UAE University students develop ground-breaking reading hardware device for the visually impaired

BraillEye, a hardware device, similar in size to a mobile phone, changes printed text into Braille.
Sunday 02/09/2018
Saifeldden Hatim, one of the developers of BraillEye. (The Arab Weekly)
Unbounded ambitions. Saifeldden Hatim, one of the developers of BraillEye. (The Arab Weekly)

ABU DHABI - Although Saifeldden Hatim is only 22 years old, he has developed ground-breaking projects that could radically change the lives of millions of visually impaired people.

With a team of five other students at United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain, Hatim developed BraillEye, a hardware device, similar in size to a mobile phone, that changes printed text into Braille. The university-funded device is aimed at providing a cost-effective solution to help visually impaired people integrate into society.

The system is especially important to Hatim, who has been visually impaired since the age of 7.

“It was really difficult at first, which is why I wanted to adapt,” he said. “My parents helped as they kept encouraging me, telling me that I am not less capable than others and they instilled in me the passion, motivation, ambition and determination to learn and work hard to achieve my goals.”

The device helps solve issues Hatim faced growing up, including reading things as simple as restaurant menus, supermarket bills or classroom blackboards.

“It became gradual from a young age and I adapted better than if I had become visually impaired at a late age,” he said. “I tried to adapt as much as I could but even then, it was still difficult. If you’re in doubt, you can’t check it yourself and you have to ask a stranger. I was surrounded by normal peers as I finished my education in regular schools, not those which take care of teaching special needs people.”

His motivation was not only self-driven — three of his nine family members, including two brothers and one sister, were visually impaired from a young age.

“My family really liked the idea of the system, especially because I am not the only one,” he said. “It’s something that helps leave an effect in life. I am not just living to live, I am living to make other people’s lives better.”

Hatim, who is a Jordanian chemical engineering student on a full scholarship from the UAE government, said he has gained enough experience being visually impaired to contribute to developing the system’s proof-of-concept.

“It’s a daily life action and I am with this every day,” he said. “I have the motivation and the reason, so I thought ‘why not do it?’ At my age, I am at a university where many students can help me, and we can also receive mentoring from faculty members and lab engineers, which helped a lot.”

The system is timely because the UAE began a national strategy for advanced innovation this year, focusing on innovation in the quality of health, life, transportation, future skills, environment and water and development of space industries. The strategy aims to develop future governments, create emerging economic sectors and achieve scientific breakthroughs that focus on people’s welfare.

“The UAE’s competitiveness is a priority to the government and the coming phase will witness the introduction of a number of development and community initiatives,” said Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.

“The initiatives will also be launched to help youth benefit directly from the UAE’s development journey.”

Hatim said his projects met the vision of the UAE and the world that the future is based on innovation. “UAE leaders are working hard to spread a culture of innovation within members of society, particularly the new generation who are going to lead in developing the country in the near future,” he says.

“They are targeting to have Emirati innovations so the country can contribute further to the world through its industry and production of Emirati innovations, which can leave an impact locally and globally.

“We want to help others as the youth of the region and we are aiming to create innovations to help visually impaired people as it’s important to feel what people of determination feel.”

Another device he developed with two Emiratis will ensure significantly fewer swimmers are at risk of drowning. The development of an electronic bracelet that can be fixed on the swimmer’s arm analyses variables of the swimmer and measures how consistent it is with movement.

The readings are compared with standard readings for professional swimmers and categorised in normal swimming, cases that are in doubt of drowning and confirmed drowning.

“We follow social media and the news in general and observed that drowning cases involve children below the age of 14 a lot more in the UAE and around the world,” he said. “Globally, 360,000 people die every year because of drowning, which is a lot.”

The project, in proof-of-concept and data collection stage, has won the researchers the Hamdan bin Rashid al-Maktoum Award for distinguished academic performance in the Best Innovation category across schools and universities in the UAE.

“It’s very promising,” said Hatim. “After getting my bachelor’s degree in December, I plan to get a master’s at a leading university abroad, with one of my main targets in the United Kingdom. I hope to receive a scholarship and return to the UAE after my studies.”

He said his work was “giving back to the UAE” to benefit the country with what he has learned.

“I want to create more innovations in the future focusing on people with determination, including different types of disabilities, to make their lives easier, to empower them and to have innovations for them to live life as regularly as possible,” he says.

“I want to make them as interactive in society as possible, improve their independence and maximise their activities and enrolment in the community.”