Can a smart cane connect health technology, smart cities & smart mobility?
WeWALK is an intelligent cane that is intended to enhance and add value to a long white cane. WeWALK preserved everything that makes the white cane excellent but improved it by replacing the handle and adding value-added tech features.
In the latest episode of 15 Minutes with the Doctor, Vinay chats to John Marc. He is the Head of R&D at WeWALK, a startup with the ultimate vision to be a platform that unites the visually impaired community and improves societal integration through mobility. It has created a smart cane and a companion app to bring tech advancements to the standard white cane. In this special article, learn about how assistive technology can interconnect lives from the way people move in digital cities, to how the startup navigated the pandemic and what could healthtech look like in 5 years time.
Global Healthtech, Smart Cities & Smart Mobility
The startup is partly based in Turkey with the co-founders from Turkey. What’s healthtech like there, do you know?
So, we’re actually a U.K. headquartered company. Yes, we do have some of our development team in Turkey, but we work internationally. Our Turkish company is a subsidy of our central U.K. organisation. We work hand in hand to try to cover all of Europe, the U.S. as well.
We’re all over the globe for sure. And I’d say that the healthcare scene across the world is pretty much unanimous in that it is forthcoming. It is evolving. People realise the benefit of technology and things like smart mobility.
Previously Smart Cities and healthcare were almost two separate things. Still, as we sort of progress towards the future, as we progress towards a sort of integrated living, things like WeWalk and Smart Cities and healthcare become much more intertwined. For people to access good healthcare, for people to live fulfilling lives, to be able to access food, to be able to access societal engagements, to ensure that their mental health is good and that the visual impairment doesn’t burden their life too much, they need devices such as WeWalk and other assistive tech to achieve that. To transition from just visual function, to functional vision and functional performance.
So, much tech is moving into healthcare, especially with our future plans for WeWalk, looking at spatial sensing and improved navigation systems. And so, we end up finding that we’re straddling the line most of the time, between the medical side or medtech and Smart Cities/5G/telecom operators.
I mean, in the past, who would’ve thought telecom operators would have worked with healthcare? But now, as we’ve progressed to the connected age, we’re seeing more and more strides towards this unanimous 5G internet of things healthcare ecosystem. So I guess this could be an excellent time to talk about one of our projects that perfectly demonstrates this.
So, as part of our work with Microsoft, we’ve been using Microsoft’s machine learning model to understand how visually impaired persons use WeWalk. So, we’re looking at things like walking speed, distance, time spent outdoors. Of course, with the user’s consent. This is part of our artificial intelligence mobility value-added feature. So, users can opt to see all of these stats and opt for WeWalk to record these stats and feed it back to the user.
That information can be highly beneficial for ophthalmologists, optometrists, mobility and orientation specialists, occupational therapists. You know, seeing how their patients progress on the practical side over time is very valuable.
But who would’ve thought that a smart cane that gives visually impaired people navigation to a bus stop could also be used to help ophthalmologists and doctors better understand the functional performance of a visually impaired person? How residual sight, for instance, or declining sight is changing their behaviours. How is long term occupational therapy improving their behaviour? It’s fascinating. It’s exciting to be here because it’s a slow merge of these individual technology sectors into the bigger picture. And we’re glad to be a part of that, for sure.
I think when you were talking about Smart Cities; immediately, I just had a thought, “Oh wow. How the cane could integrate with more specific location tracking or beacons and guide people around the city when connected to 5G.” There are so many potential opportunities there, which in the end, as you said, improve function and independence for people from all walks of life with that continuous feedback loop to health and care professionals.
How did WeWALK survive through the Covid-19 pandemic?
I’m interested; you mentioned working through Covid-19 there — How is it as a startup to work through that? I can imagine logistical problems maybe in terms of sourcing and manufacturing because you’ve got the hardware, but what about actually just surviving and getting through — How is that?
I mean, I guess it’ll come as no surprise for me to say that it wasn’t easy. But again, I’d say that we were lucky in the sense that we have a great manufacturing partner. So pre-pandemic, we’ve been working and manufacturing our product with one of the largest manufacturers in Europe. They’ve got the supply chain. They deal with the shipping, warranty and quality control. That’s extraordinarily useful for us. It’s been one of the key factors that has helped us get through the pandemic. But again, I guess the pandemic, in a way, also reaffirmed how important our product is. During that time, especially being part of the visually impaired community, you realise that independence is vital. You had to be able to go out, not rely on physical assistance and be able still to live a fulfilling life, head to your job if you’re a key worker, be able to purchase groceries and basic supplies.
And that’s where something like WeWALK became even more critical. So WeWALK no longer just became a device for open exploration and wandering the street. Still, it also became an essential device to be able to get to the supermarket or somewhere without having to hold onto someone for guidance necessarily. That made us realise even more just the importance of independence and making a safe, reliable product. I mean, even something like obstacle detection, identifying where someone is in front of you without having to tap them with your cane was a really useful tool. So it was a learning opportunity for us. It was tough, but again, lessons are never easy to learn, so there we go.
It’s an interesting point! I think the importance of having a good support structure and independence became even more important for some, and I think potentially vulnerable people became more vulnerable. Tech is something that you can rely on more in some ways, given the situation Covid-19 presented to us in.
Healthtech in 5 years time — What does the community want?
What’s your take on where you see healthtech as a sector in 5 years?
That’s a good question. Can I predict the future? Maybe, maybe not. I’d say, look, fundamentally, one thing we’ve learned for the visually impaired community is you can never just come in and reinvent the wheel. You know, people have lived with specific standards and certain expectations and requirements for years.
Orientation and mobility specialists, for instance, are a cornerstone of the visually impaired communities. So, you can’t just come in with something like WeWalk or like a crazy new device that completely eradicates the smart cane and just promise, “Oh, well, with this device, you’re going to be able to do absolutely everything perfectly.” There is no such thing.
And so, in five years, I think these foundations are going to remain the same. I think orientation and mobility and the white cane are still going to be the fundamentals of everyday life, But, it’s just that new technologies like our smart cane, like our navigation app, like the other assistive technology providers that are going to be more established and integrated.
If you look at the NHS, for instance, using digital technology to connect people to GPs saves the need for travel. So, it’s keeping the fundamental service the same, and you’re still meeting with the doctor. It’s just made it easier, more accessible and smoother. And I think that’s just going to be the heading. I don’t think anything will come in in five years and completely change the way we work and live.
Well, I say that, and we’ve had a pandemic that’s changed home working of course. But I think that technologies like WeWalk will really have a fundamental setting in mobility in five years’ time. So, it will no longer just be a tech device that’s shiny and brand new, but rather a continuous recommendation that’s found its place in the roster of technology used by visually impaired people.
And so will other mobility tools that try to bring together connected technology. So, it’s an exciting journey ahead for sure. We’re going to keep toning it and growing it. And again, as I hope you realise, we’re going to shift to adapt with our work with our community. Our vision is very much driven by what our community wants. So, in five years, we’ll just try to give our community what they’ve asked for.
“Being open to change is crucial, and that goes to my impromptu tips on running a visually impaired organisation, which is you have to be open to feedback. With visual impairment, people have a hugely varying range of requirements, and you cannot simply know what those requirements are. You can spend years of your life learning about them. But the best way is community engagement. In the end, we always tried our best to action what we learn and to translate them into working product.”