Ophthalmologist Anthony Vipin Das is working on a new toy for the blind, FITTLE, with Tania Jain, a designer from National Institute of Design, Gandhinagar. The toy will help blind children learn to read Braille while getting a sense of the shape of the world around them. We asked him to tell us all about it. Below, his essay on what this toy is … and how it came about.
For blind children, learning Braille is an integral part of how they interface with the world, and most current haptic technology for the blind focuses on Braille. However, teaching Braille at a young age is definitely a challenge. For example, a child who needs to be taught the word “fish” in Braille has no idea what a real fish looks like. He feels four Braille letters that stand for F-I-S-H, and cannot even try to visualise how a fish looks. I feel that learning of Braille can be made a lot more fun if it’s taught in an interactive way.
Tania Jain approached me with this idea at a DIY workshop “Engineering the Eye” that I co-organized with the Camera Culture Group of Ramesh Raskar from the MIT Media Lab. Her concept involves breaking down objects into as many blocks as there are letters in the word. So, the word “fish” is constructed by joining together four puzzle blocks, which have the letters F-I-S-H on them, each embossed in Braille. When the visually challenged kid fits together the blocks by feeling and matching the right shapes, he can read the word “fish” embossed in Braille, as well as feel around the contours of the entire block, which is shaped like a fish. In this way, it becomes easy for the kid to understand shapes of various objects — and it can be taught by a parent or a teacher. The possibilities are endless.
This new toy, which we call FITTLE (“fit the puzzle”), helps children learn individual letters of Braille, construct words, and understand the form of objects, all through a playful game. Essentially, we are changing the way that blind children at a young age are going to perceive the world around them.
We wish to help spread this idea as far and wide as possible. With current technology, FITTLE can be downloaded through open-source platforms and the pieces can be 3D printed by anyone who wishes to do so. We are in the process of creating the first alphabet series, as well as a graded curriculum where the child can progress to different levels according to age at LV Prasad Eye Institute, India.
We are excited at how these toys can radically change the learning process of Braille and the way children will feel form. Moving forward, Tania and the FITTLE team want to experiment with different materials that would feel like the original object’s texture — like rubber to give the feel of a real fish — for kids to understand even better.
It’s been an amazing experience to mentor the team so far, and we are really looking forward to reaching every blind child with FITTLE to help them perceive and understand the world around them in a playful way!