Two years ago, Kürşat Ceylan was in New York to give a talk about disability rights at the United Nations. Blind since birth, the Turkish entrepreneur was struggling to find his hotel, holding a cane in one hand and pulling his luggage with the other while trying to get GPS directions from his phone.
“Not surprisingly, all of a sudden I bumped into a pole,” he says. “It was a little bit bloody.”
The problem with a cane is that, while it can tell you what’s on the ground, it doesn’t help with objects at the body or head level. It wasn’t the first time Ceylan had run into something, injuring himself.
“I have no problem with my scars, they make me more handsome I guess,” Ceylan says, laughing. “But I don’t need new ones.”
With WeWalk, a new smart cane, Ceylan hopes to help other blind people navigate their environments more easily. The GPS- and voice technology-enabled cane can tell users what’s around them—they’re passing a McDonald’s, they’re at Exit D of the subway station. An ultrasonic sensor detects objects at body or head level and gives a warning vibration.
WeWalk users pair the cane with their smartphones and then use the cane’s touchpad to access features like voice assistant or navigation. Before leaving home, they can plug their destination into Google Maps and get spoken directions as they walk.
In the future, Ceylan hopes to connect WeWalk with public transportation and ridesharing services. That way it could tell the user the number of the bus coming down the street or the license plate of the Uber stopping at the curb. The cane will update with new features as they come online, much the way smartphones do.
A slew of apps and other technologies for the blind and visually impaired have been released in recent years. There are smartphone camera money readers that tell users what currency denomination they’re holding, talking map apps that vibrate at street crossings, even whirring drones to help blind runners navigate around a track. But canes, surprisingly, have stayed largely the same. Several companies do offer ultrasonic cane attachments to detect head-level obstacles, but WeWalk is the first company to incorporate numerous adaptive technologies into one device.
"Smartphones have really made life a lot easier for blind people," says Eelke Folmer, a computer science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who has studied adaptive technology.
To Folmer, the price point—$500—sets the WeWalk cane apart from other technologies.
"Assistive technology is often very expensive for blind people," he says. "I've seen technology that costs tens of thousands of dollars. [Developers] fail to realize that often these devices are out of reach for many blind people."
Ceylan sees WeWalk as part of a crusade to help blind people achieve greater freedom of movement, which he believes will give them greater access to education and jobs. There are 39 million blind people worldwide, and nearly another quarter billion with visual impairments. People with visual impairments are less likely to complete higher education and have higher rates of unemployment compared to fully sighted people.
“WeWalk is not just a smart cane for us,” he says. “WeWalk is a movement to increase full and equal participation in social life.”
Ceylan himself went to a primary school for the blind before going to a mainstream secondary school and college, where he studied psychology. It was here that he first applied to a program called the Young Guru Academy, a non-profit supporting students to develop socially conscious innovations. At Young Guru, Ceylan met the people who would become his WeWalk cofounders and began to work on various projects to benefit the visually impaired, including an indoor navigation system and an audio description technology for movie theaters.
“There are many silent scenes in the movies,” Ceylan says. “Sometimes I am watching a movie, but at the end I don’t know what happened because it ends with a silent scene. With this technology our smartphone app can automatically sync with the sound of the movie and give audio description at the right time.”
The WeWalk cane is the team's newest project, under development for the past two years. It was refined as part of the Microsoft for Startups accelerator program, and went on sale several months ago.
The canes are already having an impact on users, Ceylan says. He recently received an email from a teacher in Ireland who had become blind as an adult. He had been depressed and housebound, he wrote. But since getting a WeWalk cane, “’your device forced me to go out. It became my antidepressant’” he wrote, Ceylan recalls.
“This is the most important feedback that we got,” Ceylan says. “We saw that we are touching the real problem.”