People with deafness have plenty of ways to navigate everyday situations as if they had no disability at all, but there are still situations that present dangers unique to them — not being able to hear a smoke alarm or gunshot, for instance. SoundSense is a small wearable device that listens for noises that might require immediate attention and alerts the user when it detects one.
“There’s really been an absence of innovation in technology for disabilities over the last decade or even decades,” said Brian Goral, co-founder and CEO of Furenexo, the company behind SoundSense. We talked a few weeks before today’s launch. “What we’re looking to do is bring technology that’s taken for granted, things like cell phones and driverless cars, and apply that to the disability space.”
This first device is a small and simple one for a reason — the company is bootstrapped and has to rely on Kickstarter for the funds to make the SoundSense. They’re also looking for grants from non-profit entities and perhaps government funds.
But really, the company has self-limited on purpose: the idea is to make something practical and cheap that almost anyone can use. Even a person with perfect hearing could wear one of these while walking around with headphones on.
There isn’t much to say about the device — it really is simple. The microphone passes its signal to a microchip, which watches for sudden increases in volume, and when it hears one, the whole doodad vibrates and its LEDs flash. The battery lasts about a day, and recharges over USB.
“It’s not anything deeply profound, like it’s going to revolutionize disability,” Goral said. “But for a person who wants to go jogging, or staying in a city they’ve never been to, just having that extra confidence and awareness that they’re going to know if something’s going wrong.”
Because it’s not a medical device, it can be sold immediately without any kind of FDA approval. And because it’s so cheap (Kickstarter versions will be $25, but the cost can be dropped even further with scale), it can be sold at drug stores or even given away by, for example, a community center catering to deaf people. Not only that, but the schematics for the device are free to download for anyone who wants to tweak them and make their own version.
For testing, guidance, and other benefits of partnership, Furenexo is working with non-profits like Helen Keller Services, which specializes in helping out people who are deaf, blind, or both.
But the SoundSense isn’t the only thing they plan on doing — just the first.
“You start to look at other challenges,” Goral said. “Like, if you’re a pedestrian in a wheelchair, and you’re on Google Maps — you might want a plug-in that avoids complex intersections, or takes you to accessible entrances instead of a generic spot on a map. Or a geofence for Alzheimer’s patients that sends you a text if they’re outside a certain area.”
The company is working on a wrist-mounted pad that the visually impaired can use to type braille, and there are plans for a more comprehensive haptic feedback armpiece that can give simple signals when they approach things like obstacles or other people.
Furenexo also hopes to create a community online that connects people with disabilities to people who want to address them. A person with paralysis might explain the difficulties of navigating the web without using her arms or legs, and an curious engineer might propose a solution or prototype a device.