With digitisation, businesses are transforming their operating models to suit the requirements of online platforms. Tasks such as booking a cab, ordering food or transferring money have been simplified due to digital applications, and can now be done with the touch of a fingertip.
However, the execution of such basic tasks is a 'task' for many. According to the World Health Organisation's data, a staggering 285 million people of all ages around the globe, in 2010, were visually impaired, of whom 39 million were blind. A 2019 report pointed out that India was home to 20 per cent of the world's visually impaired.
To help people suffering from a loss of vision smoothly navigate through life, 53-year-old Pramit Bhargava set up his start-up and developed a voice-command app—Louie Voice Control app that acts as a virtual friend.
Simply put, Louie is like an audio-friend holding, directing, and ensuring the person with a vision disability is on the right track and is empowered to live life without human assistance as well as able to perform mundane tasks with ease.
Speaking to The Logical Indian, Pramit shared how his own experience paved way for developing the voice-technology that can play a pivotal role in the life of a visually impaired person.
"I was leading a normal life, completely sighted. I had already completed my graduation in computer science engineering from IIT-BHU and an MBA from IIM-Bangalore. I had worked with several consulting firms.
About 21 years ago, while working with Hindustan Unilever, I suffered from an allergic reaction to a prescription drug that affected my retina. As the days passed, I started experiencing a progressive loss of vision. Since it was partial at first, I continued working but within nine years, I had reached a point where I could not read anything on a page despite the font size," said Pramit.
He said that his eyesight had deteriorated also because the doctors were unable to help him with a proper and effective treatment plan.
"With time as I was losing my vision, menial jobs started becoming difficult. I was unable to make a phone call by myself. Putting the data on an excel sheet and making a PowerPoint presentation seemed impossible. I was sitting at home for two-three years, with no confidence. I had to pull myself out of this situation, I began consulting work for companies," he shared.
During one of his consulting sessions with a Delhi-based global venture capital firm, Pramit visited their office and met the managing director. He was looking to get on-board a consulting project but on being asked, he ended up narrating his life story to the managing director. On listening to the series of incidents, the managing director suggested and offered a helping hand in building an app for the visually impaired.
"I said I would give this opportunity a thought. I was wondering if I could leverage my own experience and disability to create something that could be beneficial for the visually impaired community across the world. But I did not know how to do it," said the 53-year-old.
After the meet with the managing director and having the seed of creating something new in his mind, Pramit met another friend who had invited him to his office. Once the meeting concluded, his friend offered to book a cab for him.
Interestingly, Pramit's friend took him through the entire process of booking the cab — right from choosing the destination, the ride type and then the payment. Practically Pramit was in control of the entire procedure when someone assisted him in the execution part.
"During the ride, I thought if I could build a virtual friend that could engage in two-way conversations just like my human friend. The idea to have a virtual friend on the screen, taking me through the processes, through voice commands, would help solve everyday problems," Pramit explained.
Building Louie Voice Control App
In 2018, Pramit launched his startup, Visioapps Technology, with its office in Gurugram. Although, the idea to start afresh and get into the technology-based startup was intimidating, the time he had spent consulting firms and interacting with teams after his vision loss pushed him to take the leap.
"If you visit Google Play Store, you will find 10 alternative apps for one particular service but there was absolutely nothing of this sort for the visually disabled persons. Talking about Alexa or Siri, they are bound by their own limitations too. Most of these voice command apps support only the basic functionalities but there was not a single app specifically designed for the needs of the visually impaired. Louie, named after Louis Braille, on the other hand, would help navigate through the applications just like a friend would do," said the tech-entrepreneur.
Pramit stated that his knowledge of technology helped him to understand the analytical part of the project. Meanwhile, his expertise in consulting firms, interacting with teams and marketing aspects helped him to pull together a team for his start-up as well as arrange for the necessary external support from friends and the industry.
"Some of the technologies have been developed by my team while the others are leveraged from existing mechanism such as Google's speech-to-text conversion. Currently, Louie voice command supports a number of apps including Uber, WhatsApp, YouTube, Contacts and Messenger. The team is working on integrations with many more apps. The users are from over 90 countries and half of them are from India."
On being asked the reason for such a technology to not have hit the market till now, Pramit said, "Technology is available and it is certainly doable. There has to be an element of passion coupled with a sense of creating something for the social good over the commercial gain. In my case, I am honestly trying to solve my own problems and in the process creating something of value to the entire visually-impaired community."
"We want to solve problems. For instance, voice enabling-google search, chrome browser, being able to read WhatsApp attachments whether an audio file, image text and many more. There are existing images that will help a user to read the text in an image but to be able to access, one has to switch between apps whereas that whole complication has been done away with Louie," he said.
At present, the app works only on Android phones. However, Pramit's team is working on its availability on the iPhone models. Additionally, they are going to invest in developing Louie in more regional and global languages like Hindi and Spanish.
Pramit said that affordability was one of the primary focus points. He wants to ensure that everyone around the world is able to afford it. Hence, building a self-sustainable business model with the social drive is the start-up's objective.
"Louie voice control has been designed keeping in mind a blind person's needs. If it can work for such a person, it can also be of utility to all categories of visually-impaired, for motor disabled, elderly people and even less-educated people," Pramit said.