During the past several months, I have received a number of inquiries from readers about the status of the OrCam: A Portable, Wearable Visual System for Blind and Visually Impaired Persons. When the OrCam was initially released in 2013, the parent company indicated that the OrCam would begin shipping 100 units in the fall of 2013, with further production unfolding in late 2013 and early 2014.
That projected schedule has been delayed, however, and readers have begun to question both the company and the product; thus, I took our readers’ concerns to the source: Dr. Yonatan Wexler, the head of Research and Development at OrCam, whom I interviewed earlier this year. Dr. Wexler responded promptly and directed me to a progress update on the OrCam blog, which he has given me permission to reprint and distribute (below).
[Please note: This post does not imply endorsement of the OrCam by VisionAware. It is intended only to provide information for our readers.]
First, Some OrCam Background
OrCam is an Israeli start-up company, founded in 2010 by Amnon Shashua, Sachs Professor of Computer Science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The mission of OrCam is to develop a “portable, wearable visual system with ‘human-like’ capabilities” for blind and visually impaired persons, via the use of artificial computer intelligence and augmented reality.
The OrCam (pictured at left) is based on computer algorithms that Professor Shashua has pioneered with Shai Shalev-Shwartz, a Hebrew University colleague, and Yonatan Wexler, their former graduate student, who is OrCam’s head of Research and Development. OrCam also has assembled a team of experienced engineers, most of whom are from elite technological units of the Israel Defense Forces and academia.
The OrCam device is a small camera worn in the style of Google Glass, connected by a thin cable to a portable computer designed to fit in the wearer’s pocket. The system clips on to the wearer’s glasses with a small magnet and uses a bone-conduction speaker to offer clear speech as it reads aloud the words or object pointed to by the user.
The system is designed to both recognize and speak “text in the wild,” a term used to describe newspaper articles as well as bus numbers, and objects as diverse as landmarks, traffic lights, and the faces of friends.
You can read more about the OrCam, including questions and answers about the device, at The OrCam: A Portable, Wearable Visual System for Blind and Visually Impaired Persons.
An OrCam Update
I would like to take this opportunity to share with our current and future users and with all those interested in this unique endeavor some of the progress we have made with the OrCam project over the past year.
Over a year has passed since OrCam was first introduced in the media. The initial response to the concept we introduced was overwhelmingly positive, and the magnitude of excitement caught us un-prepared. We found ourselves facing enormous numbers of inquiries and requests to try out or purchase a device and to conduct various clinical evaluations. Despite the urge to release our exciting new product right away, we decided not to deviate from our plans and continued to develop the OrCam device under the radar as much as possible.
We began with an exclusive group of users with the aim of gaining real-world experience and deeper understanding of the way OrCam was being used. In November 2013 we initiated a Pre-Launch Program in which a limited group of users, who originally signed up on the OrCam website, received their OrCam device. This group included blind and visually-impaired individuals, adults and children.
These early adopters were offered a special introductory price and they became the first users to receive a Pre-Launch version of the device. They also agreed to work with our team to improve the device and were made aware of the list of features, out of the full feature set, that were available at that time.
During this Pre-Launch period, we decided that we would focus on usability and some of the important features our users had identified. By starting with this small user group, we were able to develop personal connections and listen to individuals. We learned from their feedback and worked to improve the device. This direct and meaningful feedback allowed us to immensely improve the device over the course of months of work.
In parallel, we built a support team in the US which includes highly experienced low vision professionals. Our team provides new users with a complimentary one-on-one in-person training session. We also provide ongoing support, and have received very positive feedback from our Pre-Launch users on the high level of service we provide.
The Pre-Launch Program is an internal effort conducted by OrCam and designed to serve as an integral part of the development process. Throughout the past year we have slowly expanded our user base. We have attended a number of public events and provided live demonstrations of the OrCam device to the public.
We elected to participate in an initial independent clinical study conducted by a well-known medical center on the East Coast. OrCam provided devices for this study, and we await the results which will be published independently by the center. We chose to limit our involvement in additional clinical studies or evaluations until we are confident in the performance of OrCam. We want to be sure that we are ready for all potential users and for additional professional evaluations.
We are aware of growing frustration linked to the fact that we have chosen to delay our official launch date, and our decision to not enter multiple clinical evaluations/studies at once. We are confident that the current study’s findings will be favorable and help guide us to further evaluations and studies in the future.
We believe in providing a truly unique and innovative solution that will help people. I wish to take this opportunity to personally apologize to our current and future users who have experienced frustration with the lengthy amount of time it has taken us. We also know that the early Pre-Launch version did not include the full list of features we plan to include in OrCam and we would like to assure you that we are still on track with our initial plans and will continue to add additional features over time.
As we gain more knowledge and continue to significantly improve OrCam (both its hardware and software), we are marching closer and closer to an official product launch in the United States, which we anticipate will occur within the next few months. Once we feel we are ready, we intend to launch the OrCam device and make it commercially available to everyone at the launch price of $3,500. Additional regions and languages will follow. All of our Pre-Launch users will automatically receive a complimentary upgrade to the newest version available at the time of our launch.
We are grateful for all the feedback and support from all the people and organizations we have had the pleasure to interact with and those who have helped us improve the solution and bring us closer to the launch date.
I hope that this comprehensive update sheds some light on our formidable progress to date. Thank you for your continued interest and support and for your patience as we continuously strive to deliver an excellent product to you. I would like to re-state our commitment to provide the visually impaired community with the life-changing technology it deserves. We are getting there!
Questions or Comments?
If you have feedback or suggestions for the OrCam team, please feel free to leave a comment.