George Orwell once observed, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” For many, this is literally true.
Worldwide, more than 250 million people are visually impaired – over half of them, women. Of those, 217 million have moderate or severe vision problems and 36 million are blind. In Israel, there are 100,000 visually-impaired, of whom 24,000 are blind.
This is why I find the technology of a Jerusalem-based start-up, OrCam, so exciting. OrCam Technologies Ltd. was founded a decade ago by Hebrew University Prof. Amnon Shashua and his close friend and business partner Ziv Aviram.
The OrCam MyEye device attaches to eyeglasses and translates images to sound; and OrCam Read reads text. These devices use a tiny high-resolution smart camera and clever artificial intelligence algorithms good at analyzing what the camera is seeing and turning the images into spoken words. OrCam MyEye weighs less than an ounce and is the size of a finger.
OrCam is an privately-held company independent from Mobileye, which also uses artificial intelligence to interpret images and warn drivers.
In national elections in April 2019, OrCam made its technology available at 12 polling stations, enabling blind people to vote without an assistant for the first time. The device was adapted to read the letters on ballot slips.
One key to OrCam’s success is that has not needed the costly time-consuming clinical trials required for medicines, though the US FDA and its European counterpart have approved MyEye as a noninvasive medical device.
The devices are not cheap – OrCam MyEye costs $4,500 – comparable to an average pair of quality hearing aids. The cost will decline as the scale of production increases.
Shashua and Aviram are no strangers to this column. I reported on their start-up Mobileye, founded in mid-1990s, that uses a single camera to warn drivers of danger [The Report, January 23, 2017] and, shortly after, on Intel’s acquisition of Mobileye for $15.3 billion [The Report, April 17, 2017]. Lately, Shashua has played a role in strategizing COVID-19 policy in Israel, using sophisticated mathematical modeling.
OrCam is a “unicorn” -- a privately-held start-up company valued at over $1 billion. Its investors include Intel (an early investor), and, rather unusually, Israeli institutional investors Clal Insurance and Meitav Dash.
Here are two stories of persons whose lives have been transformed by OrCam’s devices.
Dorothy Boyd: Consider an OrCam user named Dorothy Boyd, 80, who lives in Titusville, Florida. According to the website clickorlando.com, she has retinitis pigmentosa, an ailment that breaks down the cells in the retina and her vision is limited to only four degrees (out of 360). While her iPad and Kindle are both speech enabled, she uses MyEye to review the screens, read her print Bible and daily prayers. She uses it, too, to follow her husband’s Sunday PowerPoint presentations.
As for going to her refrigerator: “I can usually tell what I’m looking at just by the snatches of text I hear,” she explained, “it’s very handy... Especially when you have a husband who never puts the mustard back where it belongs.” Boyd also uses the facial recognition feature. She has programmed her MyEye with images of neighbors and church friends, her two daughters, four grandchildren and their spouses, along with her four great-grandchildren. She adds, “my husband can’t sneak up on me anymore.”
Holly Bonner: Bonner, 39, is a Staten Island, New York, psychotherapist and mother of two. She lost her vision in 2012. The website insideedition.com recounts that she was devastated. “I don’t think people understand the change that happens when you lose your eyesight, because you really have to go back to the beginning,” she said.
Bonner knew that MyEye would change her life when she went out for dinner with her husband one night and was able to read the menu by herself, for the first time in years. “I just felt like a normal woman on a date night,” she explained.
I spoke with Rafi Fischer, OrCam public & media relations director.
What is the synergy between the Mobileye software and hardware and OrCam’s technology?
“OrCam Technologies was jointly founded in 2010 by Israeli innovators Prof. Amnon Shashua and Ziv Aviram, who are also the co-founders of Mobileye. In February 2018, OrCam completed a funding round that valued the company at $1 billion, transforming OrCam into one of only 38 global healthcare unicorns.
“OrCam’s pioneering research and development of personal AI-driven innovations is inspired by Mobileye’s groundbreaking artificial vision technology that supports safer driving – in over 50 million vehicles globally. However, OrCam’s harnessing of computer vision and machine learning – to produce breakthrough wearable/handheld artificial intelligence platforms that provide increased independence to tens of thousands of users globally – is wholly independent of Mobileye’s achievements.
“The originally-developed algorithms, technological applications, and end users (primarily people who are blind, visually impaired, or have reading challenges) occupy their own space, developed from the ground up since OrCam’s founding.”
How in the world did Shashua and Aviram manage to launch a start-up, and within five years begin selling a highly complex product, while running a huge company Mobileye, and, for Shashua, continuing to teach and do research as a Hebrew U. computer science professor?
“The dynamic tech-business partnership of Prof. Shashua and Aviram grew Mobileye into a world-leading company that has saved countless lives of drivers, passengers and pedestrians. With Mobileye’s success acting as a springboard, Shashua and Aviram explored applying artificial vision and artificial intelligence to the entirely different arena of assistive technology. Both Mobileye and OrCam benefit humanity through innovative technologies – and this pursuit motivated the duo to continue to push forward with startup OrCam.
Prof. Shashua does not currently teach at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (where holds the Sachs Chair in Computer Science), but he continues to work, and perform research with, PhD students.
I’ve visited, and studied, the LV Prasad Eye Institute, in Hyderabad, India. This amazing place has saved or improved the vision of 28 million people in India. OrCam’s devices are rather too expensive for most people in India. What are the prospects for finding ways to get the cost down, so that the devices can be used by those in low-income countries like India?
“Globally, OrCam is empowering tens of thousands of users in 25 languages, and in 50 countries. In each country where OrCam devices are available, the company aims to secure funding/reimbursement from national government and regional agencies and health insurance systems which are designed to support the needs of people who have disabilities. These efforts are primarily to attain support for low-income populations in need. As time goes on, and more than a decade of R&D results in steady user growth, OrCam hopes to offer a reduction in the cost of its products. Depending on the country, OrCam devices are made available through a variety of channels such as specialist distributors, clinics and hospitals, opticians and also directly to the user.
What are the prospects that OrCam can grow and remain an independent company, or is it likely to be acquired, like Mobileye, by Intel, an early investor?
“OrCam continues to grow, innovate, and develop personal AI with a purpose. The company strives to provide increased independence to people who are blind or visually impaired, hearing impaired, have reading difficulties, and for other populations.
“The startup has captured numerous global accolades, including the company’s flagship OrCam MyEye 2 assistive technology device being named as one of TIME magazine’s Best Inventions of 2019.
“OrCam plans to remain an independent company and fully in control of its direction. As with Mobileye, the plan is for an IPO (initial public offering of shares) in the coming years – when it makes strategic sense for OrCam to do so.” n
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com