A Canadian startup has been named a grantee of Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility initiative, a $25 million, five year grant program launched last year to help NGOs, academics, researchers, and inventors accelerate their work for people with disabilities.
The five-year $25 million project is aimed to design AI tools that enable people with disabilities. The technology will offer more independence and support to those it could benefit most.
The AI for Accessibility program is part of Microsoft’s broader AI for Good initiative. This new round of 11 grantees brings the total projects included in the program to 32, which are spread across 13 countries. The grants are given in the form of Microsoft Azure credits or cash that can be used for critical needs like trials and general overhead.
One of the companies receiving a grant is iMerciv, which is developing MapinHood, a navigation app for pedestrians who are blind, have low vision or for people using wheelchairs. The app will audibly notify a user of hazards to avoid while walking, as well inform them on what they might need along the way, like water fountains, benches, or ramps. The technology is based on machine learning, crowdsourced information, and open-source data from local law enforcement.
The MapinHood app intends to use the funding to pay for Azure machine learning licenses to improve learning, storage and virtual machine capabilities along with other AI components needed in the future.
The app will use audio cues to warn users of obstacles on a path such as stairs, low hanging branches, street lamps, benches, water fountains and road signs that could otherwise cause trouble for disabled pedestrians.
“We have built a fully flexible, customized routing engine that only caters to pedestrians. The MapinHood app is essentially a crowd-sourced mobile mapping platform built for pedestrians by pedestrians,” said Arjun Mali, iMerciv’s Co-founder.
MapinHood is currently in the alpha stages with testing being conducted through four of iMerciv’s partners. Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, Walk Toronto and Microsoft have all partnered together to contribute to the success of iMerciv, with Microsoft also offering its own AI and machine learning developments.
“Vision loss affected our families, and we saw an opportunity to create a technological solution that would impact that community,” said Mali.
iMerciv focuses on the orientation and mobility needs of blind, deaf-blind, and visually impaired communities around the world. The company is based in Toronto and was founded in August 2014. It has received support from the Ontario Centres of Excellence, the University of Toronto, and the Ontario Brain Institute, among others.
“Our focus is on personalization, making the app as flexible and as customizable as it can be,” said Bin Liu, co-founder and CEO of iMerciv. “With navigation for pedestrians in general, and especially for people with disabilities, you cannot have a single solution that fits all needs.”
Mary Bellard, Microsoft senior architect lead for accessibility noted that there is both opportunity and a responsibility to make technology smarter for people with disabilities. “The amount of potential that there is for software or hardware to better meet the needs of people with disabilities, and to raise the bar of what customers can come to expect of the role technology could play in their lives, is just an amazing opportunity,” she stated.
Another one of iMerciv’s products is BuzzClip, a wearable device for those living with blindness or vision loss. The device uses ultrasound to identify obstacles in a user’s path, and informs the user of these obstacles through vibrations, allowing them to navigate around any encountered obstructions.
This year’s final deadline for submission of applications for Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility grants is November 13. Microsoft accepts proposals on a rolling basis with grants awarded each quarter.
The company is expecting to have the app available by March 2020 on iOS and Android, in Toronto and the Greater Toronto area.