Tipo: the braille keypad for smartphone

Current smartphone interface solutions for blind people tend to involve voice recognition software, or large desktop braille keyboards. But as Talwar explains, these solutions (voice interfaces especially) are clumbersome and bring their own problems. “There’s currently no interface like this for the smartphone. There are big keyboards for laptops and tablets, but for phones, the bigger companies have mostly concentrated only on developing speech-to-text. Siri, Alexa, those kind of things”. “Voice interfaces like that are thought of as the future for us. And it might seem relatively convenient for the visually impaired, but it’s not something that they like. If you’re blind, you’re not sure how many people or who exactly is around you. They need and want a sense of privacy”.

Drawing from the design of traditional braille computer keyboards, Tipo takes the form of a small 3D printed attachment which clips onto the back of almost any modern smartphone and connects to it via a USB-OTG cable. By pressing various combinations of Tipo’s six push-buttons, users are able to input any text they wish, with Tipo’s inbuilt circuitry translating the braille key presses into a standard text format that smartphone applications would be familiar with.

Talwar first developed the idea along with colleague Vijay Raghav Varada, as a side project while studying electronic engineering at the pair’s former university in Karnataka, India. Seeing the value of such an assistive technology product, the team have continued to develop along side their various work and study commitments.“I think because my dad is a doctor, I somehow feel an urge to do such things”, explains Talwar. Understanding the need for blind and visually impaired people to inform the design of their product, the team has worked with charities and NGOs to put Tipo through rigorous testing back home in India,. As a result they were able to uncover problems in the early design concepts.

Testing prototype of ‘Tipo’

“When we tested it the second time, we realised how they used braille is way quicker than we even imagined it to be”, says Talwar”. “They actually type like how we type on a keyboard – very fast! And they prefer not to raise fingers between letters. So that’s something we had to change for the finished design”.

Since winning the Hackaday design-blog’s Best Product Design award for 2017, Talwar and the team have opted to make their initial design for Tipo’s hardware and software open-source, so that anyone with access to a 3D printer can easily make one for themselves.

Now though, the team is working on a brand new and updated version of Tipo – one which will also allow users to ‘read‘ braille through subtle movements of its buttons, in addition to simply allowing them to input text.