Israeli tech providing sight for sore eyes

Fresh from the news of its $15b sale to Intel, Mobileye and its founders set their sights on OrCam, designed to help people with vision and reading disabilities.

Mobileye founders Prof. Amnon Shashua (left) and Ziv Aviram (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mobileye founders Prof. Amnon Shashua (left) and Ziv Aviram
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dyslexic children and university students once frustrated by printed or digital texts may now have the chance to excel in the classroom alongside their peers – with the help of a tiny camera that whispers in their ears.
Through a wearable device mounted on virtually any eyeglass frame, the Jerusalem-based company OrCam aims to drastically improve the lives of people with visual impairment, blind individuals, and people with reading disabilities. Founded by the same entrepreneurs behind collision avoidance system and autonomous driving technology firm Mobileye – which is being sold for $15.3 billion to Intel – OrCam enables users to hear the text they want to read, identify products on supermarket shelves and recognize the faces they want to see.
“All of a sudden we provide kids with the technical skill of reading – OrCam relays text from any surface in real time,” Yonatan Wexler, OrCam’s executive vice president for research and development, told The Jerusalem Post in an April interview.
While by age 18 months most children can understand spoken language, the much more complicated task of reading requires many years of learning. OrCam’s MyEye device simplifies this process for those children struggling with disabilities and for the visually impaired of all ages, by “translating the reading, a complex visual task, into hearing, which is something we were born with,” Wexler explained.
“It’s like a sensory substitution, but at a much higher level,” he said. “We created a device that communicates visual information.”
OrCam was founded in 2010 by CTO Professor Amnon Shashua and CEO Ziv Aviram – who serve the same roles at Mobileye – and began distributing its devices in limited quantities in October 2013, ultimately expanding to a wider customer base in the US in 2015. As the company’s technology continues to reach more users, the firm is aiming to issue an initial public offering (IPO) in about two years, according to Wexler.
Valued at about $600 million after completing a $41 million investment funding round in February, OrCam will likely issue the IPO on Nasdaq or the New York Stock Exchange, Shashua recently told Reuters. Like Mobileye, OrCam also has a long history of partnership with Intel – receiving a $6m. investment in March 2014.
OrCam’s $3,500 MyEye and the $2,500 MyReader version – which has only the reading function – are now being sold in a variety of countries around the world and operate in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Hebrew. Soon, the devices will also be able to read Arabic, Russian, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Portuguese, Danish and certain Asian languages.
Using artificial intelligence technology to read any printed text, recognize faces and identify products, OrCam’s assistive devices include a lightweight and inconspicuous smart camera mounted on the frame of a user’s eyeglasses, connected by a thin cable to a base unit about the size of a smartphone. The units can dictate any printed text or discreetly relay information to the wearer through a personal speaker when he or she points at an item.
“It’s critical to be able to provide that information in an effective, quick manner,” Wexler said, noting that the process must also be efficient, in order to ensure lengthy battery life.
As far as facial recognition is concerned, MyEye works by detecting people’s presence and announcing the individual’s name with a voice memo pre-recorded by the user. The user completes a brief, one-time entry of the person in question, who must stand in front of the camera while the user clicks a button to memorize the face, Wexler explained.
“The signature of the face is stored in the device,” he said. “For people who are blind or visually impaired, it’s critical in social and business interactions.”
That being said, Wexler emphasized that MyEye also promises to maintain the privacy of both the user and the people it recognizes. Lacking any external connectivity, the device has does not share any information outside, and does not store anything pertaining to the documents that the user “reads,” he said.
“We want a device that will help you and not be a hindrance, ,” Wexler added.
About twice a year, users receive software updates to improve the functionalities of their devices, which are today running OrCam’s seventh version and will in the coming months move to the eighth rendition, according to Wexler. Some enhancements in that update will include barcode and color recognition, while other future improvements involve navigation guidance, translation, higher levels of text understanding and speech recognition – such as the ability to ask the device to go back and spell a word.
In addition to constantly improving the existing MyEye and MyReader devices, OrCam’s engineers are currently working on a new technology called MyMe – a tiny device that can be clipped onto a shirt and provide and catalogue useful information about the user’s daily activities, including facial recognition. MyMe will work by transmitting data to the user’s phone or smartwatch, Wexler explained.
“We are essentially revolutionizing the vision impaired community, just like hearing aids revolutionized the hearing impaired community 50 years ago,” Wexler told the Post.
As OrCam’s devices gradually become more popular, the community is also working with institutions in Israel and the United States to ensure that some coverage can be provided to subsidize the costs for patients. In Israel, the company has teamed up with the Education Ministry and Bituach Leumi (the National Insurance Institute of Israel) to help more people gain access to the machines, Wexler explained.
While the mission to boost nationwide coverage in the US is slightly more challenging due to the private insurance framework, Wexler said that OrCam has made significant process with offices in individual states, such as the California Department of Rehabilitation’s Vocational Rehabilitation Division.
“We had to work hard to get it, but it’s covered,” he said.
Similar departments in about 10 states are also beginning to provide OrCam’s systems to students and workers in need, as is the US Department of Veterans Affairs on a federal level, he added. Although the process of integrating the units into health systems in Israel, the US and around the world may be slow, Wexler expressed confidence that governments will continue to adapt to a rapidly changing technological reality.
“It’s obvious that this is the right system for people,” he said. “If you’re losing your sight or you can’t read for whatever reason, OrCam has a lot of impact on your life and on society as well.”
This article was produced in cooperation with Mobileye.