'The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.' - Helen Keller
Galimzhan Gabdreshov testing his non-intrusive echolocation system for visually impaired people. Photo courtesy of Galimzhan Gabdreshov.
Although bats can see, many species have evolved an unusual way to fly and hunt in the dark-echolocation. To do so, they emit ultrasonic sound waves that bounce off objects and navigate using the resulting echoes. Dolphins use a similar technique.
Can this technique be used by people without sight? An innovative start-up in Kazakhstan, Sezual, has developed echolocation for human beings, with support from the World Bank. The start-up's name comes from the Kazakh words sezu, meaning 'to feel' and al, meaning 'to take.'
Sezual's device, with special training, helps blind people 'see' objects in three dimensions within a radius of 15 meters. Worn around the neck, it emits a high-pulse click that reflects off surrounding objects, providing information on their distance and shape that can be processed in 3D in the visual cortex of the user's brain. It can even identify what material the object is made from. The device allows the visually impaired to navigate space freely, to work, travel, and live a full life.
Sezual's device-the Non-intrusive Echolocation System for Visually Impaired People-was invented by Galimzhan Gabdreshov, a Kazakh scientist, after an accident put his vision at risk. He was inspired by Daniel Kish, an American who developed a way to use echolocation through tongue-clicks.
In 2017, Gabdreshov established his start-up after obtaining a grant from the World Bank-financed Fostering Productive Innovation Project, which promotes research and commercialization of technologies in Kazakhstan. The funding made it possible to commercialize Gabdreshov's scientific research and create a truly unique technology capable of transforming the lives of millions of blind and visually impaired people.
A Sizeable Potential Market
According to the World Health Organization, there are 285 million visually impaired people across the globe-of which 39 million are totally blind. Studies show that visual impairment and blindness impose a significant economic burden on those affected, their caregivers, and society, particularly with regard to medical expenses from hospitalization, diagnoses, and treatment.
Several companies offer devices that enhance vision, but none use echolocation. Sezual's device provides a small, affordable alternative with full dark-view capability for totally blind people.
The technology could have other beneficial uses too. Because it can sense objects behind walls, for instance, it could help firefighters locate and rescue people in visually challenging circumstances.
The potential social impacts of this invention are significant. Since 2017, eight versions of the device have been developed and tested by men, women, and children-the device enabled them to move freely, without any external help. One subject was even able to ride a bicycle.
Zhazira, a young woman from Nur-Sultan, said she could sense objects, shapes, materials, and distances for the first time using Sezual's device, giving her a new way to experience the external world.
Anna, another young woman from Nur-Sultan, said: 'A single day of using the device was enough for me to want to continue.'
A completely blind volunteer testing Sezual's echolocation device
In July 2020, Sezual's invention received international recognition through the Patent Cooperation Treaty, administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization. The Patent Cooperation Treaty enables applicants to obtain patent protection for their inventions in numerous countries. Sezual was granted protection for its device for 18 months in technology markets. Today, the project team is now looking for partners and financing to advance serial production in Kazakhstan and beyond.
In December 2020, Sezual was shortlisted for the World Summit Awards, a competition held by the United Nations, which selects the world's most innovative digital solutions for achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Next - Going Global
Sezual is now moving from research and development to commercialization. It is planning to reach international markets by tapping into the global network of associations for the blind, which could also serve as training centers and distribution partners. It is also establishing business-to-government connections with various social and health ministries responsible for providing support to the blind.
Sezual is currently working with partners in Singapore to organize product trials, attract funding, and reach out to Southeast Asian markets. The Fostering Productive Innovation Project team is also looking for sponsors worldwide who may consider Sezual's devices for blind people in their respective countries. Once the device is in production, these sponsors will be among the first to get the pre-ordered devices.
Video: Sezual, a start-up in Kazakhstan, has developed an echolocation device to help visually impaired people 'see' objects in three dimensions.
About the Fostering Productive Innovation Project
This World Bank-financed project promotes high-quality, nationally relevant research and commercialization of technologies. It nurtures innovation from healthcare and education to artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT). The project has supported 55 technology-oriented small and medium enterprises that have attained sales of KZT 2.2 billion ($5 million) and reached 15 intellectual property deals. Moreover, the project beneficiaries have obtained 43 local and international patents, registered one trademark, and attained eight invention certificates. The project produces superior results by supporting world-class innovative start-ups that pilot revolutionary ideas and pioneering new products and services for the next generation of disruptive technologies.