by Shubha Ghosh, Crandall Melvin Professor of Law and Director, IP & Technology Commercialization Law Program and SIPLI
Professor Michael Stein of Harvard Law School asked me to draft a chapter on technologies to aid the visually impaired as a contribution to an edited volume on technology and disability law. Very exciting to work on as perhaps you can tell from this excerpt:
This section presents a high-level landscape of published patents targeting the visually impaired population. While a full landscape could not be reported given the constraints of this Chapter and Volume, the following findings gives some sense of available technologies and the scale of research and development effort. The data reported here provides background for the analysis in the remainder of this Chapter and is the foundation for future research.
As background, WIPO has released a Patent landscape report on ‘Assistive Devices and Technologies for Visually and Hearing Impaired Persons’ in 2015 “to provide patent-based evidence on the available technologies, patenting and innovation trends in the area of assistive devices and technologies for visually and hearing impaired persons.” The landscape has been divided into three concepts- (i) restorative, (ii) assistive and (iii) enhancement technology. The report revolves around the development under these concepts in developed and developing economies across the world.
Based on a search of Espacenet, the patent database of the European Patent Office, I identified 195 published patents between 2015 and 2019 that either contained the phrase “visually impaired” in the patent’s title or abstract. While a search of this kind can be expected to yield spurious results, a study of all 195 documents shows that each are relevant to technologies designed to assist the visually impaired. I do not present a systematic tally here, but do make some general observations.
First, the inventors come from a range of countries, including Russia, China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, the United States, India, Mexico, Brazil, and Spain. The patent applicants are a mix of individual inventors and business entities, such as Toyota (US), Sony (Japan), Samsung (Korea), Redbox, Novo Nordisk, Mitsubishi, Microsoft, LG Electronics (Korea), Lenovo (Singapore), Kyocera, Konica Minolta, Intel, IBM (US), Hitachi, AT&T, Airbus, Apple, and various universities throughout the world. However, there has been a shift in patent filings since 2008 in the developed economies like US, EMEA, Japan. Innovation in the technologies for visually impaired have increased in the last half century but there has been a decline in the patent filings in few countries. According to WIPO, patent activity in BRICS countries and countries in Asia Pacific region is increasing and perhaps in the near future it will reach or exceed the level of the developed economies. China has seen the highest growth and ranks second after US in this technology area.
Since India will serve as a case study for this Chapter, the ten patents from India will provide a detailed look into the types of technologies that are being patented. What follows is a summary of these inventions.
Filed and invented by Gaurav Mittal, a solo inventor, is a patent entitled “System and Method for Aiding a Visually Impaired Person to Navigate.” The system consists of an image capture device, a processing device, and a feedback device which function together to warn a visually impaired individual about obstacles in the footpath. Another solo inventor and filer is Sumit Dagar whose invention, “Device Input System and Method for Visually Impaired Users,” enhances a smart phone device to enable communication with and by a visually impaired user. Omkar Sanjay Dhavate, a coinventor with several colleagues, filed by himself an application for an “Andro-Electronic Bracelet for Security and Direction Sensing for Visually Impaired People with Reduced Cost and Increased Precision.” This bracelet, as summarized in the abstract, “will detect obstacles with the help of sensors (IR) and it will give vibration alert by motor, voice alert (as commands) on android mobile for appropriate obstacle detection, location of visually impaired person by sending SMS to registered mobile and will give more safety to respective visually impaired person comparatively white cane.” Dr. Khan Ekram and his colleagues filed an application for their invention, “Systems for Assisting Visually Impaired,” which is described in too general terms to perhaps survive patentability. A more specific invention is offered in the application filed by co-inventors, Hitarth Narsi Patel and Bharati Singh for a “Braille Enabled Wrist Watch And Cell-Phone For Blind.” Finally, solo inventor Rohan Madan Valvekar filed an application for a device to assist a visually impaired person to cross streets through a sensor device.
The remaining four applications in this sample were filed by universities. The Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, filed an application for “Venucane: an Electronic Travel Aid for Visually Impaired and Blind People,” which provides “wireless or wired technology and is directed to serve as a low-cost, robust, reliable, and user- friendly solution for blind or visually impaired navigation.” Researchers at Bharat University invented “Index Finger Scanner and Reader for Blind People,” which “contains a scanner and reader that is worn as a ring on the finger of the user” that converts text to audio. G.H. Raisoni College of Engineering has filed an application for “A Real Time Cognitive Assistance for the Visually Impaired,” a navigational device that relies on neural networks to identify external obstacles and their trajectory to guide visually impaired users. Language in the abstract suggests that the invention is still in experimental stages. Finally, the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, filed an application for a patent entitled “A Split Grip Cane Handle Unit With Tactile Feedback For Directed Ranging.” The abstract elaborates on the title: “The present invention relates to a cane handle unit for the visually impaired person. The handle is having split design architecture with a cross-sectional cut within the interior of interconnectable halve sections. Handle unit fits to almost any type of cane tops. Handle unit in its outer periphery includes a detection module which has multiple sensors for detecting distance of the object in a direction and produce different vibratory patterns according to the position of object.”