File picture: Reuters
File picture: Reuters

Microsoft backs development of smart cane that will help the visually impaired

By Bloomberg Time of article published Jan 11, 2021

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By Nate Lanxon

Jean Marc Feghali has Leber's Congenital Amaurosis, a disease that reduces his peripheral vision and renders him effectively blind at night. But the intelligent walking cane he's helping to develop has been life-changing, he says. It's also won support from Microsoft.

"We've come to a world where we talk about autonomous vehicles and yet we're still sending visually impaired people out with what is essentially a stick," Feghali said. "It doesn't take you anywhere. It doesn't take you to a coffee shop. It doesn't help you seek employment. It's just a stick."

London-based startup WeWalk -- where Feghali, 24, is head of research and development -- wants to change that with its $599 "smart cane." It pairs with smartphones and uses ultrasonic object detection to spot hazards such as steps and parked cars, as well as objects at waist height like tree branches.

It also features wireless networking, turn-by-turn GPS navigation, taxi-booking and public transit directions in dozens of cities. The device even has a voice assistant. Feghali, who's also working on a doctorate in philosophy at Imperial College, said he believes it's a long-overdue answer to a problem that affects millions of people worldwide.

The U.K.'s Royal National Institute of Blind People says more than 2 million people live with sight loss in Britain, of which about 350,000 were registered as either blind or partially sighted as of 2017. The American Foundation for the Blind says more than 32 million American adults reported experiencing vision loss in 2018.

Both organizations campaign for the use of technology to make workplaces, schools and transport networks more accessible to individuals with little or no sight. Tech firms such as Apple, Google and Amazon.com also promote accessibility features on products like the Apple Watch and virtual assistants such as Alexa for users with sight loss.

Feghali said the company's goal is to create a product that blends key elements of devices like the FitBit or Apple Watch with hardware that's specifically built for people with limited or no vision.

A number of WeWalk's 20 employees are visually impaired, including Feghali and Co-Founder Kursat Ceylan. "I see through a small tunnel, which is darker than typical sight," Feghali said. "It's quite sharp, but narrow, and at night it's basically complete blindness."

WeWalk secured initial financing via a crowdfunding campaign in 2018 and joined Microsoft's AI for Accessibility program at the end of 2020. Feghali said he and his colleagues were particularly interested in using the U.S. tech company's Azure cloud platform for analyzing movement data of individuals collected by its cane.

"We can detect when they might be having a bad journey, or we see anomalous mobility patterns," he said. "So apart from the personal benefit to the visually impaired person, where you can actually have a way to diagnose your own mobility characteristics, we can now feed back to health-care professionals and mobility trainers who work with visually impaired people."

But at close to $600, the product is about ten times more expensive than a conventional white cane. It also requires a smartphone to make the most of its features and the company's free mobile app, which could put it out of reach for many people.

Feghali said WeWalk is working with governments, charities, health-care providers and more recently at least one U.K. mobile-phone network to create subsidized packages to help users afford the canes, similar to how the costs of guide dogs are often reduced.

"The standard white cane really is fantastic, but it's kind of from the Stone Age," he said.

Bloomberg

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