His memories from giving a speech at the United Nations should have been great ones. However for speaker Kürşat Ceylan, who is blind, the event came with a few scars.
“I was in New York to give a speech at the United Nation’s convention on the rights of people with disabilities,” he said. “I was trying to go to my hotel and I was holding my white cane in one hand as well as pulling my luggage in the other and at the same time I was trying to check my GPS. So, as expected, I crashed into a pole.”
“I still have some scars from that incident,” he said, with a laugh. “And that’s fine, but I don’t need any new ones.”
The incident wasn’t an unusual one for Ceylan, and nor would it be for many in the blind community. Which is why he invented WeWalk —
a “smart cane” specially designed to help navigate visually impaired users, as well as warn them of nearby objects with the use of ultrasonic sensors. Users can pair the cane with their smart phone’s Bluetooth system, letting them use Google Maps with the help of an integrated Voice Assistant feature.
In the past, smart canes have only solved the problem of obstacle detection, according to Ceylan. He wanted to take things much further.
“When we use our traditional canes in the streets and shake them left and right, we can detect obstacles at the ground but not at the head level, such as bus stops, trees etc.,” he explained. “Putting in an obstacle detection feature solves that problem.”
With WeWalk, based in Turkey, a user can fully plan their route with the help of Google Maps, replete with features that make the application more accessible to those without sight. After pairing the cane with their smartphone, users can swipe left or right on the cane’s touchpad, to roll through a list of features — voice assistant, “where am I,” navigation, microphone speaker, and so on.
“You can save your destination location on the cane before you leave the house,” explained Ceylan. “And once you’re out walking, the cane will give you directions every 30 seconds or 30 minutes — you can adjust as you like.”
The voice assistant feature also provides extra information specifically targeted to those who rely on their auditory senses to navigate. For example, on reaching a destination, the feature will indicate whether the address is to the left or right of the user, something that can easily be observed by those not visually impaired, but which is frequently an issue to those who are.
Just like any other smart device, the cane also includes a “find my iPhone” feature and sends an alert to the user if they forget to pick their phone up.
But for Ceylan, the social purpose of the cane weighs far more heavily than its function as a smart stick.
“It’s a movement for independence and more mobility for visually impaired people,” he said. “We believe that with WeWalk, we can see more visually impaired people participating in a social, education and business life.”
The product’s sales seem to prove just that; in just three months since hitting the market, the company has sold canes to over 20 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Japan and the Unites States.
“Two weeks ago, one of our users contacted us and told us that he had become depressed after going blind a few years ago,” said Ceylan. “But after using the device, he said he is no longer depressed and has been able to go out more — it gave me encouragement.”
Each cane sells at US$500. At first glance that’s a hefty amount, but according to Ceylan it’s actually one of the more affordable products in the assisted devices market, where smart canes can cost up to US$800.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Ceylan. “But Google Maps provides information to sighted people. Now, in a more accessible way, visually impaired people can look at the city.