INTERVIEW by LOUIS LUCERO II | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of SOHAN DHARMARAJA
Sohan Dharmaraja isn’t like other people. For starters, he can not only tell you what optimization and computational mathematics are, but he also knows a thing or two about them. (He’s got the degrees from MIT and Stanford to prove it.) What Sohan does have in common with most of us is that, until recently, he didn’t know the first thing about the accessibility issues faced by visually-impaired users of even the most basic technologies. But all that changed when he and two teammates entered a yearly competition put on by the U.S. Army. The threesome created a virtual keyboard with buttons that form right under the user’s fingers, an innovation that could change the way blind people interact with technology forever.
Before starting this project, did you have any prior experience with blind people or any previous interest in technological accessibility?
Nope, not at all. This was kind of random.
So at any point during this competition, were you ever assigned a specific project?
No, it was open-ended. The idea is that they bring students in, throw some fun project at them, and say, “Just do whatever you want, see what happens.” The only requirement was that we use an Android tablet. They (the Army High Performing Computing Resource Center, which puts on the annual competition) gave everybody an Android tablet and said, “Do something interesting with it.” Again, very open-ended.
But you had an original idea that ended up changing, correct?
Our first project was to use the tablet as an O.C.R. (Optical Character Recognition) kind of device, able to take a picture of Braille (an alphanumeric system composed of raised dots used by the blind use to read and write) and convert it to text or audio or whatever other useful format the user wanted. That was our first plan. It later changed after I went over to Stanford’s Office of Accessibility for Education to gauge their input and get their feedback. After speaking with them for a while, it kind of came out that there’s really no good way for a person who’s blind to do very simple things, like write down a telephone number, or take notes in a class. That seemed to be a more basic level of functionality we could potentially provide them.
So you originally thought you would solve one problem, but then you found a more pressing issue that you thought deserved attention first?
Exactly. Technology’s so advanced that it’s kind of stupid that a person who’s blind has to buy one of those $6,000 Braille writers to do something as simple as taking down a phone number.
My dad is blind, as a matter of fact, and he has one of those enormous Braille machines. It basically looks like a huge typewriter, and for a while he seemed all but resigned to the fact that Braille equipment was simply always going to be bulky.
Hopefully not. That’s the idea, anyways!
Are there any other touchscreen Braille technologies that you’re aware of, and, if so, what’s the fundamental innovation of your program?
I have not seen any other Braille writer like this. All the same, the fundamental contribution of our software is that we answered the question of “How does a blind person find buttons on a perfectly smooth touchscreen?” That hadn’t been addressed up to now. Once we cracked that problem, everything kind of came naturally after that.
Can you explain more about why a touchscreen would be difficult for a blind user?
Sure. In many of the devices blind people use, there are tactile reference points — there are markers on the screen, so it’s possible to orient your hand in a predetermined way. (Think of the bumps on the ‘F’ and ‘J’ keys of an ordinary QWERTY keyboard, which tell you where your index fingers go when touch typing.) But it’s unreasonable to expect a blind user to find buttons on a smooth touchscreen, so we decided that, instead of having static buttons that are located in the same place, we would “build” a new keyboard for the user whenever he or she wants it.
So your keyboard responds to the user’s touch and positions the virtual keyboard based on the position of his or her fingers.
Exactly. We build buttons that find the fingers instead of requesting that fingers find the buttons.
Did you consult with people who were visually impaired throughout the development process to see if you were on the right track?
Yes. It’s one thing for me to say, “This is a great device,” but I want someone who’s blind to actually be saying something like that. So many times we took something we thought was just super brilliant to someone who’s blind only to hear, “Oh, this is lousy.” It was beautiful, this balancing of what we thought was practical with what they thought was optimal, and going back and forth.
It seems that we’re slowly but surely headed toward a day when programs such as yours will be included as a standard feature in new technology. With people like you working to make touchscreen interfaces more blind user-friendly, what are your thoughts on the current state of accessibility programs in new technology?
Up to now, I think the blind community has been satisfied with the available screen-reading software, but it just doesn’t do the job — it’s the bare minimum, and it’s not very practical. So, ideally, where do I see this project going: I want this keyboard to be embedded — truly integrated with the phone’s operating system. In an ideal world, when the QWERTY keyboard pops up that you or I would use, a person’s phone would give users the option to change that default keyboard to this virtual keyboard. It shouldn’t be something you pay for, it shouldn’t be something you have to buy separately, it should be default — comes with the operating system, comes with the phone, comes with the tablet.
Realistically, do you see that happening any time soon? I know that my dad has spent tons of money on screen-reading software like JAWS.
I’m pretty confident that it will become a standard feature. The big companies know of this, and they’re interested in it. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be standard soon.
And lastly, how can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
I am a believer in interdisciplinary efforts. Keep an open mind and bring your unique ideas to the table. I just read the Einstein biography by Walter Isaacson, and one quote in particular resonated with me: “It is important to foster individuality, for only the individual can produce the new ideas.” It gives me great pleasure to see people following their passions, whatever they may be, because I am confident that only then will one have the chance to make a difference in today’s rapidly evolving world.