A Conversation With Paul D'souza - Inventor of the Revolutionary Braille Display Machine

Posted on 22 January, 2016 by Team Wishberry

Image Credits: Fine Art America
Paul D'Souza's career as an inventor began when he designed a compact Gherkin Sorting Machine in his mid 20's, while working as a software developer for an agro firm. It was his machine that revolutionized their business. Gherkin Sorting Machine Paul has been carrying this inventive streak since as long as he can remember. “When I face a problem, I instinctively begin to attempt to correct them. If it’s something mechanical, one look is sufficient for me to understand what’s wrong. I think I have a good grounding in this; I just know the basic principles behind them,” says Paul.
Paul D'Souza At Home With Clocks
Image Credits: Brown Paper Bag
He has always been fond of working with mechanical horology and has invented horological devices like the Mechanical Perpetual Calendar, Three Large Date Display Mechanisms and a Differential Escape Mechanism (trust us, we’ve never felt so lost). He has also restored antique furnitures and machinery, without much professional training. “If I don’t know how to do a particular job, all I do is simply teach myself,” he says. However, what we’d like to consider as Paul’s most fascinating invention is the Multi-Line Refreshable Braille Display- a device that will help the visually challenged people to use a computer! This project has won Paul the National Geographic ‘Shaping the Future’ award as well.

On when the idea hit him…

“I was listening to an orchestra play the music of a hymn from the movie Titanic as the ship began to sink. While listening to the music, I was running my finger over the music score and trying to co-relate what I was hearing with the dots and lines on the score. While doing that, I felt inspired with the thought that if the dots could come out of the page, someone who is blind would be able to read music. On the same day, someone in the church was telling me about how preparing Bible in Braille would take up an entire room to store. This led me to try and figure out how I could make a device that would produce Braille dots using digital information. I did think of a few solutions but my ideas were dismissed as being impractical when reduced to Braille-size specifications. I used their discouragement as a challenge and produced a display prototype to prove that it could be done.” Braille Display Image

Curious cats that we are, we couldn’t help but wonder HOW?

Paul explains, “The device has a display like that of a normal computer monitor, except this one has an array of 600 pins to make the Braille characters and is mechanically controlled. It can be refreshed using ‘page up’ and ‘page down’ options. It’s the first device in 14 years to meet NLS Braille Specifications. The present single line Braille display costs $ 3000 and the present technology cannot accommodate more than two lines. I am looking to replace most parts with plastic moulds, and also reduce the cost to $ 200. Text to speech converters are also available in the new technology. According to the National Library Service, USA, Braille usage was 52 per cent in 1963. In 1995, it has been reduced to 9.62 per cent”. The device that’s now named Touche will help the blind to study Braille in a cost effective manner. Apart from its own keyboard for data entry, contents of the smartphone, computer or memory stick can be fed to the device. It mechanically produces Braille dots that change according to the information being received. Touche can also output information to a Braille embosser if a hard copy is needed, or send information back to a phone or a computer.This dream device has often been referred to as the ‘Holy Grail of Braille’. This tech is not entirely something that Paul’s come up with, he explained, “Yes, there is a very expensive device that retails for $2000/- for a single line. The technology is about 40 years old and has not changed. The patents and monopoly rights are held by one company that has maintained this prohibitively high cost. I want to start manufacture of these devices and make them available at a low cost.  I do not wish to follow traditional business models and I would desire that profits be kept to a minimum. The greater need in terms of illiteracy alleviation, and education opportunities for the visually impaired, makes personal benefits from the sale of this device the least of my priorities going forward.”

On the future of Touche

Now, he’s working on developing a technology for a reverse conversion - Braille script to words. “Once developed, the device would empower the visually-challenged to do away with the help of a scribe in exams while examiners without the knowledge of Braille can also correct their papers,” he said. “I took 6 years till date for this project, and the biggest challenges were convincing fabricators and producers of components of the need to stick to specifications and the levels of accuracy I desired. Many refused to work with me because of my unconventional approach to how a job could be done.  Most dismissed me with ‘it can’t be done like that’, or ‘we can’t do it’,” he said explaining that the world’s turning digital and has left  many  visually challenged people behind in terms of literacy, and someone needed to bring them at pace. We can only imagine the next rabbit Paul would pull out of his magical hat.  

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