Blind World Magazine

Technology that could vastly improve life for visually impaired people.

June 27, 2005.
Sacramento Business Journal, CA.

Mark Nitzberg and University of California Los Angeles physics professor Alan Yuille were careening down a ski slope in 1996 when they decided to use Nitzberg's arcane doctorate research to make products for blind people.

Nitzberg's studies at Harvard University focused on making computers understand how a two-dimensional picture represents a three-dimensional world. Yuille was on Nitzberg's thesis committee.

For years, people have used computers with visual abilities to identify military targets, grade multiple-choice exams and slice precisely proportioned french fries. Nitzberg didn't want to develop military or industrial applications for his research.

Instead Nitzberg and Yuille, founders of Blindsight Corp. of Davis, developed devices that find street signs and magnify the text or read it aloud for people with low or no vision.

Blindsight's technology could vastly improve life for visually impaired people who can afford the $700 to $1,000 price tag.

"People aren't building these things because they're not going to make a lot of money off them," he said.

Said David Dikter, executive director of the Assistive Technology Industry Association, "One of the struggles in this industry is a lot of folks (with disabilities) are unemployed or underemployed, so pricing is always an issue."

Getting credible: Nitzberg and Yuille founded Blindsight in 1996 in Massachusetts. They recruited Harris Fishman, an experienced corporate chief financial officer, to join them as a partner.

Early on the company formed a research partnership with the nonprofit Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. That link was essential for obtaining a federal grant used for product development.

"They have credibility with the target market," Nitzberg said. "Without them it would have been a couple of guys off the street saying, 'We think we know what blind people want.' "

More than $1.8 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health Small Business Innovative Research program have paid the salaries of Nitzberg and the company's three employees: an engineer and two software designers. Yuille is an unpaid consultant. The company has applied for another $750,000.

The company founders first proposed making software that would recognize faces. The eye institute put together a focus group to evaluate the idea. The group included two blind engineers who couldn't imagine why they would need facial-recognition technology.

What they really needed, they said, was something that would help them use their videocassette recorders. They couldn't see the numbers and letters on the VCRs' light-emitting diode displays. So Blindsight developed a device the size of a remote control to read the characters and call them out through a speaker.

By the time Blindsight had a product ready for manufacturing, liquid crystal displays had overtaken light-emitting diodes. The founders shelved the prototype and began work on machines to read signs.

First they made a sign finder, consisting of a box with a button, lens and speaker that a blind person can wear around the neck, like a camera. The sign finder takes a wide-angle picture and barks out what it sees on signs in view.

It's useful when a blind person needs to know which sign leads to the men's room or whether he's actually on Oak Street.

"It's very simple, and for that reason I think some people can adopt it at the right price," Nitzberg said. The company plans to sell it for about $700.

Prototype uses big plastic hat: The company also invented a smart telescope for people with macular degeneration, retinitis or other diseases. The smart telescope combines a camera with a small display screen and a battery pack worn on a belt. Users push a button to take a picture, and the display shows them all the signs in the field of view. They push the button again to get a magnified view of each sign.

Nitzberg calls the current smart-telescope prototype "cosmetically comical." The display and camera are attached to a big plastic cowboy hat. The company plans to shrink the technology and create a more pleasing-to-the-eye product that fits on a pair of glasses. It would cost about $1,000.

Blindsight hopes to have both products ready to market in 2007. They plan to contract out manufacturing and find a larger company to handle the distribution.

"What it takes to sell into this fractured market of disabled people is a whole bunch of relationships," Nitzberg said. "I'll fly around and glad-hand for a while until we can find a company that wants to manufacture and distribute."

10 million low-vision Americans: Several companies specialize in selling products for people with visual impairments, including Freedom Scientific of St. Petersburg, Fla., and Optelec USA Inc. of Chelmsford, Mass. Convincing these firms to pick up Blindsight's technology could be difficult.

"Generally we represent our own products that are leveraged off our software so we have a distinct advantage," said Freedom Scientific spokesman Brad Davis. "Often for hardware, they (other firms) are better off doing their own distribution."

It's fairly common in the assistive technology industry for smaller companies to seek out larger distributors, said Dikter of the Assistive Technology Industry Association. Often companies network at a handful of industry conferences held each year, and all sorts of relationships develop.

"You have smaller companies that resell for larger companies," he said. "It's pretty dynamic."

The United States has about 200,000 blind people, and as many as 10 million with low vision.

"The biggest challenge is finding them," said Jay Leventhal, editor in chief of the online magazine AccessWorld. "Companies that market products to blind people often don't have the money to market to the mass media.

"This company is running up against a very familiar and frustrating problem," he added. "When somebody loses the ability to walk, everybody knows a wheelchair is the answer."

People don't know as much about products for visually impaired people, he said.

'Somebody's going to find us': Nitzberg said if he can't find a willing distributor he would seek out potential customers among government agencies that provide services to the blind, and among large companies with visually impaired employees.

"That is one off the biggest funding sources for assistive technology devices," Dikter said.

"There may be something that comes out of what we're doing that's licensed to the mass market," Nitzberg said. "Who knows what's going to be valuable? It could be satellite photo processing. It could be something to do with driving. I think we have something that's going to be valuable, and somebody's going to find us eventually."

John Brabyn, a senior scientist at the Smith-Kettlewell eye institute and principal investigator on Blindsight's federal grant projects, said he has confidence Blindsight will find a path to market.

"Mark Nitzberg is a really experienced businessperson, so I think it will happen," Brabyn said. "He's had a lot of experience in the high-tech industry and was very successful at that before he got into devices for blind people."

Nitzberg co-founded Smartleaf Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., company that makes and sells software for financial firms. Blindsight was in Boston for its first seven years, and Nitzberg traveled frequently across the nation to Smith-Kettlewell. He and his wife moved to Davis when she was hired to teach German at UC Davis.

Nitzberg operates the company out of his garage. The couple recently sold their house and plan to move to Oakland in August. Nitzberg said he wants to be closer to Smith-Kettlewell and will have more room for a company office in the couple's new home.

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