Kapitel 02 / INNOVATIONSMANAGEMENT & DIGITALE VISIONEN
first-of-its kind product
to the blind
is quite difficult
285 million people worldwide are blind or suffer from a severe visual impairment. For all of them, access to information and communication is limited. High time for a change, decided the founders of DOT, a South Korean start-up. They produced an ac- tive Braille smartwatch, which is a low-cost education and com- munication tool for the blind. An interview with DOT founder and CEO Eric Ju Yoon Kim about a disruptive technological innovation.
PHOTOS // DOT INCORPORATION
INTERVIEW // ALEXANDER SCHILL, CHIEF CREATIVE OFFICER, SERVICEPLAN GROUP AND
ERIC JU YOON KIM, FOUNDER & CEO, DOT INCORPORATION
South Korean start-up Dot, founded by Eric Ju Yoon Kim and his classmate from the University of Washington Titus Cheng, has developed and produced a low-cost education and communica- tion tool for the blind – the first ever active Braille smartwatch. The device is based on haptic technology that provides feedback or information in real time through touch. Its mechanical display is able to depict Braille by a series of dull pins on the face that rise and fall at customisable speeds, spelling out words as the user places a finger on top. By linking to any Bluetooth device, the Dot smartwatch can pull text from applications like iMessage, Twitter or even e-books using voice commands. The Dot Watch is com- patible with Android and iOS-devices and will retail for less than 300 US dollars, which is a lot more realistic than the prices of conventional active Braille technology that can exceed the 3000- dollar mark.
DOT is a fascinating product; in fact, anyone who hears about it or sees the product online is instantly curious and wants to try it. How did you come up with the idea of producing a smartwatch for the blind and visually impaired?
ERIC JU YOON KIM: To cut a long story short, it was when I was living in Seattle as a college student, where I got to know a few blind people whom I later became friends with. These blind people were students as well, taking classes and reading from Braille books. That was the first time I saw how a blind person reads. Looking at them go about their daily learning activities raised the question: why do these Braille books have to be so big? Isn’t there a smaller, simpler solution?
As we got to know each other better, I was shown the Braille bible, which com- prised 22 Braille books. Which got me further thinking: isn’t there any electronic device that they can use instead of those bulky, heavy books? As it turns out, they did exist but they were surprisingly expensive, in the price range of 3000 to 15,000 dollars. Being an entrepreneur and having already launched three start-ups, it is in my nature to search out problems in order to solve them. I recognised the limita- tions of bulky Braille books and expensive Braille readers as major hurdles in the path of learning for blind people. That’s when I started to think of a solution to this problem.
Did being in close exchange with blind and visually impaired people change your way of thinking?
ERIC: Yes, it most definitely did. Firstly, I hardly knew anything about the daily lives of blind and visually impaired people. And quite honestly I didn’t really have an active interest, but that was until I became aware of all the problems and the hardships that blind people face, and especially the problems that blind students face on a daily basis. Also, most importantly I realised that we are all the same, despite what many people think. There really is no difference – we think the same, we feel the same, we have the same wishes, needs and desires. About 80% of blind people lose their sight when they are around 30 to 40 years old. So they have seen like us and done things like us but due to some unfortunate accident or health condition they lose their sight. So that’s the first thing I learnt, and with this learning also came the realisation that they obviously want solutions that can help improve their lives.
The second thing I learnt was that blind and visually impaired people care about how they look. As I mentioned before, they are just like us. So when making something for the blind, design and aesthetics are very im- portant factors. Normally people make strange illogical assumptions and think ‘they can’t see, therefore they won’t care about how they look’, but that’s not the case.
At this point in time, blind and visually im- paired people are taking problems as they come and simply living with them: sadly they have no other choice. We want to change that and create solutions that have an impact on their lives, and change it for the better, worldwide.
Looking back, would you do anything differently?
What was the biggest challenge you faced when working on DOT?
ERIC: The biggest challenge we faced was to get people to care about these prob- lems. To make them realise that the problem might not be as small as it seems from the outset, but in fact quite a sizeable problem, albeit unseen. Since the number of blind people compared to normally sighted people in the world is small, they go un- noticed. So getting people to understand this and making them believe that we can really impact their lives for the good of us all, was the biggest challenge.
How was the blind and visually impaired target group different from others?
ERIC: Blind people are limited in the media they use to take in information. What we noticed is that the most reliable and effective way the blind community receives information is through word of mouth. They tend to hear other blind people’s opinions, and the opinions of people who are close to them like friends and family. Word of mouth is nothing but viral marketing, so the viral quality in our communi- cation would have to be an extremely important aspect.
Did you ever think about inclusion as a topic itself?
ERIC: Inclusion is the cornerstone of what we do. The devices that blind people are using right now, except smartphones, are designed in a very functional way, not keeping the aesthetic value in mind. And because of this the devices look ugly, out- dated and not very innovative. What we really want to do with DOT is to create beautiful, modern, well-crafted products that people even outside the blind commu- nity would love and consider to be beautiful. We want blind people to be compli- mented when they wear our products, so they feel a sense of pride. And through this we want to include them in the wider community.
DOT and the Active Braille technology behind it is innovative. Why do you think the competition hasn’t created any other solution yet?
ERIC: Before starting on DOT I did extensive market research, especially in the mar- ket for products for blind people. The companies that make products for blind peo- ple are governmental institutions and therefore don’t really have the drive to create something really innovative, or even decrease the price of their current products. Their focus is more about where the budget lies and how they can make the most of the money they have. And that is also the reason why most privately-owned companies are not active here, because it’s mostly dominated by governmental un- dertakings. It is a vicious circle right now, and given the pace at which the world is moving, the discrimination that blind people will experience is likely to increase drastically.
How hard is it to promote a product like DOT that has to be felt and experienced first-hand?
ERIC: It’s both difficult and easy. The people who run start-ups, invent products or are in the cre- ative field get it and really appreciate it, that’s the easy part. But to explain an innovative, first- of-its kind product to the blind is quite hard. One needs to be really careful while explaining the product and detailing the specs, explaining how the device really works and what it can do, what kind of content is available. There are some articles out there that give a very vague de- scription of the watch and that then creates a lot of negative opinions. DOT can do a lot of things including tell the time, text messaging, naviga- tion, etc. and communicating all these features is extremely important. My job right now is to travel to different places and give the press and other people a clear explanation of the product.
285 million new potential consumers are a lot for a start-up brand. Where do you see the potential and how can it be covered? And what do brands have to bear in mind?
ERIC: Yes, I think that’s a really big figure too. Our world is changing at an extreme- ly fast pace. There are so many things happening right now: artificial intelligence, machine learning, intelligent systems, etc. but for these 285 million people life is not that innovative and we want to change that. So we want to be the brand that deliv- ers the latest innovations to the 285 million and closes the innovation gap between sighted and visually impaired people. And it’s new because we aim to uplift an en- tire section of society that has been neglected this whole time. This is different from Apple, for example. We operate in a completely new paradigm and I hope we can bring innovations to people with other disabilities, and in turn improve their lives forever
What do you think about sports brands like adidas or Nike: should these brands also be thinking about the blind and visually impaired? Do you think they could collaborate with DOT?
ERIC: Yes, of course they could collaborate with us, we would be happy to work with them. I hope that with these collaborations we can become a door through which interesting projects like this can be made to help improve the lives of not only the blind, but people who are differently abled too.
How did the DOT business plan evolve from being just a Braille smartwatch to a smartwatch with various other applications? Was it planned or did it just happen as the project progressed? What were the key elements that shaped your thinking?
ERIC: It was definitely a step-by-step process. We just knew that we wanted to make a smartwatch for the blind. It was initially planned as an entry device, just to have a starting point. Through DOT we wanted to spread the literacy of reading Braille to blind people who’ve never experienced it. A huge percentage of people go blind at a much later stage in life, and the expensive and bulky devices make it really hard to learn Braille. We wanted to make a device that is much cheaper and easily accessible to almost anybody, anywhere. For example, we got to know that a lot of students cannot study maths properly because of the limitation in the Braille line, but with our technology we can use a multi-layered format in a DOT pad. That way they will be able to study maths and science and experience visuals etc. We are also trying to extend our reach to public infrastructure so the lives of the blind peo- ple can be improved immensely when they are outdoors. We are taking it step by step and hopefully one day we’ll be able to include blind people more easily and readily in our world.
What is your vision for the future?
ERIC: Well, the vision is very simple: we want to create innovative productsand solu- tions for the 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world. ‘To inno- vate’ is easy to say, but very hard to do. There are many aspects we want to inno- vate in their lives: from a device that they can incorporate in their private lives to solutions for blind people in public infrastructures. We want to make a change so that ten years from now, blind people will be able to access information and public facilities in the same way that sighted people can.