Microsoft for Startups is helping many young companies develop technology that can help people with disabilities safely navigate the areas they live in. There are 11 businesses in the current AI for Good cohort and all of them are graduating on June 4.
Access Earth, which lets people find and rate places based on their accessibility needs, is one of those benefitting from the US company's advice, support and products.
Another is WeWalk, which has created a product that fits onto any cane and uses ultrasound sensors to warn visually impaired people of high obstacles such as tree branches. The device can also be paired with a mobile phone for navigation and other digital features. Feghali, a PHD researcher at Imperial College London, is advising the company.
'I see very little at night, and I often miss things in front of me,' he says during a meeting at a Microsoft office. 'It's like wearing very dark, tinted sunglasses. I have an idea of where sources of light are but never obstacles that can hit me, like trees for instance. The issue with things like trees and signs is their bases are so small that you can wave your cane and it'll probably miss those obstacles. However, with the ultrasound sensor, the WeWalk device will vibrate when something is a certain distance away. You can manually set that distance, too.
'My WeWalk will ring when a set of trees is over there, but when it vibrates, I know something is going to be just over here. I swipe the cane once, OK I know there's no tree over here, so I can walk forward now. It's given me confidence. I can now swipe the cane left and right, know that something is there, which I wouldn't have found before, and move past it.'
As WeWalk can be screwed on to the top of any cane, Feghali now exclusively uses it when he goes outside. Before leaving his house, he links WeWalk to his phone via Bluetooth, enabling a host of other features that can be used solely by interacting with WeWalk's buttons, touchpad or by turning the cane or striking the end on the ground - audio navigation cues that guide him to destinations, bus timetables that are read aloud (in Turkey it uses Bluetooth technology to tell you when your bus is approaching and instruct the driver to stop), or asking his phone to make a sound if he's misplaced it, are some examples.