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Ajit Narayanan: Giving a Voice to the Disabled

Dharunika’s parents were overjoyed when she told her teacher that she didn’t like having dosas for breakfast. Sounds strange? Not when you realize that this was the first time the 13-year-old had expressed an opinion, and communicated something that went beyond the basics. 
Born with cerebral palsy, Dharunika’s communication was limited to the 20 gestures she used to convey hunger, pain or discomfort. This was until Avaz changed her world. 

“Avaz is basically an artificial voice for children and adults with cerebral palsy who don’t have the required muscle control and therefore can’t speak, or the autistic who think more in terms of visuals than actual words,” explains Ajit Narayanan, the 29-year-old creator of the device. 

Launched in March 2010, Avaz works by converting muscle movements into speech through features like pictures and scanning. “For example, users can put together different words like ‘I like’ and then select a picture of an apple, thus constructing sentences pictorially. For those with lesser degrees of muscular control, who can’t touch all parts of the screen, we use a method called scanning,” says Narayanan.

The scanning method shows different options users can select by touching any part of the screen. Avaz can sense their choice and help them narrow down options till the right one is reached to make speech. Avaz has artificial intelligence and can give suggestions to make choices easier. For someone trying to say “Good afternoon,” selecting the word “good” has “afternoon” suggested as an option. This makes it easier for the user. Once the sentence is constructed, the artificial voice synthesizer speaks it out. 

Avaz supports English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Marathi, and plans are on to add more languages soon.

Pocket-sized innovation 
Avaz’s shape and size is that of a tablet computer. With a seven-inch display, easy to read fonts and voice prompts for the visually impaired, this battery-operated device can be mounted on desks and wheelchairs or even carried on laps.

Narayanan, an IIT Madras alumni, was named Innovator of the Year 2011 by MIT’s Technology Review India. He worked in Georgia and California with American Megatrends Inc. for four years. “America was an excellent learning experience. I loved the Bay Area in California. But I always wanted to come back and start my own company,” he says. “Contributing to solving a specific need that has special relevance to India was my inspiration.” 

A visit to Vidya Sagar, a special needs school in Chennai, thanks to an IIT Madras professor and his wife, gave him an idea about what he wanted to do. Speaking to the faculty and students at the school made Narayanan realize that the differently-abled, a whole section in India that remains marginalized, could be given technical assistance to join the mainstream.

American inspiration
Inspired by the way Americans integrate technology into daily life and by the success stories of Dynavox, the U.S.-based provider of communication products and speech-producing devices for various disabilities, Narayanan was sure that he wanted his creation to be technically savvy as well as have a high social impact. “We watched a lot of YouTube videos on Dynavox users who had broken down their walls of silence and emerged as successful, high-flying professionals. A product like Avaz doesn’t exist in India, so we had to build everything from scratch,” says Narayanan.

Work on the prototypes started in March 2008. “The real challenge lay in making it attractive for children with cerebral palsy and getting a response from those whose feelings we can’t really feel, and hence find difficult to understand,” he says. “When we gave them our earliest prototypes to test, we met with a blank stare. That’s when we realized that they didn’t like it. We made a lot of changes, especially redoing the size and making the software more sophisticated. Most of these children are familiar with computers so we made it look like a tablet computer and used symbols they were familiar with.”

The effectiveness of the changes was proved by Dharunika at Avaz’s launch in her school, The Spastics Society of Tamil Nadu in Chennai. “She held it in her hands and in a few minutes typed out ‘thank you’ for the entire audience,” says Narayanan.

The American connection with Avaz continues. “I received a lot of help from people in the U.S. who donate these units to schools. In fact, just a few days ago, a person from Virginia sponsored three units for a school in Kochi,” he says.

Generous donors
Priced at Rs. 30,000, Avaz doesn’t come cheap, but Narayanan explains, “There was always a commercial bent to this venture. The profits we make are pumped back to develop more sophisticated versions. Our future plans include extending the possibilities of Avaz to the learning disabled as well.”

Narayanan’s company, Invention Labs, which manufactures Avaz is about four years old with 10 employees. He funded the project from his savings from work in the United States and funds given by the Indian government for technology-related projects. Schools in 15 cities across India, including Chennai, Mumbai, Kochi, Kolkata and Jaipur are using Avaz.

For this avid trekker who loves to read, being able to lower costs is important. “I am trying to explore government schemes that subsidize assisted technology,” says Narayanan. “I hope more people in India start working on assistive technology that can be adapted globally. It’s time to focus on reverse innovation.”

 


Paromita Pain is currently doing her M.A. in specialized journalism from the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California.