self-learning braille device that several visually-impaired students across the nation are using to learn like never before. Check out their whole story!
Do you know what's the similarity between a digital display and braille? While in braille six dots are used to represent any letter, if you want to depict something digitally, it requires seven segments. So, from a programming perspective, braille, as per Sanskriti Dawle and Aman Srivastava, is a programmable representation of a language. So while the duo was studying in BITS Pilani, they built a Braille alphabet song box on a Raspberry Pi. "To be frank, our friends were much more excited then we were. That was one of the factors that convinced us that we are on to something good," shares Sanskriti. So the next step was learning braille which took them to Hyderabad and while working with the National Association For The Blind in Goa, they came up with Annie, the world’s first self-learning braille literacy device for the visually blind.
The team behind Thinkerbell Labs | (Pic: Thinker Labs)
In 2016, another wonderful thing happened — Masschallenge UK, a UK-based accelerator took an avid interest in Annie. "We even had the chance to present to Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Catherine who learnt to type George in braille," says Sanskriti. And if you think this was the peak of their success, hold on, it only gets better from here for their Bengaluru-based start-up, Thinkerbell Labs, that is promoting the product.
The greatest teacher
Named after Helen Keller's teacher Anne Sullivan, Annie was conceived four years back and already counts businessman Anand Mahindra as one of its investors and is a NITI Aayog recommended intervention. But let's talk more about Annie first to quell your doubts about what makes it so revolutionary. Do you remember learning about photosynthesis, the process in which plants convert sunlight into chemical energy? "But if you are stuck at understanding what a particular arrangement of dots means in braille, how will you get to learning the concept itself? After all, literacy and numeracy is also based on getting to a certain level of fluency," asks Sanskriti.
PM Modi | (Pic: Thinker Labs)
This has been their observation when they were doing their research. Since every teacher teaches by holding the hand of a visually-impaired student and runs it over the dots, even if there are five people in the class and the lesson is 40 minutes long, imagine how time-consuming it would be for both parties. So, since braille is a tactile language, the self-learning device Annie is the gentle hand that hand-holds the student through braille. It has two braille cells to introduce kids to braille, has a standard brailler (braille keyboard), a braille slate, built-in speakers and is still light-weight.
Annie, are you ok?
The duo has set up 16 Annie smart classes across the country where students learn unsupervised. As of January, they had all surpassed more than 1,000 hours of learning. "With Annie, every student gets more attention, can learn at their own pace, pick up where they left off yesterday easily and so much more," says the 26-year-old. Annie is a connected device and teachers and the duo can monitor the progress of students. It also has games, even competitive ones, which students can play amongst themselves and by the end of it, the winner is announced by Annie. The friendly voice of Annie can teach them in English and in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Gujarati, Bengali and Marathi too. "Since we have started vernacular language offerings, we have been getting very good feedback too," informs the Pune-born entrepreneur.
Annie in all her glory | (Pic: Thinkerbell Labs)
As soon as the lockdown ends, the duo needs to set up another 10 smart classes. They also wish to shift to self-learning, which is what is happening with Annie in the UK and UAE already. Speaking of lockdown, they have developed an AI-driven platform called Chakravyuh to store all the temperature that is being tracked, right now this information is not being stored anywhere. So their app and dashboard will store all this information and with the help of predictive analysis, generate real-time insights and map trends with regards to temperatures in a particular area.