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Technology for the Blind is Worth Billions

We first took a look at technology for the blind in our article on 6 Vision Enhancement Devices You Need to See where we covered some pretty cool applications of technology that gives the 342 million blind people around the globe more freedom. We were surprised to learn that only about 10-15% of people who are blind or visually impaired “see” total darkness. This means that more than 80% of blind people have some form of vision, whether that is light perception, the ability to see colors, or the ability to see shapes. That’s a market of over 270 million people that can be sold vision assistance devices. Back of the napkin math shows that if you sold just a third of those people a $250 device, you could capture more than $20 billion in revenues. If you then turned each one of those people into a subscriber and charged them $10 a month, you would have a run rate of almost $10 billion a year. That’s the sort of opportunity which leads to large valuations for startups that are trying to address it. Look no further than a startup called OrCam which recently took in a $30 million funding round at a valuation of over $1 billion.

Founded in 2010, Israeli startup OrCam was the brainchild of Amnon Shashua and CEO Ziv Aviram. If those names sound familiar, it’s because these lads founded Mobileye, a company that was bought for $15.3 billion by Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), making this the highest paid buyout for an Israeli company to date. The company has taken in $86.4 million so far with their latest funding round of around $30 million closing just a few days ago and giving the company a valuation of $1 billion. Now that they’ve achieved unicorn status. the company is just one step closer to an exit, though with Intel as an investor, they may just get acquired first. That’s not what founder Shashua has in mind though, as he told Reuters in an interview last year that “by the end of 2018 the profit of the company will be at such a level, that it’s good enough for an IPO”. So what exactly are they selling that has everyone so excited?

The latest device on offer from OrCam is the OrCam MyEye 2.0 which is their next generation vision assistance device launched in 2017. The low-profile device attaches to your glasses as seen below:

Source: Canadian Tech News

The extent to which the device allows a blind person to navigate the world is quite remarkable. The camera mounts onto a sturdy pair of glasses and everything you need to mount is included in the kit. A wire extends from the camera, back behind your ear, and down into a base unit that you carry around in your pocket or clipped to your belt. That base unit is what you need to charge, and based on the reviews we read, battery life is anywhere from 4-6 hours. When it comes to time to read, you simply hold the book at eye level in front of your face and the device will recognize it. To read a particular line of text, you point with your finger and the camera uses your fingernail as a guide point so it knows to read directly above it. Being able to read a menu in a restaurant is something we all take for granted, but for blind people, something like that can now be accomplished quite easily.

Using the device you can easily read any printed or digital text which includes things like newspapers, books, restaurant menus, signs, product labels, computer and smartphone screens.

In addition to reading, there are a whole slew of other features such as facial recognition. You can store up to 100 faces of individuals who you regularly interact with which makes social situations far less awkward. Family members, friends, and cow-orkers can all be entered using a quick one-time process. When it comes to shopping, the device has a database of millions of product bar-codes and can store up to 150 of your favorite products. When it comes time to pay, just hold a note in front of your face and point at it. The device will quickly tell you how much currency you’re holding. If you’re out shopping for clothes, simply point at a space with no text and the color detection capabilities will tell you it’s a “grey area” you’re looking at. The time and date are conveniently announced with a turn of your wrist using the same ergonomic gesture that you would if you were wearing a watch.

While these are some of the main features that come with the OrCam MyEye 2.0, it’s easy to see how this functionality could be expanded for existing users without the need to change the hardware. As new versions of the software become available, OrCam may send out software updates that can easily be applied by simply replacing the SD card that comes with the unit. At the time of our last article, the device only spoke two languages. That number is now up to twelve, though the device is only available in North America at the moment.

Remember that back of the napkin math we did earlier on market size? Turns out that the $250 number we used was a bit low. According to an article on Bloomberg a few days ago, the OrCam device is selling for around $4,500 with the company claiming they have sold “thousands of them” so far. These numbers show incredible promise. If OrCam can sell 1 million devices which seems entirely feasible given the market size, then that’s a $4.5 billion chunk of change, not to mention possible subscription revenues that they could pursue.

As for competition, there are some other devices that we covered in our past article but none that have the traction OrCam has. Given the size of the target market, it’s entirely possible that any augmented reality device maker could add functionality that could offer some of these features but not in the same way that OrCam has. When you have 1000s of devices being actively used by the blind in the field, the speed at which they can improve their product will help them fend off any competing solutions. As for the cost of the device, their latest funding includes an insurance company so that bodes well for people who can’t afford the $4,500 price tag. It looks like the next time we’ll cover this company might be when we’re reviewing their S-1 filing.

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