Samsung team creates app to help the blind see

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Samsung team creates app to help the blind see

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Left: Kim Seung-chan, a member of the Gear View & Read team, right, introduces the Reluminus app that helps the visually impaired see. Right: A filter option on Relumino helps correct vision that blurs the center of one’s view. [SAMSUNG ELECTRONICS]

Last year, an odd statistic caught the eye of Cho Jung-hoon, an engineer at Samsung Electronics.

A government survey found that 92 percent of visually-impaired people enjoyed watching television as their favorite pastime.

“At the time, I thought there might have been a mistake in the article, but it turned out that it was me who lacked basic knowledge regarding visual impairment,” the 44-year-old engineer said during a media briefing at Samsung Electronics’ press room in central Seoul on Friday to unveil an augmented reality app for the visually impaired.

Only 14 percent of visually impaired people are completely blind, according to a World Health Organization report in 2010, while the remaining 86 percent have varying abilities to detect light, darkness and blurry forms. This revelation motivated Cho to create a device that helps those with low vision.

He submitted a plan to C-Lab, Samsung Electronics’ in-house incubator that supports employees’ venture ideas for a year. C-Lab selected Cho’s idea in May last year after an internal screening and company-wide vote.

Cho, who has been working at Samsung for nine years, formed a team called Gear View & Read, and its outcome was Reluminus, an app that takes images of the user’s surroundings and refines them for the visually impaired. It requires the user to wear a virtual reality headset used in combination with a smartphone, but the company said the headset, in the 100,000 won ($88) range, is still cheaper than comparable devices that easily surpass a million won.

“During our research, our team found that many visually-impaired people hesitate to buy optical devices because of their high price,” Cho said. “And since more than 70 percent of them use smartphones, we thought it would be useful if we could add software on top of that to help them see better.”

After conducting trial runs with visually-impaired people, Cho’s team created filters that refine images for specific disabilities like blurs on the outlines of figures or in the center. Color filters were also added for people who tire from brightness.

“There are various visual conditions identified as impairments and what’s great about Reluminus is that the platform can be customized according to the individual,” said Kim Chan-hong, a teacher at the Hanbit School for the Blind where Cho’s team conducted research.

The team’s next task is to make glasses that can offer the same function. The team received feedback that the virtual reality headsets were uncomfortable to wear outdoors.

Normally, a C-Lab venture is absorbed into a company division or spun off as another company, but Samsung Electronics is exceptionally supporting the team for another year for the glasses project.

“The strength of Samsung Electronics is that it that it has a well-organized structure, strong leadership and is good at making choices and concentrating on them,” said Lee Jai-il, vice president of the company’s Creativity & Innovation Center. “But we thought that wasn’t enough to prepare for a fast-changing future which is why we decided to invigorate smaller and more innovative organizations.”

Employees with a business idea can apply for the one-year program during which they can solely work on the idea. They head a team, typically of three to seven members. The process is similar to that of a start-up, making quick decisions and revising them after receiving feedback and mentoring sessions from Samsung. Among 180 teams that passed through C-Lab since 2015, 46 percent were absorbed to the company and 18 percent spun off. The rest dropped the project in the middle due to underwhelming results.

“Our mind-set is to aim for a failure ratio of 90 percent,” Lee said. “The objective is to encourage employees to set a difficult aim that nine out of 10 will give up in the middle.”


BY SONG KYOUNG-SON [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]

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