Mahesh Kumar Ranani, 62, started losing his eyesight when he was in the first standard which gradually deteriorated over the years and it was difficult for him to cope up with academics as he wasn’t studying in a special school at the time.
“I remember that I could never read things written on the black board. My handwriting was really bad and I could never tell what I was writing,” says Ranani. When his parents took him to the ophthalmologist, Ranani was diagnosed with 100 per cent blindness.
Between 2012 and 2018, Ranani worked as the Director at the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in Karnataka. It was then that Ranani came across a mobile application known as Eye-D.
Eye-D is an assistive technology developed by startup GingerMind Technologies that was launched in 2016. This AI based app functions as a companion to those who are visually challenged.
And already, Eye-D has 70,000+ visually-challenged users across 160+ countries across the globe. In India, the app is assisting users across 180+ cities and in about 4,000 cities globally.
Eye-D helps visually-challenged people navigate and comes along with a host of other features that help them become more independent, thereby, improving their quality of life.
“A visually-impaired friend of mine told me about this app and then Eye-D team visited us at NFB to introduce the app,” informs Ranani. He also reached out to his visually-impaired acquaintances to test the app.
“Everyone loved the app and found it very helpful. Sometimes we don’t know where we are or where we are heading, but if you put the app in travel mode, it tells you where you are,” says Ranani. He adds that one can also navigate and access banks, hospitals, restaurants and libraries with the help of this ap
Gaurav Mittal, 33, the co-founder of Eye-D, shares that they wanted to create an app that could act as a ‘Swiss Army knife’ for the visually-challenged.
With the help of the ‘Talk back’ feature in smartphones, Eye-D has launched a series of features on their app that can assist a visually-challenged individual in executing day to day tasks independently”
“With the app’s AI technology, upon which 80 per cent of the apps features are based, the user can travel, explore, identify objects in front of them and even read texts,” says Gaurav. These features are accessible to the user once the smartphone is in ‘talk back’ mode so that the information that the user needs is read out to them.
The “Where Am I” feature on the Eye-D app helps the user know their exact location and also informs them about important landmarks. Once the phone is in the ‘talk back’ mode, the user chooses a landmark they’d like to visit, the app helps them with directions.
The “Around Me” feature on the app helps the user find ATM’s, banks, bus stops, cinemas, restaurants, hospitals, stores and even the religious places nearby. To ensure that the user doesn’t miss out on any place, the app comes with a search radius controller which helps the user to adjust the search radius in the range of 500m to 5500m in case they are unable to find a particular place.
“See Object” is another feature on the phone which enables the user to evaluate their surroundings. Once the user clicks on this mode, they can take a picture and the Eye-D app tells the user what’s in front of them. So, one could be walking through a lesser known path or standing beside a window, and one can use this feature to understand what lay ahead of them. In case they miss the description the first time, the user can simply swipe right to hear again.The “Read Text” feature is probably one of the most important features that the application has.
“We designed this feature so that the next time you visit a restaurant or want to get a novel for your friend, you won’t have to ask anyone for help. Open read text mode, click a picture and the Eye-D app will read the text in front of you. You can swipe right to hear the text again in case you missed it the first time,” says Gaurav.
Gaurav Mittal has a degree from IIT-BHU (Banaras Hindu University) with a major in Mathematics and Computation. He joined Citrix, a software company as a security researcher.
“During one of Citrix’s CSR days, I visited the National Association for the Blind. I observed the visually-challenged people and started thinking about how existing technologies could be leveraged to make day-to-day functioning easier for them,” says Gaurav looking back at events six years back.
He noticed that while some people did not own a smartphone, others who had it, could not use it to its full potential. Gaurav then started forming groups within his company and outside to brainstorm and discuss the possibility of an authentic solution. During this time, these groups developed seven hardware prototypes that performed different functions such as reading texts, enabling the user to know his/her location and knowing the elements of their environment.
After this, the team received funding from Microsoft, Citrix and Intel with which they established their startup, GingerMind Technologies.
The other founders include Subodh Mittal and Vaibhav Asthana. Subodh, 62, is one of the senior directors of the company who takes care of corporate and government partnerships. While Vaibhav, 34, is a VIT Vellore graduate with a keen interest in assistive technologies. He started his career at Tesco as a software engineer followed by a stint at a US based start-up, and then took car of technology directions at Threesquare.
Gaurav informs that the users of the app have been an integral in spreading the word.
“We started by personally reaching out to visually-challenged people and selecting a handful of them who were willing to support us in the development process by using the app and sharing their feedback,” says Gaurav
EYE-D was incubated in Pune by CIIE and Intel. It was one of the Top 20 teams of Innovate for Digital India Challenge. “We took feedback from the users at the Pune University and Niwant Andha Mukta Vikasalaya. The app was then circulated within the community by the initial set of users. This also helped us in getting global user community,” explains Gaurav.
Gaurav says that functioning as a startup in the assistive technology sphere is challenging because the level of awareness is still very low among common folk and the visually-challenged community. “Also, the available solutions are not too affordable because of which people tend to rely on age-old solutions like the white cane,” he says.
Despite the initial challenges, Eye-D now has user groups in about 16 countries and they’ve started working with NGO partners in Nepal and Bangladesh. Their technology has also been recognised by several platforms like NASSCOM and Facebook under the ‘Code for Next Billion’ list where they featured as one of the top 10 startups in 2018.
In September 2018, they were declared the winners by Action for India in the social innovator category in their annual flagship event.
Now, Gaurav says that they aim to make the term ‘visual impairment’ redundant by 2030.
“In the future, we aim to make visually-challenged users self-reliant for their day to day activities with our AI assisted technology. We want to facilitate increased digital literacy and awareness by making information around them accessible which will hopefully result in better employment opportunities for them,” says a hopeful Gaurav.