A conversation between friends on the visually impaired population soon developed into a research project. Thinkerbell Labs — founded in 2016 by Sanskriti Dawle, Aman Srivastava, Dilip Ramesh, and Saif Shaikh — attempts to use assistive technology to “bridge the gap in Braille literacy in India”.
Annie, the flagship product of the company, is an interactive tool that assists children with visual impairment to read, write, and type. Featuring an audio-tactile (hearing and touch related) interface, the device teaches Braille — a reading and writing system for blind people in which characters are represented by patterns of raised dots that are felt with fingertips — in English, Hindi, and other regional languages.
“We felt they would learn faster if we could combine audio with tactile media. We combine something that they can listen to with something that they can touch and feel. They would then combine these two things, which is reinforced learning, leading to faster learning outcomes,” says Srivastava.
Annie allows the learner, whether at home or in school, develop fundamental literacy and numeracy skills on their own. The tool comes with the associated learning content — which includes stories, songs and games— developed by the company. The design of Annie has gone through multiple iterations, which is a common practice when designing a product from the ground up, Srivastava says.
An inclusive agenda
Thinkerbell Labs wants to scale up the product. It currently has two variants. Annie Smart Class is for blind schools. Besides the use of interactive content, it enables remote monitoring and evaluation. The Annie Resource Centre is a modified version of Smart Class that enables teachers in mainstream schools that are inclusive and block resource centres to impart lessons more effectively to children with visual impairments.
Thinkerbell Labs has also partnered with American Printing House, a non-profit organisation in the US that aims to make education accessible to visually impaired learners. It has rolled out Polly, a version of Annie that features lessons in American English and accent for learners in that country.
Besides working on newer versions of Annie with more content, Thinkerbell plans to add more regional language content.