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Ajit Narayanan, 29

Voice device for people with speech disabilities

Invention Labs Engineering

INNOVATOR OF THE YEAR Ajit Narayanan’s innovation lies in bringing down the cost of the communication device to one-tenth of the price of similar devices.

Rohit Jain now studies Sociology at Loyola College in Chennai. What is so special about him? He was born with cerebral palsy. He cannot speak as his vocal muscles are weak and neither is he able to achieve perfect muscle coordination in his limbs. Besides, his lack of fine motor control skills prevent him from writing or typing. Despite all these challenges, Jain graduated from high school last year and registered for further studies. Jain's determination would have taken him to his destination, but Ajit Narayanan's technology has come to aid him to mingle into mainstream more freely. He was one of the first users of Narayanan's invention, AVAZ.

There are an estimated 10 million people in India who suffer from speech impediments. They may not have speech but they have a lot to say. And they can benefit from Narayanan's device. Avaz is a communication device for people with speech disorders such as cerebral palsy, autism, mental retardation, and aphasia. It works by converting limited muscle movements, such as head or finger movements, into speech. His invention broadly falls under the category of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) technologies. Though speech generating devices are effective, most AAC devices aren't within the reach of the speech-impaired persons in the developing world and they mostly generate speech in English. This is another deterrent which has prevented these devices from becoming as popular in the developing world. Narayanan's innovation lies in bringing down the cost of the device to one-tenth of the price of similar devices, making it affordable to a wide swath of the Indian disabled population, and making it available in Indian languages.

Avaz is a portable, battery-operated device which constructs messages from coarse muscle movements. These messages are then converted into speech. It has a micro-processor with a touch screen and multiple input sensor mechanisms, and also a sensor which detects body movements. Inputs from the sensor are used to intelligently create sentences which are then spoken out.

Avaz works on the principle of scanning. It shows various options on a screen and presents a highlight that moves between the different options. When the highlight dwells upon the option that the child wishes to choose, the child makes a large muscle movement such as shaking the head or touching anywhere on the screen with the hand. This selects the highlighted option. When a full sentence has been constructed, Avaz converts the message into speech.

Scanning in Avaz is made faster using grouping, ordering, and prediction. The options are arranged in groups so that it is quicker to navigate and correct mistakes. The options are also arranged in optimized order of frequency which makes common words quicker to select. Avaz also tries to automatically predict words based on their starting alphabets and their preceding words. The child can now build a sentence under less than a minute using Avaz in text mode.

To cater to a wider spectrum of disabilities, Avaz is also available in picture mode with support for Indian languages. This technology, though developed for the differently-abled, has the potential of morphing into a technology for the people without disabilities too like when one is at the steering wheel of a car or when one isn't familiar with the local language of the place of visit.

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