Designed to replace the traditional white cane used by the visually impaired around the world, the WeWALK smart cane offers users hazard detection via a sensor, and much more via a smartphone app and regular software updates.
Kursat Ceylan is a 34-year old young man visually impaired from birth. But he doesn’t let that get in the way of anything, travelling everywhere with his WeWALK smart cane.
Ceylan, born in Ankara, went to a school for the blind in Istanbul and ended up placing in one of Turkey’s top universities, Bogazici University.
He studied Guidance and Psychological Counseling there, and stayed in Oklahoma for a semester as an exchange student. It was when he was in Bogazici University he first became involved with the Young Guru Academy, a not-for-profit NGO based in Turkey.
“We had started WeWALK as a project, with my mentor Emre Zorlu,” Ceylan tells TRT World. Zorlu is now an investor in WeWALK with Vestel Ventures.
“The YGA was established in 2000 and is a two-year social innovation programme for university students,” he says. “Fifty thousand students apply for it every year, and only fifty are chosen.”
Ceylan was among those who were chosen to work with the YGA, along with students from universities worldwide such as Harvard, UC Berkeley, Columbia, and Turin Polytechnic.
Ceylan still volunteers for the YGA as a past participant, but says he has had to leave its management when the WeWALK project which he co-founded with Gokhan Mericliler and Sadik Unlu took off. “Gokhan, Sadik and I go back a decade,” Ceylan says. “We met at the YGA.”
“The WeWALK project started in 2017, and became a company in 2019,” Ceylan reminisces. “The products have already reached visually impaired people in 37 countries,” he adds.
WeWALK is a smart cane made for visually impaired people. It aims to increase their mobility and to protect them from everyday mishaps they might have were they using a simple white cane.
WeWALK has been selected as one of the eleven companies for Microsoft’s AI For Good project, and it was also featured as Time magazine’s Best Inventions 2019. It also won a gold Edison Award in Vision Enhancement 2018.
“We recently had our first seed investor round,” Ceylan tells TRT World, “about three months ago, for $750,000.” The investor list, in addition to Vestel Ventures, includes business people such as Agah Ugur, the former CEO of Borusan; Ali Karabey, the founder of the 212 Capital Partners; Burak Sevilengul, former Executive Vice President of Marketing at Turkcell; Erinc Ozada of Galata Business Angels; Orhan Ayanlar of Mediterra Capital Management; Sanem Bilgin Erkurt, General Manager of UNICEF Turkey National Committee; Shishir Malhotra of Eastside Primetimers; and Uzay Kozak, Managing Partner of EMEA Capital.
Ceylan adds that the WeWALK smart cane is both hardware, and open software that is ever being updated. Voice and touch controlled, the lightweight WeWALK cane connects to smartphones via Bluetooth and costs $600. Currently, the cane is on sale for preorder for $450.
Ceylan first realised the need for a smart cane when he was in New York in 2017 to speak at the United Nations’ Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD. Trying to make his way from the airport to his hotel, with his suitcase, smartphone and a regular white cane in hand, he hit his head on a pole his cane had missed, and injured himself.
“There are 253 million visually impaired people in the world,” he says. “Technology has come a long way. The white cane is a simple stick, it can be improved on with smart technology.”
Unlike the traditional white cane, which detects obstacles at ground level, the WeWALK smart cane sensor detects obstacles at neck and chest level, alerting users when they are near. It also has a touchscreen and a microphone.
WeWALK has mobile apps for iOS and Android that help with navigation, public transport schedules, finding popular places such as restaurants, cafes, museums and more. It has a “what’s around me” attribute that tells users about the street they’re on.