Students hit paydirt with visionary 'magic wand' for blind

Local | Carine Chow 27 Aug 2020

A "smart crutch" invented by seven secondary students from different countries will be made into an actual product and marketed next year.

The crutch was developed under the International Symposium on STEM education - a program organized by the University of Hong Kong for students to come up with ideas and pitch to judges as commercial products.

"This is our first time to have a students' idea turn into a product," said Bennett Yim Chi-kin, chairman of the Advisory Board of The Academy for the Talented, which organizes the symposium with Microsoft.

Consisting of students from Hong Kong, the mainland, India, Turkey and Canada, the group beat 10 other teams to win the Most Innovative Award with "The Wand" last year.

"Blindness is a global problem, and we hope that our design can bring magic to blind people's lives," said Jason Wong Tsz-chun, a secondary four student from the Diocesan Boys' School.

The AI-based blind stick was inspired by the experience of one teammate's visually impaired friend, who said that most AI crutches were too heavy and inaccurate.

The team's invention opts for a depth camera, rather than an ultrasound sensor system, to detect both moving and stationary obstacles by analyzing the distance between.

The stick will also include a panic button with a location function via a mobile app.

"Traditional blind sticks can only detect obstacles close to the floor, resulting in a high rate of upper-body injuries in blind individuals. By using depth cameras, it can detect any objects in proximity," said Venant Chiang, cofounder and chief executive officer of Enlightening Intelligence, the company responsible for commercializing the students' design.

The Wand also uses an AI-powered assistant system with a natural language processing system embedded in a microchip, allowing it to answer questions in multiple languages.

Four of the winning students were offered internships to participate in developing their design at Chiang's company.

"It is very exciting to see our idea turn into a reality as we have never expected that," Wong said.

"We are almost done with our prototype and we expect the smart crutch to hit the market by the end of the first half of next year," Chiang said.

The Wands are expected to be sold for between HK$2,000 and HK$3,000 each, with plans to seek funding to subsidize the price.

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