Hidden Valleys

Israeli Startup's Seeing Aid for the Blind Sees Big Demand

Courtesy OrCam/Liat Negrin Close

Courtesy OrCam/Liat Negrin

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Courtesy OrCam/Liat Negrin

Amnon Shashua had a vision of using technology to help the visually impaired. His startup OrCam is quickly making a global impact.

OrCam makes a small gizmo that hooks onto a pair of glasses and tells the wearer what's in front of him. It can read the text of a book aloud, or announce the names of friends and family in a room.

The Israeli company began taking orders for the $2,500 seeing-aid device on June 4, and within a few weeks, the first run of 600 units were sold out, Shashua, the co-founder and chief executive officer, said in an interview. Since then, the company's backlog of orders has ballooned to more than 1,000.

OrCam has been manufacturing the product in Israel. To keep up with demand, Shashua said the startup plans to relocate production to China. He has experience there. His other company, Mobileye, uses Chinese manufacturing for its products designed to help prevent auto collisions.

Liat Negrin, 37, has been testing early prototypes at OrCam. She was born visually impaired, and said the device can help her and others accomplish everyday tasks like going shopping without fear of getting lost or buying the wrong items.

"It helps you be independent and helps overcome fears," Negrin said in an interview. "It helps you keep your orientation, and you always know where you are."

The OrCam consists of a camera and earpiece that attaches to eyeglasses. Live video from the camera feeds into a smartphone-size device in the user's pocket, which processes the data and sends an audio snippet saying what it sees to the bone-conduction speaker in the user's ear. Because the video feed is processed in the pocket instead of in the cloud like many mobile apps do, response times are quicker, Shashua said. Also, users won't be left stranded when in areas that have poor mobile-data service.

"Imagine there is a helper standing next to you, seeing what you are supposed to see, figuring out what visual information you want and whispering into your ear what you are about to see," he said.

Shashua, who is also a professor of computer science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, spent about three years developing OrCam's technology. The current version of the tool only supports English, but the 20-person team is working on incorporating other European languages. OrCam can recognize a wide array of objects including street signs, newspaper articles, money and products on supermarket shelves. The device can also be trained to identify faces. It costs about the same as a mid-range hearing aid, and has the potential to be just as essential to people who need it.

"As the world population ages, we will see an increase in the visually impaired," said Cheri Wiggs, a director at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. "At this point, we aren't preventing or curing blindness so any new development in assistive devices for visually impaired is very important."

Wiggs estimated that about 300 million people suffer from visual impairment worldwide, with India having the largest percentage. Shashua estimates 50 million of the visually impaired may be able to afford the OrCam device.

The factories in China better get moving.

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