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Oriense: a 21st-century guide dog at the click of a button

Guide dogs are very expensive, and only about 2 percent of blind people have them. It takes years to train them, and costs tens of thousands of dollars.

Mar 30, 2017
Guide dogs have been used by blind people for nearly half a millennium, and in that time, no more trustworthy solution has been found to reliably lead a blind person through the numerous potential hazards that surround them. But training a guide dog is a slow and expensive process, and far from all those who would benefit from a guide dog are able to obtain one.

Oriense, a resident company of the Skolkovo Foundation’s IT cluster, believes it has the answer. It has produced a device that uses computer vision and machine learning to perform similar functions to a guide dog, as well as helping visually impaired people to navigate, at a fraction of the cost.

"There are a lot of people with impaired vision in the world – up to 300 million," says Konstantin Zhukov, CIO and co-founder of Oriense. "Guide dogs are very expensive, and only about 2 percent of blind people have them. It takes years to train them, and costs tens of thousands of dollars.

"Our device is essentially a speaking assistant that points out obstacles, helps the user with the route, describes what’s around them; it provides them with the information they are lacking and that they would usually have to ask for from people around them," says Zhukov.

The device consists of two parts: ORNavi, which provides a navigation service, telling the user where they are and how to get to their destination, and OrCV, which alerts the user to obstacles in their path, just as a guide dog would do. The first part is designed to be used by anyone with impaired vision, and can successfully be used in conjunction with a guide dog or a white cane, while the second part is designed for people who do not have a guide dog.

Oriense, which was formed by a group of robotics faculty graduates of the Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, sold 100 test devices in Russia and other countries last year, and is now preparing to launch mass production of a finished product, having adjusted the design based on the assessments of users of the test version.

"We got a lot of positive feedback, and now we’re upscaling our activities across the world," says Zhukov, adding that the final product is due to go on sale in September. Last November, Zhukov and Oriense’s other co-founder Vitaly Kitaev opened an office in Eindhoven in the Netherlands as a jumping-off point for entering European markets. The engineering team remains based in St. Petersburg.

"For now, our market is Russia, of course, plus the Netherlands, Poland, Germany and the U.S. That’s where we plan to sell our first 1,000 devices," said Zhukov.

Aliya Nurullina started using ORNavi to move around St. Petersburg in late 2015. For the first year, she used it every day, she told Sk.ru. While she does not now rely on a navigator most of the time, she always has Oriense with her, just in case.

"It really makes life easier," said Nurullina. "If there’s no one to ask and you need to get somewhere, or in an unfamiliar city, the navigator is really useful. If I ask a person where I can buy something to eat, most likely they will tell me, of course, but with the navigator, I can select the category ‘food store’ and I will be given a choice," she explained.

Nurullina said it also offered peace of mind when travelling by taxi.

"When there was no navigator, I had to ask where I was and what was happening. And now I know where I am, how much further it is, I can plan my time without having to rely on the driver," she said.

Nurullina said that some of the smartphone apps designed to help people with visual impairments navigate are good, but they have two key disadvantages compared to Oriense.

"Having a separate device is an advantage, as it doesn’t drain the phone battery and doesn’t depend on the internet to work. If there’s no internet, the apps simply don’t work," she said.

Nurullina does not use Oriense’s obstacle avoidance device. She is able to make out large obstacles based on the differentiation between light and shade, and she uses a white cane, which she says is essential for blind and partially sighted people to both ensure their own safety and alert those around them to take into account that the person with the stick cannot see.

"It [Oriense] doesn’t replace a white stick and doesn’t exclude asking passers-by for help, because GPS is technology, and it has a margin of error, but it makes life a lot easier," she concluded.

Companies around the world are working on technology to make life less difficult for people with visual impairments, but Oriense says it has no direct competitors.

"Our device combines three problems faced by visually impaired people: avoiding obstacles and hazards, the navigation function, and the recognition function that can differentiate between, for example, a 50-ruble or 100-ruble note," says Zhukov.

"There are devices that deal with each of these problems individually, but ours is the only device that performs all three functions. Our achievement is that we’ve combined them all into one product, without making it very expensive, and that the platform is flexible and can be expanded upon, by adding new functions to it," he said.

In brief reviews published on Oriense’s website, users praised the accuracy of the system’s maps and GPS, and said it had helped them to learn new routes, navigate unfamiliar cities and return to places they had marked with a geo-point.

"I have a variety of different devices and I actively watch over what appears in the West," wrote Valery Khristianov. "You have the best solution at the moment, with everything we need and a user-friendly interface."

From the outset, Oriense planned to create an affordable device, and the recommended retail price for both parts of the set will be $900, or $500 for the navigation part and $400 for the obstacle guidance device, when sold separately, says Zhukov.

"We want to launch mass production to reduce costs, so that our device is affordable even for people in countries where the level of purchasing power is low," he said.

In addition, Oriense hopes that its product will eventually be covered by state insurance programmes that compensate disabled people for devices that help them in their everyday lives. Currently, navigational devices for blind people aren’t covered by such programmes in Russia or the Netherlands, says Zhukov, for the simple reason that they are a new phenomenon.

"These lists tend to be updated slowly," he said. "Most probably, the lists will be expanded to include innovative devices – work is already underway on this – but it’s a slow and bureaucratic process."

In the meantime, the enterprising startup plans to adjust its device so that it falls under the description of another type of device that is paid for by the state in both Russia and the Netherlands: e-readers for people with visual impairments.

"Our device has a flexible platform, and we can add a module that makes us a device for reading books as well as a navigational device, and then we should be included on the list," said Zhukov.

At the end of last year, Oriense held a crowdfunding campaign to make their product available to people who couldn’t afford it themselves. The crowdfunding campaign raised 335,500 rubles ($5,700) – just 20,000 rubles shy of the target.

The product has also inspired confidence in several investors, as well as the Skolkovo Foundation. Oriense took part in the iDealMachine accelerator in late 2012, and received investment from the founders of the St. Petersburg-based venture fund and accelerator. It has also raised seed investment from the Jersey-based TMT Investments, as well as from Russia's Foundation for Assistance to Small Innovative Enterprises (FASIE), otherwise known as the Bortnik Foundation.

Oriense received a mini-grant of 3 million rubles ($50,000) from the Skolkovo Foundation last year to develop its test module, though Zhukov said the foundation’s most valuable assistance had been non-financial.

"Skolkovo has helped us a lot, and the grant was just the cherry on the top," he told Sk.ru.

"Both iDealMachine and Skolkovo were helpful for teaching us how to turn our university research, our solid technical knowledge, into a business, a product that would be in demand on the market," he said.

"Skolkovo helped us with mentorship, with finding technology partners, with PR, with patenting our intellectual property, with connections – when there was something that we needed, we turned to Skolkovo and usually they could help. The money came later, but the initial help was support from a strong partner," said Zhukov.

"The Skolkovo Foundation actively supports companies working in the field of medicine, especially socially significant areas such as the rehabilitation of disabled people," said Sergei Voinov, head of IoT, electronics and data storage and transmission systems within the foundation’s IT cluster.

"Oriense is a vivid example of that support. The company has come a long way and is successfully entering the international market, which confirms that there is a demand for Russian technology in the international arena," said Voinov, adding that the IT cluster would continue to support Oriense in its expansion onto new markets.