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Israeli OrCam Navigates Life for the Vision-Impaired

January 11, 2016

“Yeshua answered, ‘Go and tell Yochanan what you are hearing and seeing — the blind are seeing again, the lame are walking, people with leprosy are being cleansed, the deaf are hearing, the dead are being raised, the Good News is being told to the poor — and how blessed is anyone not offended by me!’”  (Matthew 11:4-6)

On January 5, 2016, Israeli company OrCam Technologies announced that its visual assistant device, which earned a $15 million investment from Intel Capital in 2014, has been modified for use by Hebrew-speakers.

While the company is based in Jerusalem, the OrCam device was first launched with the capacity to read and communicate only in English.

The OrCam comprises a small camera that clips to a person’s eyeglasses or shirt and is wired to a computer the size of a cigarette box.

Triggered by the point of a finger, the OrCam scans and helps identify products, people or text.  The device then reads or speaks to the user through a Bluetooth earpiece, helping them “visually” navigate the world around them.

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A pair of glasses fitted with the OrCam

In 2013, OrCam Technologies let an 18-year-old Israeli, blind since age 5, try the device on a newspaper.

“He put on the device, ‘read’ the newspaper and started to cry,” said R&D head Yonatan Wexler to ISRAEL21c.

OrCam reads recipes, road signs, books and newspapers; it can even identify the name of someone the user previously met.  OrCam also counts currency, which helps users avoid being defrauded in transactions.  

“We’ve developed a system, where after teaching it one thing, it takes less time recognizing it in the future,” Wexler told ISRAEL21c.  “No existing system could detect this huge amount of objects and do it on a small platform.”

OrCam’s MyMe camera can also track food a user eats, analyze facial expressions and generate a conversation’s word cloud, recording frequently used words rather than an entire conversation, which a user can refer to later, perhaps providing useful insights about the interaction.  (NYT)

OrCam does not keep a record of all the photographs it takes; rather, it “can only save pictures of faces, currency or products in order to make them easier to identify,” writes Udi Etsion and Sagi Cohen for Ynet News.

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An elderly Israeli uses OrCam to read the Jerusalem Post.

OrCam Technologies was cofounded in 2010 by computer scientist researcher and CTO Amnon Shashua and industrial engineer and CEO Ziv Aviram, both cofounders of the Israeli driving assistance technology company Mobileye, which is now worth over $9 billion.

Their advanced vision systems are built into many BMW, General Motors and Volvo vehicles and include “Lane Departure Warning (LDW), Vehicle Detection for radar vision fusion, Forward Collision Warning (FCW), Headway Monitoring (HMW), Pedestrian Detection, Intelligent High Beam Control (IHC), Traffic Sign Recognition (TSR), vision only Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) and more.”  (MobilEye)

This past week Mobileye unveiled updates to its mapping software for autonomous car navigation at the Las Vegas CES electronics show.  Also participating, OrCam announced its venture into its founders’ mother tongue.  (JPost)

OrCam expanded into Europe on November 30, 2015, with new headquarters opened in London—selected for its “thriving tech sector, the ease of doing business and government support,” says OrCam’s Vice President of Sales and Operations Rami Ben Yehuda.

London Mayor Boris Johnson praised the company to the United Kingdom’s PR Newswire, saying, “It was a wonderful opportunity to meet with companies like OrCam [on a trade mission to Israel], and I am delighted that they have now opened an office in London.”

About 2 million people in the UK have sight loss, a number that will double by 2050 as the population ages.  Relevantly, OrCam’s developers focused their product on the need of the aging population.

“What we found during user studies is that people reach their retirement age and then start losing their sight.  They go to the doctors to update their glasses and at some point the doctors can’t help anymore,” Wexler told ISRAEL21c.

“We wanted to find something with real value,” he said.  Enter OrCam at about NIS 10,000 ($2,500).

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