MANILA, December 29, 2004 (STAR) By Eden Estopace - If there is one cellphone feature that seriously left out the visually impaired, it is the well-loved, overly subscribed (at least here in the Philippines) Short Messaging Service (SMS) or text messaging. While the blind can compose and send text messages – with the aid of keypad tones and sharp familiarity with the navigational bars – and even receive text messages, it still takes the sense of sight to read SMS.

This is not to say though that the country’s approximately half-a-million blind people (according to statistics from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions at www.infla.org) are not part of the local texting culture. The blind do have cellphones, and like the rest of us, they "text" to communicate and do so for a whole slew of other psychic and cultural reasons; only that a sighted companion needs to read their messages for them.

There is no opportunity that the Filipino will not exploit to maximize the use of text messaging. Forget about technology gaps between the first and third worlds; have a phone (even the oldest SMS-capable model will do) and two good thumbs (one is even enough), and we’re off on the road to texting Lala land – disabilities, technical or financial constraints notwithstanding.

For four electronics and engineering graduates of De La Salle University (DLSU), the Pinoy’s unique, accidental infatuation with the SMS, which has become a permanent devotion (until perhaps the next handy and cheap technology comes along) inspired them to devote almost half of their college years developing a program allowing the visually impaired to read text messages.

Their college thesis, originally entitled "Microcontroller-based Aid for the Blind in Reading Mobile Phone Messages using the Braille System," has led them to design a gadget, roughly the size of a regular notebook, that won the second place in the 2004 National Inventors’ Contest of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).

Now simply called "SMS for the Blind Using Braille," the invention was cited for its "outstanding creative research" and "creative skill which exemplify our young talented future researchers and engineers for the benefit of society through research and development."

For the feat, Miguel Carlos "Mikko" Pascual, John Lloyd Lagura, Rehum Jay "Rem" Rabadan and Alexander "Alex" Tabac, earned not only accolades for DLSU but also debunked the impression that today’s Filipino youths are only focused on their clothes, gadgets and gimmicks (on one side of the social equation) and are trampled by poverty and other deprivations on the other side of the social fence.

No small feat

Never tell a young man that something is impossible. Who knows maybe the world, indeed, waited for someone who believed it could be done and just did it?

British journalist, actor and playwright Peter Ustinov may have said it best for these college friends who, in the last two years of their college years, literally bled their brains and their parents’ wallets dry to pass the thesis class.

Admittedly, Mikko said the idea wasn’t theirs. The concept of creating a program that would allow the visually impaired to read mobile phone messages came from their thesis adviser, engineer Antonio Gonzalez Jr. It was also the esteemed professor who encouraged them to join the DOST competition for young inventors when the project was completed.

Originally, the project was just Mikko’s, but since the undertaking was too complex for one student, three of his friends – John, Rem and Alex – who were then working on another research project on PC-based blood counting – eventually joined him.

"The SMS for the Blind project was much more feasible and more practical," said Rem in joining Mikko. "If we pursued our original project it would have taken us longer and would have cost so much more."

The three estimated their PC-based blood counting project to cost a cool P100,000 (in 2002 rates), while the SMS project only cost them only a third of that amount.

"Since we were funding the research from our pockets, the SMS project was the better alternative and we also viewed it as more useful since (the Philippines is) the texting capital of the world," said John.

The technology behind the gadget is simple, explained Mikko. Data from the phone are transferred through data cable and internal modem to the gadget where a microcontroller transforms them into the Braille alphabet, which a blind person can read. The gadget also has a menu that allows one to scroll the screen up and down to read long or multiple messages.

All four agreed that putting the gadget together was the easy part, but doing the research and creating the program that would make it possible, the hardest. Learning Braille was also part of the package, which was not part of the curriculum but something they had learn on their own.

In a demo to The STAR, Mikko handed out a basic guide to the Braille alphabet which was not really hard to learn. The challenge, he said, was importing the expensive SC9 Braille cells directly from Japan at a steep cost of $30 per letter, plus shipping cost. All together, the project cost around P30,000.

So far, the gadget works only with Nokia 6210 and 7110 and other phones with internal modem and data cable. But Mikko, John, Rem and Alex are unfazed. As technology evolves and newer phone models emerge, the program, they said, is flexible enough to adapt to changes in mobile interfaces.

The gadget may be too costly as of now for the average cellphone user, but Alex said that if a company is willing to commercialize the invention and mass produce the gadget for a wide market, it will definitely drive down the cost and eventually make it affordable to end-users.

No more secrets

"Ay, puede na tayong mag-text ng secrets (Now, we can send text messages of our secrets)," Mikko quoted one of the blind students they asked to test the gadget, as saying.

As a requirement for the thesis defense, the group had to test the unit for reliability at the Philippine National School for the Blind in Pasay City and the New Vision Center in Singalong, Manila.

The feedback was good, said Mikko. Everybody was willing to purchase the gadget if it was available in the market. However, the only drawback is cost.

Right now, he revealed that some companies and organizations have expressed interest in developing the product commercially, one of which was the National Council for the Welfare of the Disabled.

With the current base of approximately 26 million cellphone users and with the penetration rate projected to reach 50 percent of the country’s 80 million people in 2005, there may be, indeed, a market for a Braille-SMS-capable phone, not counting the commercial possibility of marketing it outside the country.

So far, the only mobile phone technology for the blind available in the market is one that makes phones speak through a voice synthesizer, courtesy of Swiss-based company SVOX.

While Braille keypads and programs for PCs and other digital gadgets are already available as e-learning tools for the blind, the use of Braille on mobile phones has yet to be explored. In more advanced countries where reading Braille allows blind students to learn side by side with their sighted peers, a Braille-enabled phone may be one step up the ladder in promoting social equality and bringing the visually impaired into the social mainstream.

Through SMS, they, too, can download information from the Internet or content providers, pay for services, send or receive cash, pass on e-load, vote for a favorite star or TV contestant, express rage over a news item, share a joke, locate their children, buy lipstick or pay bills without another person looking over their phones and their "secrets."

Meanwhile, after graduating from college last October and winning the DOST inventor’s award, the four young inventors have to face life and the mundane realities of looking for a job and their proverbial place under the sun.

Two of them – Mikko and Rem – have already passed the ECE board exam, while Alex and John are taking it in April. All have plans of working for IT or telecommunications companies and are hopeful the future may have something for them and their invention.

"If a company will be willing to sponsor our gadget for mass production, we are willing to devote our lives developing this invention further and hopefully other technical applications in the area of IT and telecommunications," Mikko said.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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