Right now, it looks like a blood pressure cuff with wires and tiny boxes attached to it. Or, perhaps, an oversized watchband, one that was made by a child stuck inside on a rainy day. But it’s only a prototype — one invented by high school seniors in the San Francisco Bay area — that could one day change how blind consumers handle payments and commerce, along with other daily tasks.
And it’s already won the approval and support of Visa.
Blindsight is the name of a team of engineering students that formed at Dublin High School in the East Bay region of Northern California. In May, they won the school’s Entrepreneur Project contest with a device designed to be worn on a visually impaired person’s arm, which will provide location and navigation guidance, object and people recognition, and payments and commerce capabilities. Jaiveer Singh, a co-founder of the student team, discussed with PYMNTS the ideas behind the device, and what it could mean for millions of consumers.
The inspiration came from the glaucoma diagnosis given to the father of one of the students, who, like the rest of the team, was involved in their final engineering project at Dublin. “Not all (visually impaired people) can afford expensive devices,” Singh told PYMTS, referring to such assistive technology as headsets that can cost $10,000. “And some solutions went a little too far.” His team wanted to build a device that worked within the already set daily habits of blind people instead of asking them to reinvent how they go about their lives.
The device, which can go an entire day before it needs another wireless charge, includes cameras and haptic motors to aid users in finding objects or identifying people near them. For instance, if the user is looking for his or her keys, a motor will signal where to go by producing vibrations on the left or right side of the user’s arm, Singh said. It can even read signs and other written material. The device can also help users find ATMs designed for visually impaired consumers, along with other locations, and offers vocal cues to assist those users.
The payment features are supported by APIs from Visa. After winning the challenge earlier this year during a “hackathon” event, Singh said team members met with Visa and received guidance and support, though Visa has not funded the team beyond the $8,000 in prize money. The general idea behind putting payment capabilities on the device is to make sure armband wearers “can use payment cards safely.”
The armband supports contactless payments at Visa payment terminals, with the device serving as an “extension” of the consumer’s mobile phone, Singh said. Vocal cues and other sensory signals that are part of Visa payment technology all work to prevent fraud by, for instance, confirming that the user is at the location where the transaction is taking place. “We cannot handle restaurant checks right now,” Singh said when asked about the scope of the armband’s payment capabilities.
The device can also read retail barcodes. A person who wears the device “can easily scan a product and recognize it as a can of soup, and tell you want kind of soup it is,” he said on Thursday (Aug. 30) during the PYMNTS interview.
“Blindsight, the Visa Challenge winner of the TechCrunch Disrupt SF hackathon, is an inspiring group of recent high school graduates who created a wearable solution that can reshape commerce for those who are visually impaired,” notedPaul Walsh, Visa senior vice president of platform strategy and innovation. “Blindsight’s connected payment device applies emerging haptic, machine learning technology and integration of APIs via the Visa Developer Platform to remove friction from the payment experience. We look forward to cheering on the Blindsight team at TechCrunch Disrupt next week and beyond as they continue to build on their technology, which has the potential to help millions of people around the world.”
So, what’s next?
The team, which now includes five college students and one high schooler, is seeking legal advice about the patent process as members continue to work on the assistive armband device. They are doing as much as their studies allow — Singh, for instance, is a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is pursuing a double major in electrical engineering/computer science and business administration.
A year from now, he anticipates that the Blindsight team will have “refined our design and product to the point that it will be ready for users. The question is, will users be ready for it?” His best estimate is that the device will sell for $200 to $300, and he hopes that insurance companies might be interested in it.
Singh knows there are many challenges ahead, not the least of which is that even the best engineers don’t always have the skills and talent to transform a prototype into a desirable, profitable product. But this is just the beginning. With time, work and luck, who knows? There may be a new, easier way for visually impaired consumers to pay and shop.