SENSE OF DIRECTION
Keith Kirkland, Accessories Design ’10, created a vibrating wristband that guides the blind

On November 5, a blind man named Simon Wheatcroft will run the New York City Marathon without a guide. He will be aided in this feat by the Wayband, a wearable navigation device that uses haptic feedback—touch—to communicate directions to the blind and visually impaired. Whenever Wheatcroft needs to turn, a complex but intuitive array of vibrations will tell him when to do it and by how much. If he is not aligned precisely with the road, subtle vibrations will correct him.

The American Foundation for the Blind estimates that 21 million Americans are blind or visually impaired. And according to the World Health Organization, 82 percent of blind people are 50 and above. “As we get older,” says Keith Kirkland ’10, the CEO of Wear-Works, the fledgling wearables company that created the Wayband, “this device could be for any one of us.”

The Wayband translates GPS navigation from a smartphone into an intuitive language of vibrations.

Kirkland makes an ideal CEO. With his engaging manner and easy smile, he exudes positivity and possibility. He is ravenous for knowledge and freely shares what he knows. He dreams big and is determined enough to realize those dreams.

He also has acquired a dazzling range of skills. When he came to FIT in early 2008, he was a mechanical engineer hoping to become a shoe designer. After graduation, he chose handbags instead, to sidestep the fickle art of sizing. He worked as a technical designer at LeSportsac, then as a handbag engineer at Coach, teaching luxury construction techniques to factory employees. He loved the work but felt guilty about the environmental implications of the fashion cycle. “I got tired of supporting a culture of waste,” he says. “I wanted to figure out how to use design to further humanity.”

In a master’s program in global innovation design at Pratt, he met Yangyang Wang and Kevin Yoo, and after graduating in 2015, they launched the wearable technology company WearWorks. For their first project, they envisioned a wristband that communicated GPS-based turn-by-turn directions using haptic feedback. It would be ideal for cyclists, because it’s safer than looking at a phone while biking; tourists, who might be uncomfortable staring at their phone in unfamiliar surroundings; and the military, for silent communication in enemy territory.

Yoo, Kirkland, and Wang inside the Urban-X studio in Greenpoint, where they refined their prototype and made great strides towards the big launch.

Existing navigational devices use a combination of visual and auditory stimuli (a map and voice directions) to guide users. But when driving, walking, or biking, the eyes are busy making sure you don’t get hit by a car or crash into a lamppost, and the ears are alert to invisible dangers—or are occupied with music or a podcast. On the other hand, the sense of touch, which can detect subtle shifts in pressure, temperature, and location, is left untapped.

“There’s a big gap between what the skin is capable of and what we use it for,” Kirkland says. “Why not offload some of those communications from the visual and auditory channels?” The task was easier said than done. There existed no standardized language to communicate movements by touch. WearWorks had to create it. If the wearer needed to turn left, should the buzz occur on the right, like a push, or on the left, like a pull? What would be the difference between an alert for an upcoming turn and a command to turn immediately? Or the difference between a slight right and a hard right?

In late 2015, WearWorks won a spot in Next Top Makers (now called Futureworks NYC), a tech incubator and education program developed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation and sponsored by Nike and Microsoft, giving them six months of studio space and mentorship to develop an early prototype. But a chance meeting at the 2016 South by Southwest conference and festivals in Austin, TX, shifted their focus. A computer programmer at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired recognized that haptic technology could improve quality of life for the blind and invited the team to visit the school. That led to a four-hour meeting with the assistant commissioner for blind services at the Texas Department for Assistive and Rehabilitative Services. By June, they had officially changed gears.

“The device we had envisioned might make a bike ride better for a cyclist,” Kirkland says. “But that same device for the blind or visually impaired—it could be a revolution for them.” Emilie Gossiaux, a blind artist they knew from a concurrent internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s MediaLab, consulted with them about the device’s functionality. She liked the idea of a navigational wristband (as opposed to a handheld device), because guide dogs and canes both keep one hand occupied at all times. But the early rubber prototype was uncomfortable.

“There are lots of navigational tools for the iPhone,” she says, “but I always end up on the opposite side of the street, maybe a block away. And I don’t feel comfortable pulling out my phone and listening to it when there’s all these people around.”

After Next Top Makers, the WearWorks team needed more time and money. “When we first started, we thought we’d be manufacturing in six months,” Kirkland says. “That was totally stupid.”

They applied to Urban-X, an accelerator program founded by Mini, the car brand owned by BMW, in partnership with SOSV, a venture capital fund focusing on early-stage startups. Accelerators are crucial to the success of startups on the frontier of innovation, as traditional venture capital firms will not invest in a technology before it’s been invented.

Why would a carmaker invest in an assistive device for the blind? Because the Wayband’s technology can easily translate to haptic GPS directions in a car. Within a few years, that humorless disembodied voice in your maps app may become a series of vibrations in your steering wheel, guiding you intuitively and letting you chat or listen to music without the risk of missing a turn.

“We were intrigued with WearWorks for several reasons,” says Nick Plante, program director and venture partner of Urban-X. “They’re building something which can tangibly help a lot of people. Also, the founders are designers at the top of their game in haptics, which is a market that’s underdeveloped.”

 

Simon Wheatcroft, a blind athlete, will run the 2017 New York City Marathon using the Wayband.

When Hue visited the WearWorks team this past spring at the Urban-X Studio in Greenpoint, they were racing to complete a marketable prototype. In the open-plan office filled with long work tables bathed in natural light, one could hear the R2-D2 whirring of 3D printers and smell ambient odors of coffee and concrete dust. Nordic foodies Claus Meyer and Fredrik Berselius manage the on-site restaurant, serving gorgeous pastries and a surprising diversity of pickled things.

Besides designing a functional device with intuitive and unobtrusive haptic language and a user-friendly app, Kirkland, Wang, and Yoo spent their time at Urban-X making it look good.

“People have a misperception that blind people don’t care about how things look,” Kirkland says. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.” In reality, most blind people, just like anyone else, want to make a good visual impression on others and not attract undue attention.

“We want to invoke ‘happy,’” Wang says. “Rather than something that’s more assistive, we’d like to produce a product that’s universally usable and that incidentally helps blind users.” At the time, they planned on calling the device Hapi (Haptic Application Program Interface).

The prototype, revealed at the Urban-X demo day on May 4, is sophisticated, angular, and unobtrusive: passersby will undoubtedly mistake it for a Fitbit. It employs a haptic language, developed by the WearWorks team, that users can grasp intuitively in a matter of seconds. When you’re going in the wrong direction, a single haptic expression communicates which way and how much to turn. Optional advanced vibration patterns resembling Morse code can guide experienced users even more precisely. Hundreds of test users have confirmed that it works, and most prefer it to auditory GPS, which isn’t as exact and often must compete with street noise.

Future models may include obstacle detection, which will let users walk without a cane or service animal (Wheatcroft, the blind marathoner, will run with a custom obstacle-detection unit strapped to his chest), and step-counting, which will allow for navigation in the subway system and other places with spotty internet service.

After two years of development, the end is in sight: the Wayband will go into mass production after heatcroft debuts the device in November. The WearWorks team hopes to sell it for $249 beginning in April 2018.

“It’s a relief to finally see the finish line,” Kirkland says. For Wheatcroft, Gossiaux, and thousands of others who are blind and visually impaired, that finish line could represent a new beginning.

Simon Wheatcroft running the NYC Marathon

Photo by Vincent Tullo

Update: On November 4, 2017, the WearWorks team made history as blind athlete Simon Wheatcroft ran the New York City Marathon using the Wayband to help him navigate the course. Never before has a blind runner been able to attempt a marathon without being tethered to a sighted runner; Wheatcroft ran unassisted for the first 15 miles of the race. After that, the device began to malfunction, and Wheatcroft completed the race with guides.

“Yeah, we had a few problems along the way,” Kirkland wrote after the race. “But we were pushing the limits of possibility, and things break when you push the tech.”

“We did something great: a blind person has never run that far unassisted before. It was a very strong first step…and we won’t stop moving until we get him across that finish line.”