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12/13/2006
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Shekhar Borgaonkar: Digitizing The Native Tongue

HP Labs India aims for cheaper and easier access to computing with its Hindi language "gesture keyboard" and Shekhar Borgaonkar is leading the way.

Among India's pressing needs as it tries to modernize, computer technology might take a back seat to basics like roads, medical care, and literacy. But access to PCs and the Internet could help local businesses thrive and households access useful information. To try to address those needs--and tap into a potential market of 1.1 billion people--Hewlett-Packard's Bangalore, India, lab is trying to create cheaper and easier access to computing.

Central to the effort is Shekhar Borgaonkar, director of the lab's "affordable access devices" team. Earlier this year, HP licensed Borgaonkar's technology for a Hindi language "gesture keyboard" to Prodigy Labs, a Bangalore technology company. Prodigy is turning the research project into a commercial product.

By using a small number of gestures and about 40 keys, the digital pad and stylus let Hindi speakers write characters that can appear in Microsoft Word or other programs. Writing Hindi using a standard computer keyboard is tricky; the shape of previously written letters changes as new ones are added, requiring dexterous manipulation of the shift and control keys. HP's keypad dispenses with that method, which could open up Hindi composition on a PC to more people.

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Borgaonkar also has developed a system called Script Mail, which lets a non-English speaker writing in a local Indian language send E-mail with a ballpoint pen on a standard sheet of paper suspended above a digitizer. The writer's handwriting gets captured as an image that gets copied into the body of an e-mail. Borgaonkar's former company, iNabling Technologies, failed to commercialize the system. Now, HP is having another try.

Another project under review for commercialization uses gestures to help Indians fill out forms without typing.

Thanks to Borgaonkar's work, HP is one of the few U.S. IT companies whose research in India aims primarily at technologies designed to benefit rank-and-file Indians.

For more information on HP Labs India and the state of the IT industry there, see our Jan. 16, 2006, feature story "Inside India".

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