By Kavitha Srinivasa
Tactopus, a 2018 social enterprise, is using the mobile and digital medium to facilitate early learning for the visually impaired. The inclusive education platform is also experimenting with the utility of its products for children with learning disabilities.
The tactile sense is the inspiration behind Tactopus, co-founded by Chandni Rajendran and Saloni Mehta. The partners were heavily influenced during a design project at Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC). That’s where they interacted with students and teachers for their project on tactile graphics. They were then students of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT-B)’s design school, IDC.
Outwardly at the onset, a touch-and-feel only approach seemed okay. They knew that tactile graphics are integral when it comes to designing for accessibility. But when the students looked at their work objectively while being used by children with vision loss, they realized that tactile graphics alone wouldn’t suffice and looked towards dependent on technology for a more holistic solution. “A visually impaired child cannot navigate a new tactile graphic independently,” reasoned Saloni. That realization led them to create audio labelled tactile graphics.
An early move in this direction happened three years ago. At that time, Saloni and Chandni set out by working on hardware products with cameras to track the finger movements of the child. This idea received a Nidhi Prayas prototyping grant incubated at IIT-B’s Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SINE). After regular testing with children with VI and with special educators they realized that a hardware product’s cost will prove to be a deterrent for on-the-ground adoption.
Early 2018 was when they moved from Mumbai to Bangalore, where Tactopus, was established. Bangalore became the base for the social enterprise because of its favourable start-up ecosystem.
When Tactopus was initiated, the expensive hardware component had to be replaced with a more affordable mobile-based platform. The outcome, turned out to be interactive and tangible tactile learning solutions that are multisensory. These products that are primarily designed for the visually impaired to overcome barriers in learning now proved useful for various other learning disabilities as well.
Tactopus aim to demystify learning for those with visual impairment. In simple terms, it’s meant to help them to go beyond text (with Braille or audio) and learn science and math with images and tangible interactions. The idea is to make them self- sufficient and eventually employable.
While executing this idea, Chandni and Saloni morphed into designers, dreamers, makers and doers. They arrived at an audio-augmented system of reading tactile graphics (or embossed and textured images that can be read by the fingertips) with the help of an interactive audio companion available through the Tactopus Smartphone app.
As Tactopus set its sights on inclusive education it began by launching audio-tactile books. These are for children in the age group of 3 to 8 years. Nevertheless, they are not strictly curriculum- based, but complement school learning. For instance, My Counting Book & Cards enables children to count numbers using the tactile sense. The animal kingdom unfolds to children through the book ‘What Makes You Special?’ A collection of eight nursery rhyme cards begin to play on the app when scanned. Even those children who are slow learners can pick up lessons with these books.
In the coming months, there will be kits on environmental science. There’s a need for this kit because children need to know about their surroundings. Designed for self independence, some new kits will focus on daily living activities such as combing the hair or brushing teeth.
Tactopus has a portfolio of 16 learning and play products. The products which are initially created in English are then converted to vernacular languages for local access. Today, Tactopus supports content in Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi, with Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam being on the cards.
They have a three-point agenda for its product range. First, the content has to be accessible to those who use their sense of hearing and touch. Secondly, it should enable self-learning, wherein the app doubles up as an instructor. Inclusion is the third and final area, whereby tech-learning happens on a level playing field.
A multichannel marketing strategy along with a distribution network has brought them directly in touch with both families and schools for the visually impaired. Currently, Tactopus has a presence in 44 learning spaces including those for the visually impaired, resource centres as well as mainstream schools.
“Tactile aids for the visually impaired are expensive. Those who cannot afford to buy products can use them at resource centres, which have helped spread access. We also engage with special educators directly,” explained Saloni. The resource centres pay for them and the children use it there for free. Each resource centre has its own borrowing policy.
However, for those who can afford it, Tactopus has thrown open options for people to buy products directly from their website. This is how the products have made their way into individual households across India and globally.
As for the reach, they are already working with the government of Maharashtra, where tangible solutions are being implemented in government schools. Talks are on with the government of Karnataka and Telangana. Tactopus is spreading its wings beyond the Indian shores with their scalable learning kits having caught the attention of special schools in the UK, US, Singapore and Malaysia.
Looking at the R&D side of things, Tactopus has recently created a few multi-sensory products designed for children with autism. The Tactopus team is now actively building for and testing with the autistic community in Bangalore.
Social Alpha, a Tata Trusts Initiative, and IDFC First Bank’s CSR arm are their current major investors. On the cards are a series of audio-augmented learning aids that are made interactive through their mobile apps.
“It’s our vision not only to reach every child who needs our products but also to help teachers create their own content with minimal assistance,” summed up Saloni.