Israel's Disabled War Veterans Inspire Innovation

Host of local tech companies developing devices and apps for the impaired.

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Sesame Touch-Free Phone co-founders Oded Bendov (L) and Giora Livne (YouTube screenshot)
Sesame Touch-Free Phone co-founders Oded Bendov (L) and Giora Livne (YouTube screenshot)

Israeli technology firms catering to the country’s disabled war veterans are exploring ways to bring their innovations to the mass market with applications that make mobile phones easier to use.

With its thriving startup scene and large number of military veterans, Israel is a natural incubator of technology for the disabled, some of which is proving useful to able bodied users as well.

“That’s the secret sauce to go to scale,” said Andrew Johnson, an analyst with market research firm Gartner.

A phone for the blind developed by Project Ray also allows drivers to operate a device without taking their eyes off the road, while Sesame Enable’s hands-free phone, crucial for paralyzed users, offers convenience to all.

Voiceitt, which developed an app for people with speech impediments, is exploring ways to help voice-recognition software understand a more diverse range of accents.

Johnson added that phone manufacturers are beginning to incorporate disability technology as standard, providing a platform for more specialized apps.

iPhone and Android phones already include features for the disabled, while Samsung’s Galaxy is the first to incorporate eye-tracking technology for hands-free use.

Disability has inspired innovation for centuries. Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone grew out of work on hearing and speech products for the deaf, while Thomas Edison envisaged the phonograph as a means of recording books for the blind.

More recently, many developments in screen interfaces, robotics and voice recognition were test driven by disabled users.

Sesame is the brainchild of Giora Livne, a former electrical engineer in Israel’s navy who became paralyzed from the neck down when he fell off a ladder, and entrepreneur Oded Ben-Dov.

Livne turns on his phone by uttering “open sesame,” and minimal head movements enable him to dial or send messages.

“Despite advancements in technology, so few are designed to meet the needs of people with disabilities,” said Ben-Dov.

He estimates Sesame’s core disability market at 10 million adults, but is targeting able bodied users as well. The company recently introduced an app for Apple iPads letting piano players turn sheet music with a nod of the head.

Project Ray targets 39 million blind users and 246 million visually impaired worldwide, who typically rely on simple phones with big keys, a market dominated by Sweden’s Doro AB. Project Ray raised $1 million, including money from Qualcomm to build a customized Google Nexus or Huawei phone that speaks out loud, telling users what button has been touched.

To branch out, the company adapted its technology to a car accessory that enables drivers to remotely control cellphones without looking at the screen and plans to release the product globally in February, CEO Boaz Zilberman said.

Voiceitt’s core product is an app for users with speech impairments – a market estimated at 10 million – that learns a person’s speech pattern and makes it understandable to others.

CEO Danny Weissberg believes Voiceitt can also help people improve their accent when speaking a foreign language, and make mainstream voice recognition such as Apple’s Siri more reliable. Leading speech recognition programs recognise just a handful of accents in English to cover the full range of native and non-native speakers worldwide.

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