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Scan books into braille: the people behind the idea

When you combine unbridled passion for Indic languages and the drive to give back to the nation that nurtures, we get researchers like Shiva Kumar H R. His work titled ‘Gift of New Abilities’ won him the ‘Gandhian Young Technological Innovation Award-2015’. Shiva Kumar and Prof. A G Ramakrishnan have developed high accuracy Optical Character Recognizers (OCR) for Kannada and Tamil languages that convert scanned pages of a printed document/book into e-text.

Born in Hoskote taluk, 30 kms from Bangalore, Shiva Kumar was an average student in primary school. Later, finding inspiration in his teacher, Mrs. Suma Gurumurthy, he developed a passion for academia and was among the top students during his further schooling. Despite having the choice to pursue MBBS in one of the top institutes of the country, as his father would have liked him to do, he chose to follow his passion for Mathematics and programming. Graduating with a degree in Computer Science from RVCE, Bangalore, he joined IBM Software Labs and worked there for 5 years.

“My passion for research was rekindled at the Landmark Forum, a leadership program. Forum Leaders such as Praveen Puri and Mahesh Nambiar were instrumental in motivating me to pursue my passion”, said Shiva Kumar. With an avidity for Indic languages, Shiva Kumar was selected to pursue his PhD under the guidance of Prof. A G Ramakrishnan at the Medical Intelligence and Language Engineering Laboratory, Department of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Science.

Inside of thier passion to create an automated book reader for the visually challenged, they have developed a high accuracy Optical Character Recognizer (OCR) along with a high quality Text-to-Speech (TTS) software for Kannada and Tamil languages. By using their OCR along with the Print to Braille tool, the family members or friends of visually challenged people are able to scan any printed book/document and convert it into Unicode text within a short span of time. The visually challenged person can listen to that e-text through any TTS synthesis software. The e-text can also be converted into Braille codes and printed using a Braille embosser.

The work is challenging with no dearth of technical and non-technical challenges. Unlike English, Kannada and Tamil are character-rich. In addition, prints in old books tend to merge and are difficult to be recognized. How do we detect such merges and split them? Character segmentation and line segmentation is challenging. Creating a new algorithm with high accuracy line and character segmentation has been his major research contributions. There were also engineering challenges involved. The whole package should be readily usable. To ensure high quality, it has to be extensively tested.

Even though the response from the community has been mixed, Shiva Kumar has high hopes of building a company around this technology. By extending into other languages, he wants to widen the outreach. Handwriting and speech recognition, and translation are some of his long term goals. To take this technology on par and even excel that for English is what he aims at. “In the end, the technology has to reach the people and not remain in lab; then we will have done something worthwhile,” opines Shiva Kumar.

“We have provided this technology to NGOs who are associated with the blind and individual blind people. Due to reasons, known and unknown, the response has been lukewarm. Many a times the employees assisting the blind are not well-versed in native languages and the focus is primarily on English. We need community support to make vernacular education through this technology possible for the blind. “

Speaking with reverence about his guide, Prof A G Ramakrishnan, “I feel blessed to have had him as a mentor and also as a friend. The journey of PhD has its ups and downs, but having such an extraordinary human being as a guide was indeed a blessing”, said Shiva Kumar.

Shiva Kumar, who has returned to work for IBM now, has received well-deserved recognition for his work through this award. “We have no scarcity of talent in our country. I hope that youngsters will look at local problems and take up the challenge of working through them”, says Shiva Kumar.

"The love of my mother (Smt. Venkatamma), never ending acknowledgment from my father (Sri. H M Rame Gowda), and inspiration from my wife (Mrs. Bhargavi), have been the backbone of my professional strength" says Shiva Kumar.


About the award

More details on the award and project are available at:

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