Originally published by TechCrunch on December 8, 2022
WeWalk, a U.K.-based startup developing a “smart cane” for visually impaired people, today announced it has raised £2 million ($2.4 million) in venture funding from several notable institutional and angel investors — including Manchester City and German international footballer İlkay Gündoğan.
Founded out of London in 2019, WeWalk has developed a GPS-enabled smart cane and smartphone app, helping users navigate their surrounding environment. Time named the WeWalk Smart Cane one of the “best inventions” of 2019.
The cane, which costs around $600, can detect physical obstacles on the sidewalk and alert the user through vibrations and sounds, while the app integration enables turn-by-turn navigation too. Last year, WeWalk announced a partnership with Intel-owned Moovit to bring local transit data into the mix.
The WeWalk Smart Cane. Image Credits: WeWalk
Fast-forward to today, and WeWalk is now looking to use its fresh cash injection to bolster its product with computer vision smarts, developed in partnership with Imperial College London and the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).
While it’s not clear exactly what this will entail yet, the ultimate goal is to build something capable of reading road signs, or telling the user what number is on the front of a bus, or even what a specific object in their path is.
“We are aiming to maximise sensor efficiency and cost-effectiveness, leveraging smartphone sensing when appropriate,” WeWalk R&D lead Jean Marc Feghali explained to TechCrunch. “We are also investigating the state-of-the-art to determine what could be possible in different form factors.”
This initiative could also benefit from WeWalk’s existing partnership with Microsoft as part of its AI for Accessibility program, and may lead to deeper integrations with Microsoft’s Seeing AI app or Azure ML, according to Feghali.
The company has already started work on the project, recruiting some 30 people to help build and test the necessary software and hardware.
“The RNIB is supporting user-testing and ensuring that our designs are human-centred,” Feghali said. “Imperial College is supporting the underlying sensing algorithms. We envision a product that could be attached discreetly, providing its sensors with the widest field of view without impeding the user’s typical motion. We will then look to different feedback mechanisms including auditory and tactile to inform the user of information necessary for their safe mobility.”
It’s still a while away though, with plans to have something ready for market by 2024, but the company said that it is already testing camera and remote-human assistance functionality within the WeWalk mobile app, using this as a “design platter” to add further computer vision tools in the future.
With a fresh £2 million in the bank, the company said that it also plans to support other groups by creating “adaptive mobility aids” such as walking sticks or frames for elderly people.
“We want to scale our business to reach a wider global audience and advance our technology to offer better, more meaningful information to visually impaired people, older people, and anyone that faces mobility challenges,” WeWalk co-founder and CEO Gökhan Meriçliler said in a statement.
WeWalk’s funding round was led by Nesta Impact Investments, King’s Health Partners (KHP Ventures) and APY Ventures, with participation from public investors via Crowdcube and, of course, İlkay Gündoğan.