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Electronic Engineering

The talking light

Device for the visually impaired identifies and communicates names of colors and currency bills

MIGUEL BOYAYANColor and currency identifier will participate in international competition focused on social technologiesMIGUEL BOYAYAN

A small device, which is 12 centimeters long, 6.5 centimeters wide, 5 centimeters high, and weighs 100 grams, could be an alternative to improve the quality of life of approximately five million Brazilians who are seriously visually impaired or blind. The device is an identifier of colors and currency bills, capable of emitting the name of 40 different color shades and R$ (real) currency bills in circulation by means of recordings. Named “Auire,” which corresponds to “hi” or “hello” in the language of the Javáes indigenous tribe, from the State of Tocantins, the equipment was developed by young computer engineers Fernando de Oliveira Gil and Nathalia Sautchuk Patrício, enrolled in the Master’s Program at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (Poli-USP). Their project was one of the runners-up in the Unreasonable Finalists Marketplace international competition, organized by the Unreasonable Institute to award high-impact social projects from all over the world. This institute is run by four young businessmen, former students of the University of Colorado, in Boulder, the United States, who work with social entrepreneurship sustainable projects that have good market perspectives and are funded by venture capital.

The Auire is a small box with a circuit board and two Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) inside, which emit a white light. The device is also equipped with three sensors, one for each of the three primary colors (red, green and blue), that are the basis for the other colors. When it is working, the light is directed at the surface to be identified and captures reflections through the sensors. The list has 40 taped colors and the device “says” the name of each color that comes closest to the real color on the given surface.

“In the case of currency bills, the currency bills in Brazil are different colors; if the Auire reads the color red, it identifies the bill as an R$ 10 bill. Pink identifies the R$ 5 bill, and so on,” Gil explains. “We haven’t been able to differentiate the R$ 2 and R$ 100 bills very accurately, because their colors are very similar. So we still have to make some adjustments. At the moment, the prototype has to be connected to a computer, that uses software to process the data. We plan to insert the software in the device to make it autonomous,” he adds.

The story of how the Auire was created began in 2006, during the students’ sophomore year in college, when they were enrolled in the course on “Electricity and Electronics Practices II,” under the Poli Cidadã program, whose objective is to motivate students and teachers to develop engineering projects focusing on social inclusion. “Professor Denise Consoni, the then course coordinator, proposed work topics, some of which were of a social nature and others not,” Nathalia explains. “To work on the projects, we had to break up into teams and choose one of the topics. I organized a team with three other classmates and convinced them to work on the color identifier for the visually impaired, which was one of the topics that had been suggested by the Poli Cidadã program that year.” The suggestion had come from the Fundação Dorina Nowill para Cegos, Foundation for the Blind, dedicated to the social insertion of the visually impaired.

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“At the time, the other members of the group did not want to continue working on this project,” says Nathalia. “I kept the prototype, with the idea of developing it sometime in the future.” The opportunity came in November last year, when Fernando, a friend of Nathalia?s, was reading the news on a blog specializing in social entrepreneurship. “He proposed that we enroll in the competition organized by the Unreasonable Institute and I accepted,” Nathalia recalls. They enrolled in the project in the first two weeks of December.

The projects have to be designed as companies and not as non-profit organizations. In the first stage of the competition, the participants have to prepare a business plan for the development of an idea that would have an impact on one million people and would become self-sustainable within one year. In addition, the project would have to be extended to other countries within three years. “We prepared a business plan to open up a company for the production of a low-cost identifier,” says Gil. “Our goal is to produce a device whose unit cost will range from R$ 100,00 to R$ 200,00. Similar devices are already available on the market, but in Brazil they cost around R$ 1.200,00.”

Before being classified among the runners-up, Nathalia and Gil had to compete against 284 other competitors. After the telephone interviews, only 34 competitors from 19 countries remained in the competition. In the last stage, the finalists will not depend only on themselves. The first 25 projects able to raise donations in the amount of US$ 6,500 by March 15 will remain in the competition. However, the money cannot be donated by a participant’s parents or by a patron donating a lump sum, because each donation cannot correspond to more than US$ 10. The Brazilians are competing against projects from all over the world. One of the projects that has attracted much attention is the Global Cycle Solutions, developed in Tanzania. The project is a corn shelling and grinding machine attached to a stationary bicycle. When the pedals are moved, the bicycle wheels turn and move the equipment, thus increasing the productivity of work that used to be done manually. The contestants who achieve the fund raising goal will use the money to pay for a ten-week training program with business professionals and experts at the headquarters of the Unreasonable Institute in Boulder. At the end of the training program, the projects will be shown to social investors at an event organized by the institute.