WATCH: Tech geek helps the blind

By SAMEER NAIK Time of article published Apr 30, 2019

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Being recognised as one of the top geeks in the country is a title that Nkululeko Tunzi thrives on. “There’s no denying that I am a tech geek,” Tunzi says with a smile.

“I’ve been obsessed with technology since I was a little boy, so being recognised as a top geek is an honour.”

In 2017, the Soweto youngster was voted one of the 15 top geeks in the country by top technology website Geekulcha for his contribution to the digital revolution.

In the past few years, he’s used his vast knowledge of technology to develop some mind-blowing creations. He’s developed an automatic dog feeder, which allows him to feed his dogs remotely, an automated house system which enables him to switch on his lights, his geysers and his fans in his home remotely, as well as a water management system that separates clean and dirty water.

The 24-year-old’s passion for using technology to improve life and solve problems has now led him to develop an advanced walking stick.

The former Daliwonga Secondary School pupil has been hard at work developing the Bulatsela, which helps blind people and those who are visually impaired navigate.

Bulatsela uses the principle of artificial intelligence and machine learning to understand and interpret surroundings. It helps detect objects and obstacles, finds a path and provides feedback to the blind person.

Technology used includes a distance detecting sensor, Raspberry Pi, a camera, GPS sensors, temperature and humidity sensors, as well as Bluetooth.

Added functionality includes embedded artificial intelligence, which Tunzi is currently incorporating into his advanced walking stick.

The computer systems engineering graduate decided on developing the Bulatsela after witnessing the struggles that blind people face everyday.

“I was in the CBD a while back, sitting in a bus waiting for it to fill up, when I noticed an elderly blind woman waiting to cross the road at the robot. She had a guide dog with her.

“In the time I was waiting for my bus to leave, the robot had changed twice already and she still hadn’t been able to cross the road, as she had no assistance.

“It was heartbreaking to see. It got me thinking about the millions of blind people that face battles every day, and I knew I had to do something. The idea was to develop a device that would help blind people navigate and guide them, using technology to detect objects, to use existing technology that we have to build something valuable for the blind community.”

After weeks of research, Tunzi began developing a prototype. “My prototype was called the Robotgator. But I found that it was far too bulky for a blind person to carry around, so I had to rethink plenty of things.”

Tunzi got some help from Red Bull, who offered to help him further develop his invention.

Bulatsela uses the principle of artificial intelligence and machine learning to understand and interpret the surroundings.

He joined the Red Bull Basement programme, which is a technology workshop aimed at helping individuals further develop a prototype product, tool, gadget or device that can bring positive change to urban environments.

“When I joined the project, I was assigned a mentor who has been helping me further develop my prototype product. Because we changed the product in so many ways, we felt a name change was necessary, hence we called it Bulatsela, which in Sotho means opening a path.”

Now Tunzi is much closer to developing his advanced walking stick, which once launched would be the most advanced walking stick in the world.

“It communicates via a wireless glove through Bluetooth. We have a GPS tracker as well as a mobile app that’s integrated in the device. You are able to check the location of the walking stick, control it remotely as well as check a live streaming video of the environment around.”

Tunzi believes his device could make a huge impact in the blind community.

Tunzi is in the testing phase of his product.

He hopes the final product will be affordable to the majority of blind people in South Africa and around the world. “I need a product that’s affordable for most blind people, and that’s proved challenging considering how technologically advanced the product is.”

The Saturday Star

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