U of T startup BuzzClip gives blind users an extra line of defence
The BuzzClip attaches to clothing and buzzes when it senses obstacles.
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Over 28 years of blindness — his entire life — Rylan Vroom estimates he’s experienced about two dozen “bleeding bonks.” Ask him about it and he’ll lean down from his perch, at 6-foot-5, lift his hair and show you the little scars that criss-cross his forehead like divots in a chopping block. Whether it’s the unseen tops of door frames, dangling tree branches or signs that protrude over sidewalks, the man clearly hits his head a lot.
Or at least he used to.
Vroom is chief consultant and test subject No. 1 for a new piece of wearable technology that’s meant to complement the sight dogs and feeler canes used by visually impaired people.
Created at the University of Toronto’s Impact Centre startup “incubator,” the gadget is a small clip that uses ultrasound waves to detect objects up to two metres away, at heights ranging from around the wearer’s belly button to about a foot above the head. The clip has a buzzer that vibrates against the skin when it detects something, with varying levels of intensity that indicate how close the obstacle is.
Vroom calls it “revolutionary” and even came up with the name for it —BuzzClip — while out for Indian food with the gadget’s co-creators, U of T students Arjun Mali and Bin Liu.
“For a tall person, it’s especially nice,” Vroom said while demonstrating the BuzzClip at the Impact Centre on Friday.
“My head hurts a lot less,” he said with a laugh.
The origins of the BuzzClip date back one year, when Mali and Liu started a company called iMerciv and began to work on technology that could help visually impaired people. Each has family with seeing difficulties: Liu’s father has glaucoma, while Mali’s grandmother also has vision problems. He’s currently in India, where he has frequently travelled to test out the BuzzClip and volunteer at a blind children’s orphanage.
Liu, 24, said the BuzzClip grew out of a series of consultations with organizations such as the Helen Keller Centre and Balance for Blind Adults, where they met Vroom. Over the past year, they’ve developed a prototype and received several hundred pre-orders through their crowdfunding campaign, which closed in mid-November and raised more than $59,000.
“We spent a lot of time getting to know the community,” Liu said, adding that, at $150, the BuzzClip is less expensive than other wearable sensors on the market. “Everybody still uses a cane and guide dog, which is good, but there’s nothing more to it. Nothing much new has come out … It’s a reintroduction of simple technology to work with the cane and the guide dog.”
Rich McAloney, director of entrepreneurship, who oversees dozens of small tech startups at the Impact Centre, said he’s been impressed with the BuzzClip team’s progress. “It’s fantastic stuff,” he said. “What they’ve been able to accomplish since last year is just astonishing.”
The next step for BuzzClip is to find a manufacturer in the Toronto area that can assemble the gadgets for their first production blitz. Liu said the plastic shell, buzzer and some other parts will be shipped from China.
Vroom, meanwhile, said there’s a lot of comfort in knowing that he has an extra layer of defence with the device. No more emergency-room stitches; no more bloody head bonks.
For Vroom at least, the benefits of the BuzzClip are crystal clear.