- Annie is a device in the form of a pad with multiple buttons on it.
- The keyboard’s design is based on a universal Brailler.
- The objective here is to self-teach Braille using audio-guided lessons and interactive content such as games and quizzes.
- Annie’s content comes with a local medium of accent and instruction.
The institute had tied up with some BITS Pilani Goa students a couple of years ago to use the latter’s innovation Annie- a Braille literacy device that helps visually challenged individuals learn to read, write, and type in Braille in a fun and gamified manner.
Founded by Sanskriti Dawle, Aman Srivastava, Dilip Ramesh, and Saif Shaikh, Annie is a product of Thinkerbell Labs, which was previously named Project Mudra during its inception as an independent research project at the campus in 2014.
Back then, Dawle and Srivastava had built a Braille alphabet song box on the low-cost credit-card sized computer- Raspberry Pi. When the innovation received a hearty enthusiasm from visually impaired students and their teachers, the co-founding team took it to the next level. This involved learning Braille themselves and the quartet formally starting Thinkerbell Labs in 2016.
“Annie had been developed keeping in mind the current teaching practices and the pain points of the teacher and student pool,” Srivastava told ET.
Fun with learning
A World Health Organisation (WHO) report cites there are 285 million visually impaired people on earth. Braille, the tactile reading and writing system, is a fundamental tool for the blind when it comes to their literacy, employability and independence. “However, the Braille literacy rates across the globe are abysmal - less than 10% in the US and less than 1% in India. India has the largest number of visually impaired people in the world. Our flagship product Annie is an audio-tactile device that makes self-learning Braille possible,” he said.
Annie is a device in the form of a pad with multiple buttons on it. The pad consists of speakers, a standard 6-cell Braille display, a digital Braille slate, navigation keys, wifi and Bluetooth spot and its standard keyboard comes in a shape strikingly similar to that of a game controller. Notably, the keyboard’s design is based on a universal Brailler.
The objective here is to self-teach Braille using audio-guided lessons and interactive content such as games and quizzes. One such game by Annie is Tetris for the Blind. Here, alphabets will keep appearing one after the other on the Braille display and the user have to continuously type the letters to clear the display.
For instance, if the first letter that pops up is L and the user types it correctly on the keyboard, L will vanish from the Braille display and the next letter will appear. If the user fails, L will be shifted to the adjacent cell in the 6-cell display and the next letter will pop up. The user is supposed to make sure there is enough space in the display for letters to keep appearing, similar to the 80s born tile-matching puzzle videogame.
Annie’s content comes with a local medium of accent and instruction. It gives lessons to learn numbers, languages, and punctuation. It has a multilingual and localised content repository which includes more than 200 hours of learning in Hindi, English, Kannada, Telugu, and Marathi. It also contains word banks with thousands of words to enhance vocabulary.
“The device uses a Helios Analytics suite for easy tracking of student progress (analytics) and downloading of new content. It also allows for scheduling of tests and lessons and also enables teachers to give homework,” the 25-year-old entrepreneur said, adding that the suite compares results, identify areas which need more focus and generate performance reports of the entire classroom. This adds the thrill of competition and collaborative learning, something which is mostly felt at regular schools.
Market and potential
Thinkerbell ties up with various government departments at the state and district level such as block resource centres and district disability rehabilitation centres to deploy Annie Smart Classes. The classes comprise of Annie devices, required content (with localisation), relevant infrastructure and dashboards for sighted stakeholders.
“1 Annie Smart Class can cater to an average of 90 students over the course of three years,” he said. The startup charges a one-time fee for hardware and a yearly-recurring cost to gain unlimited access to content and the entire analytics suite.
Annie witnessed its first Smart Class in Ranchi, collaborating with the government of Jharkhand. The government school for the blind there had a strength of 24 visually impaired students in the age group of 6-18. Thinkerbell deployed 20 Annie devices in the school and a user profile was created for each student to help their teachers monitor their progress. The project was successful and received an overwhelmingly positive response from the students.
Talking about the opportunity of Annie in developing countries like India, Shrivastava said, “In India, there are over 11,00,000 visually impaired children currently enrolled in K-12. With budgets through various government schemes of the Government of India already covering up to Rs 15,000 expenditure per head annually, this represents an annual market opportunity of Rs 1580 crore, immediately addressable in India.”
When asked about competition, Shrivastava said that Annie’s primary competitors are basically Braille tutors. However, since the tutors’ penetration is very low, the Thinkerbell team believes that their innovation will act as a major productivity booster rather than a disruptor.
“The market leaders in Braille technology are Perkins and Humanware, but to use their technology, it is essential that the person is Braille literate unlike Annie,” he added.
Since its inception, Thinkerbell’s meaningful initiative has bagged various accolades in its shelf. Incubated by Masschallenge UK in 2016, the startup got the opportunity to showcase Annie to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The royal couple even learned to type “George” in Braille using Annie.
This was followed by investments from industry leaders such as Indian Angel Network, Anand Mahindra, LetsVenture, and Birmingham Angels. The startup has so far raised two rounds of funding with the latest in August amounting to Rs 2.1 crore.
Coming to future plans, Annie, which currently supports 5 languages (English, Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and Telugu) is working on more vernacular content in regional as well as international languages. “We have seen initial traction in the UK and the Middle East and we plan to grow the footprint in these geographies in the coming quarters,” Shrivastava said, adding that they want to ensure that any student with a disability can learn at the same level in an inclusive mainstream setup as a student without one.
Thinkerbell CEO Dawle added, "Thinkerbell Labs future plans include bringing Annie to all visually impaired students in mainstream schools as well. This model has worked for the company with international clients and they are bringing it to India as well, in line with the founders' broader vision of levelling the playing field for students of all abilities using technology."
The name Annie was adopted from Anne Sullivan, the nearly-blinded, trachoma- hit teacher, who later became one of the brilliant educators of the United States.
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