Date:03/07/2006 URL:

International - India & World

Indians' sonic map impresses Gates

G. Ananthakrishnan

The design will improve the quality of life of the visually impaired

Bill Gates, Microsoft Chairman

Redmond: Watching a demonstration of visionary software ideas that can transform health care at his Redmond headquarters, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was sufficiently impressed by the concept of a sonic map presented by an Indian student team to help the blind, to ask the accessibility group of Microsoft to take a look at it.

"I have never seen something like this," he said, when Deepak Jagdish, a student of the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology (DA-IICT), Gandhinagar, explained to him the navigation and processing system that he and his team members were now perfecting to improve the quality of life of visually impaired people.

The DA-IICT team, made up of Deepak, Rahul Sawhney, Shreyas Nangia and Mohit Gupta, has been working on the sonic map, which it calls `Sonique' or `Dhwani, for the Imagine Cup 2006 competition hosted by Microsoft. Their software design can potentially help visually impaired people "see" the environment around them, complete with objects in a spatial sense.

Snapshot of surroundings

The system, inspired by echolocation used by bats, is designed to emit ultrasonic impulses generated by proximity sensors that have a minimum range of five metres and process the signals to create a `sonic snapshot' of the surroundings.

Where there is no object, there is no feedback. Positive signals bouncing off objects are conveyed via blue tooth technology to a mobile device and translated in real time into sound frequencies. These results are available to the blind person through headphones connected to the mobile.

The Indian students' entry is among those short-listed for the global Imagine Cup finals to be held in August in Agra, also involving over 70 teams in different categories. The results will be announced in Delhi.

Accessing the mouse

Among the promising spin-offs from the project is the opportunity for blind people to use the computer mouse. This can be achieved by giving the monitor screen `grid' values that translate into sound. The variation in sound is evident when the mouse is moved vertically and horizontally. "The goal is to build an all-in-one explorer for the blind, which will help them access all programmes from a centralised navigation system on the screen," explains Deepak, who was the sole representative for his team at Redmond.

Other members of the team could not make it to the presentation for Mr. Gates in the U.S. for various reasons. Besides the Microsoft Chairman, Mr. Sanjay Parthasarathy, corporate vice-president, and Mr. Joe Wilson, group product manager, both from the developer and platform evangelism group of Microsoft and other senior executives also witnessed the demo.

The Imagine Cup this year saw about 68,000 students register worldwide with a tally of 11,000 competing in the event. The finalists vie for $125,000 in prize money in the multi-category competition that encourages talented young programmers showcase their ideas using Microsoft programming platforms.

Other teams

The Indian entry is built on the .Net compact framework for software modules to connect to a central server and the Windows Mobile 5.0 for the Sonique application.

Other teams that demonstrated their ideas to the Microsoft Chairman were from the United Kingdom, the U.S., Germany, Japan and South Korea.

"Amazingly, the world still has a shortage of great engineers who write software. You would think we are overwhelmed with great people because we get to do the most fun work in the world, but somehow a lot of people still don't recognise that. So your opportunity is very strong because the need for your kind of skills certainly exceeds the supply," Mr. Gates told the students, reminding them that Microsoft has a "huge R and D culture" and an allocation of $6 billion a year for the activity.

Tablet PCs

Giving an example of an idea flowing from that vision, he talked of tablet PCs for students that would connect wirelessly to the Internet and eliminate the need for textbooks.

Speaking about the Indian team's experience in producing a Sonique prototype, Deepak Jagdish said there was a two to three week delay in importing some pieces of hardware, such as the digital compass.

"We are improving the accuracy of the device all the time in consultation with the National Association for the Blind, Ahmedabad, and others. We hope to be ready 15 days before the finals," he added optimistically.

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