A unique pair of eyeglasses developed by a Florida International Univ. (FIU) student team could revolutionize the lives of the blind, enabling them to walk into a library or a store, pick up any book or a can of soup and read it. The Eyetalk concept, initially conceived for a student competition in social entrepreneurship, has been hailed by venture investors as a potentially breakthrough product that could make a difference for disabled people worldwide. This week, it was recognized as one of 12 semi-finalists in the FIU Track of the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge.
By using a pair of eyeglasses and lightweight components, Eyetalk will allow a blind user to access printed material while walking around a store or library, which now requires bulkier, more expensive equipment. The Eyetalk, still in its development stage, is designed to be portable, affordable and operate without requiring an Internet connection. Future versions of Eyetalk will target a global market and enable users to hear information aloud in one of many languages.
The project began with a challenge issued by FIU College of Business faculty member Seema Pissaris, a successful entrepreneur who founded Games Trader, a company that went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Last fall, Pissaris urged students in several of her classes to think about developing a social entrepreneurship project. FIU students Maria Pia Celestino, Viurniel Sanchez, Jesus Amundarain and Esam Mashni came forward and started working with Pissaris on a technology that had the potential to help people and turn a profit.
Focusing on the breakthrough innovation of a pair of glasses that could read to the blind, engineering student Viurniel Sanchez began to explore a target- recognition technology that he and two of his classmates had developed in a research project funded by NASA and the Department of Defense. He thought it might be reconfigured to help the blind navigate their environment.
The human inspiration for the product’s development came from Miami social entrepreneur Michael Arbitman, a computer engineer who lost his sight in his 20s. He created Imuneek.com, a website designed for the disabled to share resources and connect with service providers. He met the team, heard their concept for a pair of glasses that would read, and was amazed by the potential of their technology.
“A product like this,” he says, “could give me my freedom back.”
The FIU team’s early prototype, known as the FreedomLens, was one of 16 semi-finalists chosen from 29 nations to present at the 2013 Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition (GSEC), at the Univ. of Washington’s Foster School of Business in Seattle.
The team from FIU, one of only four U.S. universities chosen to present, received an outstanding reception at the conference, where one judge said it had the potential to bring “disruptive technology” and create an entire new market.
“The students realized that they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Pissaris says. “They are customizing a technology to meet a global social need, and creating a market-based solution.”