.lumen: How the glasses created by a Romanian startup aid the mobility of the blind
At the end of November, Romanian startup .lumen announced the first details on its product - glasses designed to help the mobility of the blind. The company designs a system that uses artificial intelligence and robotics to mimic the main features of a guide dog in a scalable solution in the form of a headset.
This year, .lumen has attracted over USD 1 million in investment rounds and tripled the size of its staff. The final design of the product is to be released soon, and the company plans to start production in the second half of 2021.
Set up as a research project at the end of 2018, .lumen turned into a startup at the beginning of 2020. It was founded by Cornel Amariei together with Dr. Gabriel Chindris, a university professor in electronics, and Mihai Ivascu, the CEO & founder of M3 Holdings - Moneymailme, M3 Payments, and Modex.
Cornel Amariei previously worked as head of innovation in a large automotive company and made it on to the inaugural 30 Under 30 Europe List of the “top young leaders, creative inventors and brash entrepreneurs in 10 different sectors.” He brings to the venture an understanding of how disabilities can impact people shaped by having both parents with locomotive disabilities. In an interview with Romania Insider, he spoke about how the .lumen glasses work and how they will reach their users, how the pandemic impacted the company’s activity, and some of the challenges that startups face.
How does the .lumen system work?
The system uses artificial intelligence and robotics to mimic the main features of a guide dog in a headset solution. The .lumen glasses understand the environment, objects, position, and movement, and where it is safe for a blind person to move, and compute interaction paths to wanted objects. While a guide dog offers the information by pulling their owner’s hand, the .lumen glasses do the same using haptics and sound.
“We fundamentally believe that better mobility for the blind results in better education, better employment, and better social life.
The easiest way to explain it is to compare it to what a guide dog does, the dog being seen as the most useful solution at this point. For instance, you can ask a guide dog to take you to the door, and they will take you there. If the dog paid attention and he was trained, you can ask him to take you to the building’s entrance door. If one lives in a block of flats and goes for a walk with the guide dog several times, the dog will start to learn where the entrance door is, they will give you signals to open the door.
If you ask them, they manage to take you to an empty bench in the park, to an empty chair, to a vacant chair at an available table – I’ve heard stories that some can, some cannot. These are just simple examples. You can say, for instance, take me to the light switch, although a blind person rarely needs the light switch, or take me to the power plug, which some guide dogs manage to do. This is contextual information that a guide dog can process and can represent for their owners. They give their owners the info by pulling their hand. This is how a guide dog increases the owners’ mobility; they pull their owners’ hand.
We do the same thing, even more, because there are aspects a guide dog cannot perform but an IT system can. And we do all these using a system that is placed on the head, which pulls on the forehead; this is one, simplest way to explain it.”
Mapping the surrounding world
We often take for granted the ability to map the surrounding world and navigate it, Amariei explains. For those who cannot do this, the .lumen system does the mapping and provides the needed information to move around.
“A thing that I thought was incredibly interesting when we started was how we, humans, perceive information, perceive spatiality, how we perceive the areas we can move in, and how do we do it.
We, humans, map the world around us. I see a TV set in front of me, a door, etc., I remember their locations, and we start creating a map in our mind. The same for when we need to move to a place; we create a map with all the details we found. The map has all the information I need to be able to move. If I want to go from the living room to the bedroom, I know in my mind where to go. Even more, when I say I go to the car, I actually don’t go into the car; I go to a certain chair in the car, a chair that is behind a door, which is behind a handle. This is information we take for granted, very intuitive. […] .lumen can map the world, understand the systems, items around it, the obstacles, and living beings. This is one aspect – to understand the ecosystem surrounding you, what it looks like, its dimensions, how it moves, where it is safe to go, and where not. The next step when moving is to go around the objects we want to avoid. The same for the .lumen system. It understands where one can move and provides the contextual information needed to do this. […].lumen begins to understand all this contextual, quite intuitive information. Everything that a person without visual capability doesn’t understand the same way as a person who has the visual capability, all these things we turn into an IT system.”
Who can use the .lumen glasses?
The system is mainly optimized for people with no sight, but many others with various degrees of visual disability could benefit from it.
“There are 40 million blind people in the world, whose vision is at a maximum at the level of light perception, meaning they might see if there is light or not, but they cannot distinguish shapes or anything like that. There are also 267 million people with severe visual impairment. We are focused on the 40 million people. This doesn’t mean that those with severe visual impairment cannot use the system. There are people using guide dogs who can still distinguish shapes. There are many forms of visual disability. We imagine blindness as being complete darkness […] although it is also this, there is the inability to perceive shapes, the inability to have an appropriate visual field. There are people who have small fragments of the visual field, who are almost useless. Some people can read three letters at a time but cannot move around. So yes, the system can be used by many categories, but it is mainly optimized for people who have no sight.”
How will the system reach its users?
The company plans to make the system available for testing so that the potential users see its advantages and apply for the available financing programs allowing them to get the glasses. The testing opportunities would be available through the assistive technology courses run by various associations aiding the blind and the visually impaired.
“We don’t expect the blind to pay for the system. We expect the people who need the system to make use of the existing financing programs. For instance, the European Union has programs in all member states, including Romania, and offers vouchers for the purchase of assistive technologies. The United States has other schemes, other countries other schemes. The idea is not to have the blind pay for the system but that they see its usefulness and resort to the programs available in every country to finance such a system.
When it comes to the distribution, we are mainly looking at the entities the blind collaborate with the most. We are looking at the associations for the blind that can be found all over the world; there are hundreds of them. Only in California, in the United States, there are 13 or 11 if I’m not mistaken. What’s more, many of these associations run courses on the use of assistive technologies. For instance, there are some in New York and California that combined have 50,000 (blind) people per year who go through these courses. Our idea is to make .lumen available in these courses so that people can test it, see its usefulness, and then apply for the financing mechanisms to obtain it.
For the distribution, these are the channels we will go through because training is needed, and that takes a while; it takes a few weeks before the blind can use the system and be comfortable with it. The training needs to be done by qualified people, who we see as being part of these associations. There is a dealership network we take into account, there are several directions.”
Testing during the pandemic
So far, tests have been performed with over 200 blind individuals from Romania and abroad, and over 2,000 tests are to be completed by the end of the first quarter of next year. Still, the pandemic and the associated safety concerns took a toll on the process. But the feedback received so far has been more than encouraging.
“I can say one word that I enjoyed very much. I can say the word ‘wow.’ For confidentiality reasons, I cannot go into too much detail about the testing. We will make things public sometime in the first quarter of next year.
In such a complex system, many parts need to be tested individually, parts that refer to how one communicates with the system, its comfort, and ergonomics. These are different tests. Parts that relate to how it guides users, how it represents the world. These are complex systems, and we validate each one of them individually. […] We have more than 200 blind people who tested it, and we have 2,000 more tests to do by the end of March. It is very difficult because of the pandemic. We don’t want to endanger anyone, and this is why we had to completely stop the tests over the past few weeks. We are looking for solutions to perform the tests in the safest environment.”
The final design of the product is to be released soon, and .lumen plans the full system integration up to the pre-production period by the end of the first quarter of 2021. Production is scheduled to start in the second half of 2021.
“We are in talks with multiple producers at the moment. It can be manufactured in several places, both in and outside of the European Union. We take all options into account. We will announce a manufacturer probably also in the second half of next year. The good news is that they can also be manufactured locally, I would say. Manufacturing is a strong word; most components are manufactured in other countries, mostly in the East; we are talking about the final assembly.
The start of the production depends on what we call design for manufacturing, meaning the needed optimizations to bring a product to the market. Many times this takes years. In this case, it is an accelerated process that already started.”
The EIT Health Headstart program
This year, .lumen has attracted over USD 1 million in investment rounds. It also received EUR 40,000 through the EIT Health Headstart program, which provides emerging companies with mentorship and funding opportunities to accelerate the development and time-to-market of innovative products and services. It was the only startup from Romania selected in the program.
“EIT Health puts us in an incredible program of investing partners, in a network of mentors, of leading labs and testbeds where we can test certain aspects of the system. These are the main benefits that EIT Health provides. Also this sum, which helps us in development. […] I was very happy to see very little bureaucracy and a lot of encouragement, common sense, and logic, and I am very, very happy for the fact that we are there and for the way it is organized.”
An expanding team
Besides Amariei, the founding team includes Gabriel Chindriş, a university professor in the Applied Electronics Department of the Technical University of Cluj Napoca, and the CTO of .lumen, and Mihai Ivascu, the founder of Ingenium Group, the technology infrastructure and logistics provider for M3 Holdings, and chairman the board .lumen.
Amariei and Chindriș met four years ago, while the first was working in the corporate world.
“We met in 2016, when I was in the corporate world, and I was looking for research partners for certain innovation projects. I got a recommendation, I called, we met, and in the years that followed, I think we built 50 prototypes together for the automotive world. Building all of these, working with the team he brought along, combined with my team, we cherry-picked the right people and started .lumen.”
The team now has more than 30 professionals who are seasoned researchers, scientists, professors from backgrounds such as engineering, computer science, electronics, disability studies, industrial design, testing, and others.
“I am happy we tripled the team over the past six months; we had doubts about whether we would find people. After 500 applicants in two months, we recruited around five. We take in around one in 80 who apply. We even had 100 people applying for one position. We are incredibly happy to find the people that we do. […] And it is not easy when 100 people are competing for one position. We have a rather lengthy process they have to go through. Not just the interview but challenges that people receive. From the 500, around 50 made it to the final stage, and from there, we selected.
We will start recruitment again, we need to grow and after this announcement on Monday [e.n. November 23] we already received many CVs and a lot of interest, many messages we found incredibly motivational. We have people asking us what they should learn so that they might be able to join our team at some point because they believe so much in what we do.”
The recruitment process is entirely open to both local and international candidates. “We have the largest office in Cluj, this is where most people are, but we also have people in Bucharest and in Timisoara. We had international interest, we did not recruit any foreign citizens, but we recruited Romanians living outside of the country. Our wish is to grow to more than 100 people by the end of next year. This means that very soon we will start recruiting again and attract, I hope, the best people we find.”
From Bucharest to Cluj-Napoca
The company’s main office is in Cluj-Napoca, where the core team was found when .lumen started. Amariei, a Bucharest native, has started spending more time in Cluj, even more so because of the pandemic.
“I am from Bucharest; I live in both cities, but I was in Cluj when the pandemic started, and I spent a lot of time in Cluj, unexpectedly so. I’m not used to spending so much time in one place. I’ve been on the road all my life, and the pandemic showed me a completely new part of life.
The company started in Cluj because this is where the people I started with were – I think I can say Gabriel is a Cluj native. When we decided to do this together, I wasn’t here yet, and we started working remotely. In time, I started spending more time here. Now, to go into some stereotypes, in Cluj, no one is from Cluj. If you ask them where they are from, they are from anywhere else, but they moved to Cluj. […] I’m someone restless, with lots of energy, and I needed an environment to complement this. Cluj completes this very well because people are very calm here; we all tried to surround ourselves with complementary people. But we have people in Bucharest, in Timișoara, outside of the country, and we complement each other pretty well.”
When asked about the differences between Bucharest and Cluj in terms of the available ecosystem for startups, he explains the pandemic made location less relevant. “The ecosystem, over the past months, no longer depended on the location because of the pandemic. I would say Romania is not a good place for startups. Full stop. The statistics show we are in the last place in innovation, we have the lowest number of innovative SMEs. But it doesn’t matter that much where you are; it is tough everywhere. In university cities such as Bucharest, Cluj, Iași, Timișoara, it is a bit easier because you find the people. […]
Startup is growth
Talking about the challenges local startups are faced with, he starts with the way the word is (mis)understood, and the impact this has.
“The word ‘startup’ is so misunderstood in Romania. A startup is not a new company, it is not a small-sized company, and it doesn’t mean Startup Nation or Startup Plus. Startup means growth, an entity that can grow incredibly fast. The definition of a startup is growth. Paul Graham said this, and I care a lot about this definition. A new company with two, three people is not a startup unless it can grow to 30 people in a year unless there is incredible growth. And starting from this misunderstanding, a wrong view of startups emerges, impacting recruitment. Many people, applicants, were worried that we are a small thing with minimal resources.
Furthermore, bureaucracy wise, it is very hard when talking about an investment round; it is not easy, and we do not have the mechanisms that exist in other counties. Having a part of investors outside of the country, we had difficulties adjusting systems that are very clear in other countries to what the Trade Registry allows in Romania. It wasn’t that bad, we found solutions every time, but it is not very comfortable. I would like to see new mechanisms to navigate the bureaucratic part faster.
In general, in the process of growing a startup, you start with an idea. There are many mechanisms or programs in Romania allowing the development of an idea, hackathons, and similar programs to develop an idea and maybe find some collaborators. The issue is that, when they are over, you are left with the idea, some friends, and that’s it. We have venture capital firms investing in startups but in those that are already mature enough, where things are already coagulated. They actually accelerate. There is the ideation part, where you can come up with ideas and find people; there is the acceleration part, once you have an established team, incubated, but the problem is that this intermediate, incubation area is missing. […] where the company is set up, and you receive the first money to spend. And we are not exactly a rich country. In the beginning, startups or ideas rely on money from ‘friends, family, and other fools.’ And it works for startups developing things that do not require a large starting investment. But when it comes to hardware, to creating things requiring significant investment […], it is very hard. We are not talking about having difficulties with making the hardware but in finding the funds. We found the funding, but their availability. This intermediate area is missing locally.”
A day at the .lumen office
The startup set up its office this year and moved to working online when the situation called for it. “Our office started during the pandemic. I remember May 15, when the first lockdown ended, and we started filling up the office. It was day one for us; it was a big change. We got together and set up the office. Initially, we had one floor in one building, and we were wondering if we will grow enough to cover more than one. We are already at three now, and we are still looking, even though we are working from home. […]
Anyone can work when they want to, and I’m very happy to see that at any time there is someone online […] But when it comes to testing and creating hardware, it cannot always be done remotely, and this has a rather strong impact on us.
On a regular day, when things were a bit more relaxed, but we still had the protective measures in place, .lumen was a creative environment where we had fun solving problems and enjoyed working together. When everything moved to online, we missed some of these things. Now we meet very carefully to deal with the hardware, the testing which is currently on hold; we try to find measures to do things in the safest way possible. In our area, it isn’t easy to do things remotely.”
Did the pandemic inspire other solutions or projects for people with disabilities? “I come from a family where both my parents have locomotor disabilities, and I have always been sensitive to this. Yes, there are other ideas, I have worked on other things, but .lumen is the focus now, one hundred percent.
We have a plan, and we even managed to be ahead of where we expected to be. We wanted to show the world a few details on what we are doing, to do a teasing, so to say, and get out of the stealth mode we have been operating in [..] and build towards our goal to bring an impact.”
(Photos courtesy of .lumen)