Nowadays, a new generation of sector-agnostic VC (Venture Capital) funds is emerging to laser-focus on solutions advocating for inclusivity. This trend follows the political agenda of decision-makers backed by a vast amount of data collected in the past decade. As showcased in multiple studies, they serve researchers and thought leaders when pointing out gaps and deficiencies existing in the current mobility systems. Technological leap with the high pace in which urban areas grow makes them an incredibly attractive, albeit competitive space for solution providers where implementation speed and economic efficiency naturally gain the position of urging priorities.
Although it is true that competition translates into quality and eventually leads to cutting down on emissions while improving the quality of life, so-called smart cities are often overseeing vulnerable groups and minorities with needs that are different from the regular user profile. In this article, a hi-tech software solution supporting the blind and visually impaired will be discussed.
How does Dreamwaves work?
As an organization bridging all types of stakeholders under the pan-European roof, the special mandate of EIT Urban Mobility is to be vocal about the mobility-related needs of vulnerable minorities and lead the peloton of actors working on safe and inclusive public spaces.
Dreamwaves, an Austrian start-up founded and led by Hugo Furtado, Liliana Calapez, Elke Mattheiss, and Lukas Zimmermann strengthened the company’s equity portfolio with the right tool to work on this agenda. Namely, a software employing augmented reality technology to unlock the unique sound navigation experience to its users, making them feel safe and welcome on the busy streets. With Dreamwaves, the blind and visually impaired can navigate their surroundings with greater confidence and independence, creating a more equitable environment for all.
Why we invested in Dreamwaves?
What sparked EIT Urban Mobility investor´s attention and dispelled potential doubts? Let´s zoom at a simple 3xT test applied in this case as a part of standard qualification analysis.
It all started with a spotted opportunity and a multi-billion market that awaited to be unleashed. As he later admitted during one of the off-track conversations, Hugo Furtado – CEO of Dreamwaves – was always a passion-driven entrepreneur centered on new technologies and out-of-the-box innovations. To be crazy or not to be at all. Following the music and gaming industries racing solitary for both hardware and software improvements to take the sound experience to the next level, he already saw a brand-new use case. It later resulted with the thought that it pays off to look right when everyone goes left. And talking about the majority, all of us interact with audio content while commuting or during physical outdoor activities. It is nothing strange considering the fact that – following Eurostat´s data (1) – in 2019 an average commuting time oscillated around 25 minutes. However, as explained with greater detail in different study (2), for one-fifth of the population it could be extended to over 90 minutes per day.
To put it briefly: headphones, of all sizes and kinds, are nowadays an extension of our bodies. Extension that might be more than a source of entertainment, especially for the blind and visually impaired. Dreamwaves decided to be the voice of blind people, making them see the world through their ears.
In principle, the whole concept of screen- and hands-free navigation offered via waveOut can be stressed in three steps. Once the destination is selected and the journey kicks-off, virtual waypoints are being placed in the real world around the user. On the fly. The goal is to reach them and to make it happen, the user must hear them. That is when the sound is activated. It can be compared to a phone call when the ringtone allows us to locate the device. The closer we are, by nature the louder becomes the sound. The same law applies to the Dreamwaves´ software. As soon as the checkpoint is reached, the next waypoint is placed, and the voice switches its location. Again and over, following the beat of a gentle drum until the doormat. Or one´s favourite bookshop.
As simple and naïve the above may sound, the way-finding solution enclosed in the app requires the latest augmented reality toolkits, global positioning advances and machine learning methods behind the scenes. Additional challenges lie in the accuracy that in the busy streets full of static obstacles and dynamic objects must be ultimately reliable. Understanding the state-of-the art of computer vision methods to determine the location of the user in real time helps to overcome this barrier.
Connected to the multi-object environment but being a separate problem class is omnipresent noise pollution. As the solution is hardware-agnostic, meaning that no special upfront investment in wearables is required, it is crucial to ensure that the best experience is provided, even with some quality being lost. This trade-off is a fair price for making the solution truly open and accessible to everyone.
3. Tests & Testimonials
While Dreamwaves is changing the way people understand and sense their locations, the competent and interdisciplinary team navigate itself company´s growth by hearing to the group of early-adopters and tech geeks. Hundreds of individuals were involved in the design and testing phases, with the others feeding engineers with further, post-launch testimonials.
“The best thing we ever heard from a user was: “It’s a bit like seeing. The fact that I constantly can hear the direction I have to go to is a great advantage!”. This made us really proud, and also gave us the feeling that we are in the right direction. On the tough days, thinking about this and other pieces of feedback, really keeps us motivated and going!” – said Hugo Furtado, the CEO of Dreamwaves.
Besides feedback, interactions are constantly feeding the team with new ideas, because the real beauty of every journey lies in additional opportunities being unfolded on the way. For Dreamwaves, these are cavernous cycling and travelling markets where hundreds of millions of users are looking for tricks to make their lives easier and their urban trips saver. Is there anyone out there who didn’t manoeuvre the bike with one hand while staring at phone maps?
Future Mobility: amplifying the voice of inclusivity
Accompanied by the story of Hugo, Liliana, Elke, and Lukas this is the space to reflect all the barriers that still must be overcome to eradicate the gap between the blind or visually impaired and the rest sensing the surrounding with sight. With its first step and team efforts, Dreamwaves points to the direction we should look at technology. Its proper incorporation into urban and suburban areas can significantly enrich the existing toolkit, making the lenses through which smart cities are defined adjusted to the needs of commuting minorities. Only then we will be entitled to call streets inclusive and open spaces.
Do you want to know more about Dreamwaves’s mission and its solutions?
Visit the company website and LinkedIn. You can also further explore their product via EIT UM Marketplace.
This article is part of Why we invested? series presenting EIT Urban Mobility equity portfolio.
About the author
Mateusz Kaluza – investments analyst at EIT Urban Mobility, passionate about data and active mobility. Scouting for impact-driven innovations enabling shift towards citizen-oriented transportation systems. Contact at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Main place of work and commuting time, 2019, Eurostat
- Trends in commuting time of European workers: A cross country analysis (via ScienceDirect)