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Startup Series: Watch for Hearing Disabled

Smart watch to help hearing-impaired citizens communicate better

03·25·2016

Although China has many policies in place meant to protect disabled members of society, the reality is far from perfect. Chinese citizens with disabilities often face lower standards of living and a lack of access to education or assistive technology or training. As a result, the predicament of this part of the population is often swept under the rug. China has a system of sign language, known as CSL (Chinese Sign Language) but very few people have fluency and it is rarely taught in schools. Given the tonal nature of Putonghua and Cantonese, lip reading is particularly difficult.

University students Zhao Jiangbo (赵江波) and Xiao Yunxiang (肖云翔) rose to the occasion, using a class project as a way to help the deaf and hearing disabled members of society. What started as a college assignment turned into a business, and in 2015, the two established the Kunming Bamboo Technology startup (青笋科技).

While in school, Zhao and Xiao did more research into the assistive technology available to deaf and hearing-disabled people, and realized that there was no wearable-technology available to help facilitate communication between hearing and hearing-impaired people. Realizing that there was a need for such a product, the two began to work on creating a way to allow hearing and hearing-impaired people to communicate.

Working with hearing-impaired students at a nearby school, their first attempt at creating a product was a glove. This glove was aimed at translating the body language of the wearer in order for hearing people to understand what hearing-impaired people intended to communicate. However, they quickly realized that the glove alone was insufficient as it did not allow the wearer to participate in a conversation. They therefore decided to pursue the idea of a smart watch.

Taking a little over two years to develop, the smart watch, Watch Me, consists of three major functions. The first function is to promote safety. The watch is equipped with a GPS so that the wearer to can ensure that they are in a safe place, and is also equipped with sensors to detect any unsafe changes in the environment. The second function is to serve as an alert system. For example, if the watch detects something unsafe in the environment, it will vibrate to alert the wearer.

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Zhao Jiangbo (赵江波) and the watch

However, as Zhao and Xiao told TWOC, the main function is to promote communication. Using artificial intelligence (AI), the smart watch can detect noises and track conversations to help hearing-disabled people understand and be involved with the conversations around them. In addition, the smart watch is also equipped with an input system that allows the wearer to type in what they want to say, and the watch will transmit the message. Currently, the watch can communicate in spoken English, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, as well as Sichuan, Fujian and Henan dialects.

As with any attempt to create new and helpful technology, the developers of the smart watch told TWOC that they faced several challenges. In particular they faced two major problems. The first was the actual research and development needed to create the product. The team especially struggled with incorporating technology that could accurately and efficiently recognize voices and pick up the differences in pronunciation. They also struggled to find ways to incorporate several different dialects. As anyone who has been to China knows, communication between different dialects can be challenging, to say the least. Creating technology that could allow for those differences proved to be very difficult, resulting in over two years of research and development.

The second major challenge they faced was gaining the trust of the hearing-disabled population. Since hearing-impaired and other disabled people in China are often left with little outside help, it was difficult at first for the developers to get close to them. However, as Zhao told TWOC, they were creating the product for the hearing-impaired and wanted to create a product based on what the community needed and wanted, not what others thought hearing-impaired people needed. Since their university was close to a special school for hearing-impaired students, the developers were able to visit and get close to the students by playing games and doing art with them. They were also able to use watch prototypes to communicate with the students, effectively gaining their trust and insight into what features they wanted.

The smart watch team are currently recruiting seed users to test the prototype and have distributed several prototypes to hearing-impaired people in order to test the functions of the watch, and they hope to have the watch on the market by the second half of this year. Presently the team has patents on the software used in the smart watch, but do not have patents for the hardware yet, since they are working with suppliers to create the hardware. They do however hope to independently create the hardware in the future.

The watch is projected to be sold for 1,000 RMB or less, making it affordable for most people to buy. As of right now, the watch is geared towards users with at least a high school level education, however they plan on developing a watch in the future that could also be used by the elderly or less educated. While the team is happy with the product, they hope to continue serving the hearing-disabled community by creating a line of products aimed at making their lives easier, but also by working with charities that serve the population.

 

Cover image a composite from above and bybei.com

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