An audio sign that assists people with impaired vision to travel independently on public transport, a touch-less system for controlling smartphones, and a smart robotic wheelchair that helps mobility-restricted people – three technological developments that are changing the lives of those with disabilities and influencing their surroundings.

Approximately 20% of the world’s population suffer from some form of disability. Innovative technological developments, designed with the support of the Israel Innovation Authority, allow these people access to different services and to enjoy a better quality of life despite their disability. Step Hear‘s smart app helps the blind and visually impaired find their way around different businesses, use public transportation, and to function in different places with the help of a unique audio sign; the Sesame Enable corporation has developed a unique technology that allows the disabled to use and control a smartphone or tablet via head movements; the ReSymmetry corporation has developed HEALY – a smart robotic chair that gathers physiological data on the person sitting in it and adjusts its posture to his condition. The chair aims to prevent a deterioration in the medical condition of mobility impaired people in need of a wheelchair.   

“Assistive technology has the potential to dramatically change the lives of people with disabilities and enable them to enjoy a healthy, independent, and dignified life while integrating in and contributing to all areas of life: employment, education, recreation etc.” says Patricia Lahy-Engel, Senior Director of Social R&D of the Innovation Authority. “The Innovation Authority supports these technological developments as part of the ‘Assistive-tech’ Program which focuses on assistive technologies for the disabled – in conjunction with National Insurance funds.”  

Creating an Accessible Audio Route Through the Public Domain

“The best way to provide visually impaired people with a sense of security in the public domain is by activating an audio sign,” explains Shiran Hermon, Global Marketing & BizDev Manager at Step-Hear Ltd., a subsidiary company of Mehalev, that was founded a decade ago with the aim of designing technological solutions for the blind and visually impaired. “We have developed a fixed loudspeaker that operates with an app or that is activated wirelessly when a person enters a bank, hospital, bus-stop etc. and lets him know exactly where he is.

“The company was originally founded to provide solutions for people with vision impediments but today offers more general solutions for a range of problems. Some of our achievements have been in the field of public transport. We successfully led a pilot together with the Ministry of Transport and the current goal is for full nationwide assimilation in the public transportation system. Earlier this year we received a certificate of appreciation from a project called “Zero Project” for our smart technology in the field of accessibility. We operate in Russia, Romania, Australia, Germany, the US, Poland, Turkey, and France and are continuing in our worldwide efforts towards global distribution,” Hermon says.

The Step Hear system is based on an app operated by the disabled user. The audio sign is installed by businesses interested in making its service accessible. The business owner can also decide whether to add elements from existing systems to the audio sign in order to make them accessible. Apart from the audio sign that explains the user’s surroundings to him, the app also includes an internal compass capable of providing audio information about things in the surrounding area according to changes in the direction the telephone is held. For example, after passing the audio sign to the relevant department at Assaf HaRofeh Hospital, the app will inform the user that “the nurses’ station is located to your right” or that “the patient wards are 20 steps in front of you.”

The communication between the sign affixed above the door, the ATM, or any other interactive site and the user is transmitted easily via a free-of -charge app on a smartphone or a specially designed sign for the blind,” clarifies Yishai Hatzir, the company’s R&D and Operations Manager. “The local authority or business pays a monthly or yearly licensing fee. The system’s operation is simple – the user can choose whether to listen to the information via an earphone, a smartphone, or a loudspeaker installed at the business’s premises.”

Independent Mobility Improves the Quality of Life

In the field of public transport, our development enables communication and connection between the driver and passenger and, thereby, improve accessibility. For example, when the user approaches the bus-stop, he can activate the audio sign and listen to a list of all the different transportation lines’ arrival times or send a message to the driver that he is waiting for the bus. “The pilot, conducted with the funding of the Ministry of Transport, won us the Simcha Lustig Access Israel Prize,” Hatzir says proudly.

The bus drivers participating in the project are also satisfied with the system. The impact is expressed on several levels. The system gives disabled people independence and allows them to leave home, to work, and to spend time in leisure and recreational activities. Those experimenting with the system have defined it as having significant life-changing potential. Furthermore, assimilation of the development in the public domain conveys an important social message for adults and children who can see the state investing effort and resources in order to assist disabled populations in the public domain. 

“We are happy to be part of the technological future and aspire to lead a revolution by becoming a type of WAZE for people with disabilities,” says Hatzir. “The initiative was born thanks to the grants we received from the Innovation Authority. The Authority’s support is not only financial. Its reputation has helped us open the doors among international entities or at the Ministry of Transport and serves as a certificate of esteem or proof of reliability, helping us to dramatically expedite many bureaucratic processes.”

Technology that Overcomes the Obstacle of Touch

The Sesame Enable corporation was founded in order to provide a solution for disabled people who have difficulty using touch technology. “Our technology overcomes the touch obstacle,” says Rowee Benbenishty, the company’s CEO. “We have developed a unique technology that uses the device’s camera to track the user’s face, thereby giving him complete control over the device via the movements of his head. The company’s vision is to lead assistive technology as a bridge between people’s existing physical capabilities and the needs of technology. In other words, our goal is to create an alternative means to communicate with and consume information from a smartphone, tablet or computer for anyone unable to touch them.

The technological development is based on a game that that Oded Ben Dov, the company’s CTO, promoted at a previous company. The game, operated by means of hand and head movements, was presented on the ‘Tzinor Layla’ technology oriented TV program. The following morning, Oded received a telephone call from someone by the name of Giora – an engineer suffering from a spinal injury – who asked him to create him a mobile phone that he could use. A meeting between the two gave rise to the recognition of this technology’s value for people in Giora’s condition and they applied for one of the Innovation Authority’s programs in order to prove the feasibility of a design based on this technology and to embark upon its initial development,” Benbenishty explains. “Since then, we have advanced and two years ago we opened a subsidiary company in the US that engages in marketing and sales.”

The initial technological solution was based on a smartphone’s existing inbuilt front camera – the selfie camera. Even today, the app uses this camera for face recognition. It tracks head movement and provides a cursor on the screen with which the device can be used without the need for any direct touch. “The app is adapted to Android and Windows-based devices, and we also know how to make it accessible in other technologies, to add it to an existing product or to use it on different websites. This means that today our solution is not limited to a specific operating system but rather, is a complete solution that protects the user’s privacy while allowing full freedom of action,” Benbenishty explains.

Turning on the Camera and Surfing the Web Without Touch

Adapting the app to Windows was made possible thanks to the third Innovation Authority program that Sesame Enable participated in as part of the ‘Assistive-tech’ program. “Several months ago, we began offering Sesame Enable as a head movement tracking service on internet websites,” Benbenishty says. “The user can automatically turn on the camera and use the website without touch. When the camera turns on, it identifies a face and a cursor appears on the screen, with the mouse moving according to the user’s head movements. If the cursor stands still, an action is performed, or a menu appears that allows a specific action to be selected. Voice identification, accessibility tabs and other accessibility services can also be integrated. The website can be operated without any touch or the need to install another app. Companies operating in the field of accessibility can add our solution to the services they offer – and that is where we are currently focusing our efforts.

“The app can be downloaded anywhere in the world. We even have users in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Australia. The Israeli market is small and from the outset we realized the need to expand abroad. That is why we chose to conduct our marketing and sales operations abroad even though the product itself is developed in Israel, a decision that necessitates large budgets that a company such as ours simply doesn’t possess in the initial development stages,” says Benbenishty. 

Sesame Enable receives emotional feedback from its users. People, who due to their injury, completely lost their social independence, can now progress to the stage whereby they have full control over and interaction with technology, friends and family. For them, the ability to make a private phone call alone is not something to be taken for granted. “We have users who, thanks to our application, can read books or watch movies again. Some are children who can suddenly use Facebook or receive homework just like the other kids in the class,” Benbenishty describes. 

A Smart Robotic System That Changes Posture

For more than 20 years, occupational therapist Efrat Shenhod-Malihi worked at adapting rehabilitation and mobility devices for children and adults who suffer from a physical disability that restricts their movement. In recent years, she specialized in an interventional method called 24-hours postural management and in the care of personally disabled people’s musculoskeletal system. With her years of experience, she understood that many spine-related problems such as thigh problems, scoliosis, muscle contraction, and others are caused by prolonged sitting periods that can also influence internal physiological systems such as the respiratory and digestive systems. “While prolonged sitting also creates problems for healthy people, they can exercise to preserve their health, but a disabled person does not have this privilege,” explains Shenhod-Malihi. This insight led her to develop a unique reactive wheelchair system that makes sitting more effective, is adjusted to the user’s physical disability, and preserves his health. 

The ReSymmetry corporation, founded in 2016, develops smart robotic wheelchair systems that integrate movement into the sitting posture. The reactive system changes its shape, causing the user to adjust his posture so that he moves even while sitting in a wheelchair. At the same time, the system is equipped with sensors that measure different things such as the level of pressure exerted while sitting in a specific position for an extended period of time. The chair reacts to the user and alters his position in order to reduce the level of pressure and the risk of developing pressure wounds. “In general, our development focuses on the person sitting in the chair, on the ergonomics of the body, and not on the chair itself,” Shenhod-Malihi explans. “After developing the initial prototype, we progressed to the clinical trials stage that is overseen by Prof. Eliezer Carmeli, Physical Therapy Department Chair at the University of Haifa and the company’s scientific advisor. These trials revealed a significant improvement in all the standard indices and even after we finished the trial – no regression to the original level was recorded.”

The innovative robotic system will be assimilated in a regular motorized wheelchair and our hope is that every disabled person from children to the elderly, will have a reactive postural system with which he can participate in daily life – both at home and in the community. Rehabilitation robotics is presently used mainly in laboratories or rehabilitation institutions and, except for prosthetics, is not yet implemented in daily functional use at home. “Our goal is to introduce the use of robotic rehabilitation into the home as a useful functional-therapeutic daily tool,” Shenhod-Malihi summarizes.

Two and a Half Million Children are in Wheelchairs in Europe and the US

“Following the Innovation Authority’s investment, we developed five improved prototypes with postural attributes that are entirely different from the existing ones or the previous prototype,” Shenhod-Malihi emphasizes. “We are presently at the patent registration stage and have already begun discussions with local medical institutions in order to introduce three chairs into clinical trials here in Israel. We have won awards in three competitions. Two of these granted us monetary prizes while the other competition, in which we won sixth place, gave us exposure to the Chinese market. We have also received investments from the Innovation Authority and other private angels. 

Apart from the fact that the smart chair will allow a great number of people to live socially integrated lives and thereby enhance their wellbeing, it will also lead to a significant saving for the health system, both in surgical procedures and therapy personnel, including physiotherapy. “Many medical developments are turning to digital health because of the large challenge posed by hardware,

but our company’s vision is to introduce the product into the market to influence the lives of disabled people who are forced to undergo extended periods of hospitalization, incur pressure wounds, or suffer a deterioration in their condition. Our current goal is to develop a postural system for the disabled but in the future, it can be used by the general public because everyone in the west suffers from over-sitting,” Shenhod-Malihi sums up. 

According to Naomi Krieger Carmi, Head of the Societal Challenges Division at the Innovation Authority: “The Israeli high-tech industry cannot exist as a bubble removed from the country itself. Innovation must encompass all parts of the country and society. An initiative’s social objectives must be accompanied by economic worthwhileness, otherwise its impact will remain unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. This is precisely the importance of the impact innovation programs.”   

These developments wield immense social impact. Today, there are 10 million people in need of a wheelchair in the US alone, while the global figure stands at approximately 65 million. “Whatever direction we choose for this chair, the first development will be for children,” clarifies Shenhod-Malihi. “In Europe and the US, there are two and a half million children in wheelchairs. The development of a child’s musculoskeletal system is severely influenced by posture and processes within the body, and we believe that our chair can have a beneficial impact on these children, including preventing the need for surgery at an early age. Our company’s DNA is to develop whatever is needed to make a difference.”