Please tell us about yourself

Many of India’s millions of blind people have been left out of the smartphone revolution, increasing their isolation in a fast-moving world. Sumit Dagar is designing a prototype of an affordable Braille phone that will open the door to technology.

Sumit Dagar is a 29-year-old, Indian designer whose technological skills, inventiveness and passion for design have prepared him for a place among today’s young, hi-tech entrepreneurs.

Over the past decade, Dagar has made his name as an “interaction designer”, designing devices and software that are both user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing. His Braille phone is attracting attention

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Tell us about your work as Interaction Designer

“Part of my degree at NID was to talk to non-users of technology to see how they could become future users. It was very clear from these discussions that they had no idea of what technology was. This led me to think – how can we design technology that is accessible for them? And then I noticed that disabled people, and especially blind people, are particularly isolated by technology. Technology is giving everyone superpowers, but many blind people are not able to tap into these cool new features, and the technology is making them even more disabled. So I decided to do something that could reach out to this population.”

According to the World Health Organization, 22 per cent of the world’s 285 million blind or sight-impaired people are in India. Some agencies estimate that 15 million Indians are blind.

Dagar’s ambition is to make life far easier for the visually impaired by creating a Braille phone. The idea of adapting mobile phones for use by blind people has been around for a decade. For example, screenreader technology that converts text output on a mobile phone screen into speech has been available – at an additional cost to the user – for many years.

Dagar’s vision is dramatically different, as he is building a phone from scratch with the specific design and capability for blind users via a tactile system based on the Braille alphabet. “I discovered when consulting with blind people that speech output was not necessarily the technological solution that people were looking for,” he explains. “Speech may suit some, but for others, especially in India, there is a problem with the English-language artificial voice; many blind people in my country will just not understand it. Another disadvantage of speech is the lack of privacy when users’ messages or emails are read out by a talking phone.”

The Braille phone will use a simple framework: the screen technology will use pixels to vary height, rather than colour, as on a normal smartphone. A high-resolution screen will therefore be capable of conveying simple Braille text, as well as various shapes, figures and maps. Users will be able to “view” a face using the sense of touch, or follow a map to find their way home. Like existing smartphones, the screen will be touch-responsive, so users can input information and make phone calls easily.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

“I was not the most intelligent of the students”, confesses Sumit Dagar modestly in a candid interview about his post graduate days in Information and Interface Design at National Institute of Design, where he was honored with the title of “Pride of NID”. Before that he did his B.Tech (Information and Communication Technology) from Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology.

A man of multiple passions, he fought against all odds for his one undying passion, designing a phone for the visually challenged.  Titled Braille Phone Project, it’s a unique phone with focus on feel and touch capabilities and platforms for interaction which presently keeps him occupied.

His first break came in 2009 when as a student at National Institute of Design, he won second place at the USID Design challenge and there was no turning back since. Amply enthusiastic person, he credits his NID professors and family for their unfailing support.

Your Eureka moment. That first instance which inspired motivated you to do something.

During my time at NID, a bullet roadtrip From Hyderabad to Bangalore would be my Eurkea moment. I was on an academic field visit, understanding design and the use of technology around. As I was on my way back summing up my the experience in my head, the idea of doing something with interaction and handicapped people struck me – I asked myself How could I use design to make things better for the handicapped. Once I was back in college, I deliberated and brainstormed a lot. Eventually I narrowed down to doing something with blind and visually impaired people

 How did you proceed? What did you do next? Knowing the next step is so important. What was your reasoning about the next step?

While the idea just struck me, the process of coming up with it was very deliberate and took time and effort.  I brainstormed a lot with my mentors, and started exploring different ideas, models, and techniques. Soon enough I stumbled across the experience of ‘touch’ and realized that touch was the best possible way to interact and communicate with blind people. I built up from here.

The first step is as simple as actually deciding to do something and getting on with it.

How did you seek help from external sources? Family, friends, the mentor or that video online- what was the role of the external world in helping you take the next steps.

Family played a big role in everything I did – never once did they discourage me- they always kept on motivating me. My biggest help were the mentors I found at NID- they supported me, guided me, shared their knowledge and experience and edged me on. I was lucky enough to find quality mentors who made a huge impact on me and my work.

What was your first break? How did you feel? What can you tell the readers about it?

My first break was a design competition. I had never really thought about the competition or winning that seriously, – I just ended up entering the USID Design challenge, 2009. My design did not win, but it in fact won the second prize. Though unexpected, I was also really disappointed. The idea was really good, and I felt that I could do much more… I knew I was capable of much more- This feeling stayed with me- it pushed me and drove me to do more.

What kept you inspired? Who/ What do you draw inspiration from?

My family was a fantastic source of motivation. It was also this individual effort and choice that kept me inspired. I knew I was capable of much more, and I knew that there was a lot more to be done… I was clear that I was not going to stop. This inner drive kept me inspired. I believed in myself and knew that I must simply keep on trying.

What is your formula? What are your attributes and qualities that allow you to do what you do? More importantly did you inculcate any of these? How difficult is it? How did you inculcate any?

My formula is my love for design – loving what you do is critical! I was not the most intelligent of the students. I was not completely satisfied with what an engineering course gave me, and took a bit of a risk by diving into design.

I came to NID, got into design, and simply fell in love with the field instantly. I had to inculcate a lot of the habits and learn a lot of things- it was not easy, but it was the sheer simple love for design that made all of it seem fun and okay. I was in my element and I felt at ease. I had to work hard, and there were a lot of ups and downs, but I loved it all – my love for the subject helped me wade through.

What did you learn while doing what you did. How has our thinking changed? Why do you think this process ‘of doing’ was important? If you had not done what you did, do you think you would have developed this thinking?

The process of doing something brought out the best in me. The journey was not at all easy- it was a fight and filled with ups and downs. Retrospectively, it is a great feeling knowing that I overcame all obstacles to be where I am today. Even though I didn’t see it initially, the entire process of ‘doing something’ actually taught me so much. Working, exploring and experimenting brings out a lot of things in you- what I have learnt and understood is that one must keep on trying.

What about your failures? How important were they? What did you learn? Why are they important? How did they make you feel?

I have gone bankrupt twice – Failures have had a huge impact on me.

With each failure I became all the more resilient to keep on trying.

They really brought out the best in me. I feel really elated knowing that I have overcome my past failures to come where I am today. Failures are short and seem tiny when you look back in hindsight. No one likes failures, but they are important as they teach a lot.

 How did your college and school education shape you?

 College gave me the opportunity to really explore- I did not like being too organized, systematic. I loved design- it caught my attention, got me thinking and really excited. I explored a lot around my third year, and after engineering did not feel complete. I had not gained what I wanted, and felt a gap. Moving to design filled that up and I loved the transition. It was unconventional, unorganized, risky and lateral – college gave me this opportunity to explore.

What message would you give to readers. What if someone wants to be like you? What would you tell them, and how would you ask them to proceed?

There is no one way- just be true to yourself and keep exploring.

What if you could change a few things.  Would you want to change anything? What would you change and Why?

I would not change anything.

What’s your idea of fun? What do you do for fun?

I make movies, design, travel, take out my bike, click- it’s pretty impulsive and unorganized. My work is fun for me and my work is a lot of fun. Both pretty much go hand in hand

What sacrifices have you made? What is your take on them?

It all does not feel like a sacrifice-  If you really love something and enjoy it then it does not really feel like a sacrifice.

How has your personal life changed? What would you prefer- do you like these changes or would you prefer to not have them?

I am independent today. I recently got married, and it has made all the struggle so much easier and so much more fun. I love every bit and wouldn’t change anything.

Anything else that you want to add. We want readers to read this and say.

Be confident. Negative influences bring you down, steer clear of them. Keep on trying, it ll all be worth it if you are doing something you love