RenewSenses – Renewing Life for the Visually Impaired
For all we know, saxophone player Professor Amir Amedi, woke up one morning and realized that he could use music to give the blind a new way to “see.” What we do know is that Amedi grew up in a crowded house built by his grandfather, who immigrated by foot from Kurdistan to a transit camp in Israel. The house was located in the Kurdish Quarter of Jerusalem, a crime neighborhood at the time. This did not bother Amir in 2007 – a neuroscientist and head of the multisensory research lab at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – to run with his idea, what later became a breakthrough technology.
RenewSenses, the company born of the synthesis of Amedi’s brainstorm and his research, develops revolutionary products to give the visually impaired their independence. Its foremost product is an app called EyeMusic SSD (sensory substitution device) which constructs a “soundscape” that conveys visual information through musical notes.
In building the app, Amedi’s basic premise was that the brain plays just as big a role in “seeing” as eyes do. Indeed, in initial tests using basic sounds to represent objects, MRIs revealed that the identification of objects occurred in the same regions of the brain as in sighted people. In other words, those brain regions didn’t depend on visual experience in the first place.
The magic of EyeMusic is in the auditory translation of visual information using music, for example color is translated into yellow for strings, blue for brass, and so on. It is essentially a new language for the visually impaired, but one that actually allows them to “see” objects in their mind’s eye. Like any new language though, it needs to be learned before it can be used. Armedi’s “students” undergo 70 hours of training in order to acquire this new language.
After the training, Armedi ran tests to have students distinguish between different shapes and colors, while mapping their brains. When asked to discriminate among the shapes as letters, the participants showed the greatest activation in the area of the brain associated with reading and when the participants sorted the shapes by color, Amedi and his colleagues saw activity in the color centers of the brain, as well as in the region associated with hearing. Even for those who had been blind since birth, the same areas of the brain were activated. Armedi explains, “Maybe the brain is a task machine, rather than a sensory machine.” That is to say, the brain does not organize by the senses, “the brain is more flexible than we realize,” says Armedi, “we just have to find alternate routes to tap into areas previously blocked.”
Visually impaired individuals who use EyeMusic can also be trained to recognize facial expressions and body postures. The best part: it’s portable. The app can be downloaded to a smartphone, then used with headphones and EyeMusic glasses. Users simply “look around” with the glasses — which have a camera mounted on them — to start listening to their surroundings. The camera scans the environment every two seconds, and the EyeMusic app builds the image pixel by pixel, then translates it into music.
In other words, visually impaired people can use EyeMusic to “see” their surroundings, which will ultimately allow them to live more independent lives. One EyeMusic user who was blind from birth suddenly discovered clouds for the first time. He was astonished to learn that the sky is not just a block of blue, but is disrupted by white, shapeless masses that produce rain.
The A.I. cane is yet another revolutionary product of RenewSenses. It is a hand-held device that assists blind or visually impaired people to navigate independently. Using Artificial Intelligence, the A.I. Cane is designed to identify objects and vibrate when detecting obstacles. This will give users the ability to understand what objects are around them, where they are located, and even how they appear.
Target 10.2 of the UN’s sustainable development goals implores us to empower and promote the social inclusion of all, irrespective of disability or other status. RenewSenses’ disruptive products are enabling the blind to “see” and for some, to finally find their place in a world where they previously had no place at all. Those who use their products will never experience life the same way again.
RenewSenses won the WeWork Creator Award, an award given to the most innovative project that embodies the mantra “Create Your Life’s Work.” RenewSenses won first place in the MassChallenge Israel Accelerator event. MassChallenge is billed as “the most startup friendly accelerator on the planet”, making it easier for entrepreneurs to launch new ventures and maximize their impact. With RenewSenses, however, impact may be an understatement.
Reduced Inequalities According to the 2017 statistical report of the Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities, over one million four hundred thousand persons with