It's no robot guide dog - but this wearable aims to help blind people safely move

With expertise in tech to help robots detect and avoid obstacles, two Italian engineers have now turned their energies to making a device for the blind.

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Horus is a wearable device aimed at describing the physical world to those who cannot see it.

Image: Horus Technology

According to WHO data, 285 million people are estimated to be visually-impaired worldwide. Whether totally blind or with low vision, they face daily challenges in moving around and interacting with their immediate environment.

It was in 2014, after a chance encounter with a blind person, that the idea of Horus was born. It's a wearable device aimed at describing the physical world to those who cannot see it.

"I was with my co-founder Saverio Murgia in Genova, close to the train station," Horus Technology CTO Luca Nardelli tells ZDNet. "We saw a blind person trying to get around following the corners of the buildings. Unfortunately, on that day, there were some works on the street, and he couldn't recognize the landscape."

Murgia and Nardelli, two biomedical engineers, were at the time both studying how to help robots detect and avoid obstacles using artificial vision. "We stopped and thought: why not apply our knowledge to help people instead?" Nardelli says.

After two years and a number of small and not-so-small prizes (from the European Institute of Technology's €15,000 to US firm 5Lion Holdings' $900,000 investment, and an Nvidia Emerging Companies Summit prize), Horus is gradually coming closer to having a commercial product.

Externally, it looks a bit like an old Sony Walkman: a rectangular box, which contains the battery and the GPU, to be worn using a belt hook or kept in the pocket, linked to a headset.

But the headset, unlike that found on a Walkman or an iPod, does not only emit sounds. Two cameras film the environment, and the information is then sent to the GPU, where the processing is done in real time and the visual inputs are converted to verbal messages that help the user detect obstacles, describing pictures and scenes, identifying objects and people, and reading text.

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The presence and location of obstacles is reported using differently modulated sounds. Horus divides the space in front of the user into sectors: lateral obstacles generate high-pitched sounds in one of the two speakers, while central obstacles generate low-pitched centered sounds.

Just as with intelligent parking systems on cars and trucks, the sounds grow more frequent and more alarming as the obstacle gets closer. It's generally up to the user to decide which of Horus' features to activate through a vocal menu, although some are automatically launched.

For instance, when the person is walking, the accelerometer detects the movement, and Horus starts giving instructions. The messages are not sent using headphones but with bone conduction, which leaves the ears of the person free to hear the noise of the street as well.

It sounds great on paper -- but whether Horus will be successful depends mainly on how well the company manages its execution.

"So far, we're still prototyping, testing the first versions of our electronic components," Nardelli says. "Our goal is to have the device ready for launch by the end of this year."

The device will be launched initially in Italy, as a first test market, and by spring 2017, it should also reach the UK and other English-speaking countries.

As for the price, the Milan-based startup has not yet decided, but it should be in the €1,000 to €2,000 range. Horus is not the only startup aiming to help visually-impaired people in a comprehensive way.

Israeli company OrCam launched a similar device in September 2013, after years of development and testing. But Nardelli believes Horus is in some ways superior.

"They use only one camera while we have two, which allows our software to understand which object is closer and decide how to prioritize information. For instance, the user will be able to scan and recognize all the faces in a room starting from the closest one or read road signs starting with the nearest," he says.

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Horus Technology CEO Saverio Murgia and CTO Luca Nardelli say their goal is to have Horus ready for launch by the end of this year.

Image: Gianmaria Fioriti/Horus Technology

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