03 April 2023
The story of how world’s first self-learning Braille device ‘Annie’ was made
Srivastava, co-founder of Thinkerbell Labs, describes Annie as a Wi-Fi-enabled electronic Braille device that helps a child with low vision to read, write and type.
A conversation that started at a breakfast table between Aman Srivastava and three of his friends from BITS Pilani, Goa, soon took the shape of a research project. It eventually led to a prototype far from the friends’ realm to imagine. That’s how Bengaluru-based Tinkerbell Labs developed “Annie,” the world’s first self-learning device for teaching Braille to visually impaired kids.
Although there has been a global push towards inclusive education, Srivastava, 28, saw a gap between teachers not adequately trained and the lack of the right tools needed to provide early education for the visually impaired. “When you teach your child ABC, the child doesn’t learn ABC just because of your teaching. It is constantly shown the letters and alphabets everywhere, in every book, every signboard and that was completely missing in case of teaching children with visual impairments,” he explains.
Srivastava says when he and his team started working on Annie in 2016, they found that the traditional teaching method for visually impaired students required one-to-one hand-holding, which could be extensive in nature. “We realised that we could build something that amplifies the effectiveness of a special educator by developing a solution designed to cater to not one but multiple students at the same time. What would that world look like?” he told indianexpress.com in an interview.
Srivastava describes Annie as a literacy tool, a Wi-Fi-enabled electronic Braille device that helps a child with low vision to read, write and type. It has been designed around the concept of audio-tactile, which makes learning more interactive for a child with visual impairments. The device teaches Braille—an embossed reading system which allows blind or visually impaired students to read using their fingers—in English, Hindi or whichever local language they are comfortable in. The idea is to cover all the basic aspects of language first and once a child becomes literate, they use that knowledge of literacy to learn other things like vocabulary, sentences, comprehension, etc.
The design of Annie has gone through multiple iterations, which Srivastava says is a common practice in designing a product from the ground up. In the early versions of Annie developed in-house, the device had only one large Braille cell with audio but later it was decided to add a few standard cells. “The design has evolved based on functional requirements, which is if you have to educate from classes 1 to 8, what all do you need hardware-wise?” Srivastava says.
Srivastava recalls the team built 50 to 60 prototypes across five to six versions before commercially starting deploying Annie in 2018. Early prototypes of Annie were completely white and the vibe was exactly the same as a washing machine from IFB. But during the design process, Srivastava and the team wanted Annie to go beyond that white colour. “We really wanted Annie to have a playful, colourful, console-type design. We were inspired by Xbox and Nintendo consoles of the past and the design worked for Annie,” he adds. In fact, Annie’s middle portion, where the typing module is, mimics a video game console. “Most assistive gadgets have been boring, but we wanted to change that with Annie,” says Srivastava.
Srivastava sees Annie as a full-fledged computer which can be updated just like a smartphone. The device controls the tactile display that children can touch and feel which then shows words, alphabets and letters to them. There are different buttons for different tasks, similar to how a laptop works. Annie is a connected device and can be remotely enabled—it is possible to keep track of students’ performance.
But Annie isn’t just a hardware device, clarifies Srivastava. In fact, Annie has a hardware layer, a content layer, and a software layer to it. Srivastava and team worked with the UK’s Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) as well as India’s National Institute for the Empowerment of Persons with Visual Disabilities to develop the content which is as per different grades of Braille that works on Annie. The content, which consists of alphabet learning, listening to sentences and games, is fully digitised and made interactive in nature. “We had to design a new system where if a child goes wrong, Annie can correct them instantaneously in real-time and then the progress is recorded and that can be given to a teacher, parent or school authority as and when required,” he says.
The perception towards assistive tech is changing quickly and more people, especially investors, are rooting for accessible platforms and hardware. “People [Investors] want to invest in hardware, they now want to look at tangible things,” Srivastava says. “When we initially started, everyone would ask to replicate the concept of [Annie] on a mobile phone app but the things functionally required for a child to learn can’t be put on a smartphone because a phone is not tactile in nature.”
“In tech, inclusion has to come to tech. It should be seen as yet another customer problem and solving leads to value creation and eventually business,” he says.
For Srivastava, the acceptance of Annie—sold as Polly in the US—has opened new opportunities for the young startup in the west. TIME Magazine recently named Polly one of the best inventions in 2022. The hardware of Annie and Polly are the same—the only difference comes when it comes to the software and content designed keeping the US curricula in mind.
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