Suresh Bazaj is no stranger to the blind community. A retired serial entrepreneur in the U.S. who spent his early life in Banaras, Suresh had seen blind people at a school in the old city which his family has been supporting from his father’s time. He had seen them open the bulky Braille books and let their fingers trail the raised dots to discern the words in the code.
As he prospered as an expert in computer and networking segment, Suresh was happy to send money home for the school, satisfying himself that the blind can live in their happy little world of Braille, oblivious that technology revolution sweeping the world can make a big difference to them.
“When I met computer scientists in the US who were either born blind or acquired blindness in their lifetime, my ideas began to change,” Suresh said, speaking from a clear Skype call from his home at the Bay Area.
That made him connect two very unlikely dots. “I kept wondering the life of poverty blind children in Banaras were moving towards against the tremendous opportunity technology has provided for those with similar affliction in the US. The quality of education here and in India makes a huge difference,” he said.
So, the entrepreneur in him was energized by the suggestion from renowned computer scientists in the Silicon Valley Dr. T. V. Raman that Indian blind community could use his expertise to get an accessible smartphone in affordable price. That the task appeared more than impossible did not alarm him.
Text to speech software, that read out contents on a phone or PC aloud to the blind users, has been god-sent since it opened previously unopened doors in terms of careers and jobs. With latest Android phones, the only smartphones that falls in the affordable range for the blind community, TTS is only getting better.
“It was like answering ‘how I handle failure’ to the entrepreneur in me, who wanted to have a go at this challenge no matter what the obstacles were,” he said.
“I read about efforts to fuse a brail display over the touch phone so that if a blind person touches the screen the dots would pop up and enable him to read the content. Such researches are far into the future and would cost a great deal. Getting the smartphones talk Indian languages would be a relatively achievable task,” he said.
Soon, Suresh found a team of collaborators who came up with their own contributions as volunteers.
Dr. Alok Parlikar, a student of Prof . Allan Black, the leading figure in building Text-To-Speech engines using open source tools, convinced Suresh that making low cost phones speak in Indian languages is doable.
The team soon had Dr. Sam Taraporevala, a visually challenged innovator responsible for convincing big banks into installing talking ATMs and Dipendra Manocha, the leading figure in the Indian blind community in making books accessible through smartphones.
Indians for Collective Action, a 50-year-old organization based in the Bay area, signaled its readiness to fund the project. Untiring, Suresh reached out to people in his network including friends, asking for any amount of money they could donate.
While a good many handed the cheque with a smile and wishes of good luck, a few paused to look at him as if he had lost his mind. “You know this would guzzle millions of dollars and man hours. You are an expert and you should know this’s impossible,” they would tell him.
He was even reminded that the Indian government funded Rs. 20 crore to develop a Text To Speech in Indian languages. An interview by the head of the project –where she felt confident of developing a TTS in eight years – was forwarded to his in-box for emphasis.
Suresh, meanwhile, brought in an impressive set of 50 volunteers for his project called Hear2Read. The Carnegie Mellon University, that did pioneering work at TTS development, was given the onus of coming up with the basic models of the TTS.
“Today, we have basic TTS prototypes for eight Indian languages and are on the verge of releasing the Tamil TTS,” Suresh said.
The press release he is preparing for the Tamil TTS release would perhaps reach the long list of nay-sayers who warned him of the wasted time and effort. “I hope they’d change their minds about it now,” he said.
Using two decades of work in developing TTS for European and Western languages, the Hear2Read team began leveraging the most important feature of the “Indic languages”: the phonetic similarity.
“TTS for Western languages were built using Lexicon: how the top 80,000 words are pronounced. Such a lexicon is not available for Indian languages,” Suresh said.
So, Prof. Black and his team began mapping the commonalities among Indian languages. Every Indian language can be brought down to certain common sounds such as ‘Ka’, ‘Ga’, ‘Dha’ etc. The sounds are matched with the alphabets on a table. This was the basis of Unicode made for Indian and foreign languages which many tech companies do not use.
“We developed a code that understands the commonalities in the languages and allow for exceptions. After working the ‘baseline’ that has the basic structure of the language, we work on the exceptional aspects, working in special sounds and characters such as ‘pa’ in Tamil. It’s like putting up the rudimentary structure of a house and then furnishing it,,” Suresh said.
So far, the team has baselines for Hindi, Gujarati, Marati, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Punjabi and Bengali. Among these, it worked out the exceptional features for Tamil alone.
“Because I could get the right kind of volunteers,” Suresh explained the choice of Tamil. “We need a native speaker speak the words and sounds clearly so that that voice could be used for the speech output. Mitra Jyoti in Bangalore provided three volunteers for Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. We are happy that we are ready with one of them,” he said.
The team had progressed from two to 50 and has ten active volunteers. But the effort is clearly not enough to fine-tune all eight languages. Besides the amount of money needed, Suresh is also looking for more volunteers who could help him take the project forward.
“Today, it’s the CMU that is putting the project together, but I’m hoping one of our volunteers would put together the project at the next stage. This’s the uniqueness of Open Source projects,” he said.
Nudged very strongly, Suresh admitted with great reluctance that neither the Indian government nor fellow Indians dropped a dime in the project. “I like it this way. Because this way, it becomes the result of my entrepreneurial effort and the efforts of my volunteers. After all, I wanted to do something to the country I left in 1971,” he said.
A year after he left for the United States, Suresh returned to Banaras following the passing of his mother. Armed with the IIT tech degree, he visited several companies where he got earful of advices about getting a Ph. D. from the US and no jobs.
“The scenario is much different today. If you are an IITian, you just have to name the price. The country has changed and computer technology has changed it,” he said, voice quivering over the nostalgia and pride.
Money is not the reward for this entrepreneur. “This’s free of course. Anyone can download the Tamil TTS after its release on August 2,” he said.
The reward for this entrepreneur, of course, is the prospect of the ten thousand or so blind students in his country of origin perusing their textbooks and study materials on a smartphone that speaks their native tongue.
He will be satisfied when a greatest barrier of gathering knowledge is removed from the way of the blind in India.
To contribute or volunteer, please contact Suresh Bazaj at: suresh[AT]Hear2Read[dot]org
You can download Hear2Read Tamil version from the Google Play Stores.