Innovators globally should make sure the devices and products they develop are tuned to the needs of blind people and those with other challenges right from the outset, the president of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) in the US said an interview.
Mark Riccobono was in Israel last week as a guest of OrCam Technologies Ltd., an Israeli startup that has developed devices to assist the blind and visually impaired. He also visited the offices of Mobileye, a maker of self-driving car technologies, set up by OrCam founders Prof. Amnon Shashua and Ziv Aviram. Mobileye was acquired last year by Intel Corp. for a whopping $15 billion.
Riccobono’s main message, both to the companies he visited and in general to startup entrepreneurs in Israel and globally, was that “innovation and accessibility” should “go together.” In fact, he said, “accessibility is helpful in innovation, because you are thinking of innovating in a more dynamic way.”
To make sure innovators are providing answers to the needs of people who are visually or otherwise challenged, they must make sure they engage with “average everyday people with disabilities,” he said. They must then incorporate this input into their development.
Riccobono said that part of the purpose of his visit to Mobileye was to mobilize the Israeli company to become a “champion for this message” in the tech world and also especially with automakers.
“The ability to get around freely and independently is pretty important,” he said.
Autonomous vehicles are going to transform how transportation happens for everybody, he said. “For blind people, we need to make sure that the technologies that are built — the cars — have interfaces inside of them that are usable by blind people.”
“What we don’t want is for an autonomous vehicle to be sitting outside, but I have to go and knock on someone’s door to get them to program the car to take me where I want to go.”
The NFB is the one of the largest and most influential organizations in the United States focusing on advancing the interests of blind individuals, with some 50,000 members and a presence in all 50 states.
The organization is known for advocacy and lobbying efforts and is an important political voice on issues pertaining to accessibility. In recent years, the NFB has also been very active on policy regarding autonomous vehicles. Its stated goal in working with companies is to provide feedback to improve products’ abilities to help blind and visually impaired individuals.
During his visit, Roccobono, who is also blind, tried out the OrCam technology and also took a ride in one of Mobileye’s self-driving cars that the tech firm is piloting in Jerusalem.
“It was pretty cool,” he said, with the autonomous car navigating traffic in the city and on the highway at “55 miles an hour or something.”
OrCam, founded in 2010, has developed two devices that are used by thousands of people globally.
Its OrCam MyEye artificial vision device helps people who are blind and visually impaired navigate the world. Its AI-driven software uses a high-resolution video camera and smart algorithms that analyze what the camera is seeing, and reads back the information to a user in real time.
The wireless product is basically a little camera with a mount attached to a computing device, weighing less than an ounce and the size of a finger, with a personal speaker on the other end. When the OrCam camera is attached to the frame of a pair of glasses, users can point to text on any surface, and the speaker transforms the image into words, reading them out to the users, thus enabling them to “read” newspapers, restaurant menus, or books. The device can also be programmed to recognizes faces and products.
The company’s other product, the OrCam MyReader, focuses on reading only and is good for people who can see but have trouble reading, for example those with dyslexia or who have suffered a stroke.
The company is also working on a new product called the OrCam MyMe, which will serve as a personal assistant to any user, recognizing faces and whispering their names into the ears of forgetful executives or keeping track of what a person eats.
What Riccobono liked about OrCam’s “very powerful” MyEye device, which he had already tried out in the past, he said, was its “intuitive interface” which does not require much training to use.
The technology is helpful in that it allows a blind person to read printed info “without having to wait around for someone else to read to you,” he said, “You can access the information on your terms and when you want it.”
Would the federation endorse the product? “We have to test it a lot more,” Riccobono said, “take it out in the world and use it in all sorts of places,” and see how easy it is to use for a longer period of time, he said.
Whatever the feedback, he said, “I am pretty confident… OrCam will be open to receiving that feedback and acting on it,” he said.
The challenge ahead for OrCam, he said, will be to see how it responds “to feedback from the folks” who use the technology.
“The development team that OrCam has is one of the most significant development teams in the world in terms of working on technologies for blind people in a focused way,” he said. “We want to harness the power of that think tank along with the authentic experience we have as blind people.”