Globally, 225 million people are estimated to suffer from moderate or severe visual impairments, and 49.1 million are blind, according to 2020 data from the Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science journal. A Japanese startup that was incubated at Honda Motor Company’s business creation program hopes to make navigating the world easier and safer for the visually impaired.
Ashirase, which debuted as the first business venture to come out of Honda’s Ignition program in June, shared details of its in-shoe navigation system for low-vision walkers on Tuesday. The system aims to help users achieve more independence in their daily lives by allowing them to feel which way to walk through in-shoe vibrations connected to a navigation app on a smartphone. Ashirase hopes to begin sales of the system, also named Ashirase, by October 2022.
Honda created Ignition in 2017 to feature original technology, ideas, and designs of Honda associates with the goal of solving social issues and going beyond the existing Honda business. CEO Wataru Chino had previously worked at Honda since 2008 on R&D for EV motor control and automated driving systems. Chino’s background is evident in the navigation system’s technology, which he said is inspired by advanced driver assist and autonomous driving systems.
“The overlap perspective can be, for instance, the way we utilize sensor information,” Chino told TechCrunch. “We use a sensor fusion technology, meaning we can combine information from the different sensors. I have experience in that field myself so that is helpful. Plus there is overlap with automated driving because when we were thinking of safety walking, the automated driving technology had given us an idea for the concept.”
“Ashirase” comes from the Japanese words ashi, meaning “foot,” and shirase, meaning “notification.” As its name suggests, the device, which is attached to the shoe, vibrates to provide navigation based on the route set within an app. Motion sensors, which consist of an accelerometer, gyro sensors and orientation sensors, enable the system to understand how the user is walking.
While en route outside, the system localizes the user based on global navigation satellite positioning information and data based on the user’s foot movement. Ashirase’s app is connected to a range of different map vendors like Google Maps, and Chino said the device can switch to adapt to different information available on different maps. This capability might be helpful if, say, one map had updated information about a road blockage and could send over-the-air updates.
“Going forward, we want to develop the function to generate a map itself using sensors from the outdoor environment, but that’s maybe five years down the line,” Chino said.
The vibrators are aligned with the foot’s nerve layer, so it’s easy to feel the pulse. To indicate the user should walk straight ahead, the vibrator positioned at the front of the shoe vibrates. Vibrators on the left and the right side of the shoe also indicate turning signals for the walker.
Ashirase says this form of intuitive navigation helps the walker attain a more relaxed state of mind rather than one that is constantly alert, leading to a safer walk and less stress for the user.
This also allows the user to have more attention to spare for audible warnings in their environment, like, for example, if they were at a crosswalk, because the device cannot warn the user of obstacles ahead.
“Going forward, we’re thinking about technical updates for users who are totally blind because they don’t have such information like obstacle awareness like low-vision people,” Chino said. “So at this moment, the device is designed for low-vision walkers.”
While indoors, like in a shopping mall, the GPS won’t reach the user, and there isn’t a map for them to localize to. To solve for this, the company says its plan is to use WiFi or Bluetooth-based positioning, connecting to other devices and cell phones within the store, to localize the visually impaired person.
Ashirase is also considering ways to integrate with public transit systems so that the device can alert a user if they have arrived or are near their next stop, according to Chino.
It’s a lot of tech to pack into one little device that attaches to a shoe — any shoe. Chino said the device, which only needs to be charged once a week based on three hours of use per day, is made to be flexible and fit onto different types, shapes and sizes of shoes.
Ashirase intends to release its beta version for testing and data collection in October or November this year and hopes to achieve mass production by October 2022. It’ll have a direct-to-consumer model, the price of which the company is not yet ready to disclose, and a subscription model, which should cost about 2,000 to 3,000 Japanese Yen ($18 to $27) per month.
Chino estimates it’ll take the company 200 million Yen ($1.8 million), including the funds the company has already raised, to make it to market. So far, the company has raised 70 million Yen ($638,000), which came in the form of an equity investor round and some non-equity rounds, according to Chino.
Honda maintains an investor role in the company, supporting and following the business along the way, but Ashirase’s aim is to go public as a standalone company.