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ATU533 – Envision with Karthik Kannan

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Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.

Special Guest:

Karthik Kannan – Chief Technology Officer of Envision

Website: www.letsenvision.com

Summer Sale: www.letsenvision.com/sale

Find the Envision App on the App Store and Google Play Store

Captions and Transcripts brought to you by:

INTRAC – www.relayindiana.com

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—– Transcript Starts Here —–

 

Karthik Kannan:
Hi, my name is Karthik and I am the Founder and CTO of Envision and this is your Assistive Technology Update.

Josh Anderson:
Hello and welcome to your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs. I’m your host, Josh Anderson with the INDATA project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 533 of Assistive Technology Update. It’s scheduled to be released on August 13th, 2021. Today’s special guest is Karthik from Envision, so let’s go ahead and get on with the interview.

Josh Anderson:
Accessing the world around us is an important part of daily life from shopping for groceries, finding just the right outfit, navigating the park, or recognizing a close friend entering the room. There are many daily tasks and joys that we may take for granted, but with vision loss many of these daily novelties can become challenging or downright impossible without assistance. While assistance is really great, our real goal around here is always independence. Our guest today is Karthik, Founder and Chief Technology Officer for Envision. He’s here to talk all about their solutions to accessing the world around us and an exciting summer sale on those solutions. Karthik, welcome to the show.

Karthik Kannan:
Thank you so much, Joshua. It’s great to be on this show.

Josh Anderson:
Yeah, I’m really excited to get into talking about the technology. But, before we get into talking about Envision, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Karthik Kannan:
Sure. My name is Karthik Kannan and I am one of the two Founders of Envision. Envision is basically a tool that helps people with a visual impairment to live more independently using AI. What we do is we have an app and smart glasses that can help blind and visually impaired people read texts, recognize faces, recognize objects, and so much more. A little bit about my background, I’ve been in the Software Development space for almost eight, nine years now… I started in 2013. The idea for Envision… and Envision officially started when me and my Co-Founder, who’s also called Karthik… he’s a Designer, when the two of us went to a blind school in India. We are from India and we went to this blind school in India to give a little talk about what it is to be a Designer and an Engineer to high school kids there.

Karthik Kannan:
When we spoke to the kids there in the school, we gave them an idea of what it is to be a Designer, what it is to be an Engineer… the basic nutshell of the talk was being a Designer or Engineer means solving problems and being a problem solver. We asked them at the end of the talk as to what kind of problems they’d like to solve, almost everybody came back with wanting to be more independent. Either, they wanted to be able to read books more independently, they wanted to be able to go out with friends independently. Independence became this recurring theme in almost everybody who we spoke to that day at school. That left the two of us with a lingering thought, I’d be like, “Okay, if independence is such a big deal for people with visual impairment, I think we could do something about it as Engineers and Designers, right?”

Karthik Kannan:
It was just this curiosity that was around this topic. That’s when we started to look at Artificial Intelligence because at that point in time… and I’m talking about 2017, right? 2016, ’17 was when the current AI revolution that we see around us was starting to take off. We started to see that a lot of human tasks, such as being able to read things or being able to recognize objects, the technology was starting to really start pass human levels. It was getting as good as humans in these areas. We thought, “Okay, why not take computer vision and Artificial Intelligence? Why not really mix that with thoughtful design and present a solution to blind or visually impaired people that brings both accessible and design and computer vision together?”

Karthik Kannan:
That’s how Envision started. We actually put this out as a prototype in 2017. In about six months time, we had almost 800, 900 users from across Europe quarterly installing the app and using it and giving us such great feedback. When we wanted to start this off as a company… and a lot of early users of prototypes of Envision told us that if you guys are really serious about this stuff and you really want to go ahead and bring this to more people, you guys should really start this off as a full-time thing. That’s when Envision started off as a full-time company startup. This was in 2017, ’18, and we’ve launched the first version of the Envision app on iOS in February 2018. We launched an Android version in 2019, which won the Google Play Award. Then, we launched the Envision Glasses in 2020. We’ve been growing ever since. That’s a little bit about my background and a little bit about Envision.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, definitely. I do love the way that you saw that. Yeah, bringing up independence and Assistive Technology… that’s always, at least, my goal is how can folks do things for themselves? We all need help in life, that’s for sure. But when you have to rely on it all the time, it’s just not as good. Everybody wants to be independent. You mentioned a couple of the different solutions that you have available for different folks. Let’s start with the Envision app… and you mentioned this a little bit, but I want to dig a little bit deeper. What all can the app do?

Karthik Kannan:
Right. Firstly, the app is available on both iOS and Android. Our aim from the beginning was to always make Envision as accessible as possible to as many people as possible, and so we are one of the very few applications in this space that are available on both iOS and Android. What the app does… I think the app does a whole bunch of things, but what it does really well is reading texts. When I say reading texts, I mean reading texts of any surface you can imagine. It could be on a product, could be on a display at a train station, could be a poster, could be a document. Envision is able to read text in more than 60 different languages… of pretty much any surface that you can throw at it. Apart from reading texts from any surface, Envision is also able to read text from PDFs, from Word files, from text files.

Karthik Kannan:
It’s also able to export the texts that you’re reading in Envision in all these different formats, as well. Reading texts is a huge plus that Envision has. Apart from that, we have a lot of other functionalities, such as being able to teach Envision faces of your friends or family members and being able to recognize them. You can teach Envision… or you can ask Envision to scan for objects around you. Envision can describe a scene after you take a picture. Also, another really interesting use that users can do with Envision is share images from outside of the Envision app with Envision and have Envision read that out for you, as well. If you get a meme on WhatsApp, for example… or if you see an image on Twitter and it doesn’t have any Alt text… which is a bad thing, everyone should put Alt text on their images in Twitter. If you see that and if you want to really read that stuff, you could go ahead and use Envision to do it.

Josh Anderson:
Oh nice.

Karthik Kannan:
Like I mentioned, we’re available on both iOS. Android were available on Android six and above, which makes it an extremely accessible app for people across the world. You could be in India, you could be in Indonesia, you could be in Iceland and you would be able to use the Envision app on any device that you own.

Josh Anderson:
Oh yeah, that’s great. That’s great you have… I don’t know, forced accessibility for those folks that don’t put that Alt text in, which I mean it’s getting better, but a lot of folks still do skip that. That’s great that you can still be able to access all those things.

Karthik Kannan:
Yeah, Envision will give you a description of the image. If there’s any external image, Envision will give you an idea of what that text is… is it spelled right? Not just with Twitter, but you also have the same thing with WhatsApp… you have it for the whole bunch of images that you find in other apps, you could use Envision to read X in those images or get a description of what it is.

Josh Anderson:
Very nice, very nice. You brought up in 2020 you guys came out with the Envision Glasses, tell us about those.

Karthik Kannan:
We’ve always been fascinated with wearables, right? From the time we started Envision… Envision actually… this is a little bit of a trivia for people who are coming to know about Envision for the first time or who have been long time users of Envision is Envision actually wanted to start off by building a wearable. The original idea for Envision was this Bluetooth tech set kind of a device that will sit on your ears and that has a camera that has all the processing and it’s a wearable type… because from the beginning, we’ve always believed that wearables are the perfect solution for people who are blind or visually impaired because you don’t have to hold a phone in your hand. If you have a cane or a guide dog in one hand, you could have your other hand free and you can have a very hands-free experience.

Karthik Kannan:
Pointing with your head is a little bit more easier to do with your hand, right? We’ve always been very interested in wearables, but unfortunately when we started to look at wearables in 2018, we weren’t very happy with it. I thought it was too clunky. You have this big headset-like thing that most people hated to use or you had these really good looking glasses, but they were not even powerful. You could just barely take images with them, leave alone doing complex AI stuff on it. We’ve been scouting for wearables every single year. In 2019, when we won the Google Play Award, when I went to Mountain View to collect the award, I managed to talk to a few people at Google who… and I managed to say, “Hey, we’re really looking for some interesting wearable stuff. So if you guys have anything in the works, do let us know.”

Karthik Kannan:
Incidentally what happened was in October 2019, Google launched new Google Glass. They already had the Google Glass that came out 2014, everybody thought it was really cool, but they couldn’t do a lot with it so Google took that out of the market. Then, came out with another one in 2019, which was a lot more powerful. But, instead of selling it directly to consumers, they made it accessible for companies to be able to purchase. So, it became an enterprise product, right? We reached out to Google and we said, “Okay guys, this is absolutely cool. These glasses have the kind of specs that we’re looking for. We’d love to get our hands on one of them, if possible.” They sent us a very early version of the glasses before it hit the market.

Karthik Kannan:
When we got the glasses, the hardware was amazing. It was light, it had good camera specs, it had a good battery life, it had a powerful processor. We started to build Envision on the Google Glass hardware and we gave it to a few users and they absolutely loved it. That’s how the Envision Glasses started. We did this in 2019, all of this stuff. We thought, okay, we’re going to launch the Glasses in March 2020 at CSUN. We went to CSUN, March 2020, and we launched the Glasses for pre-orders then. That’s really how the Glasses thing started… it wasn’t a very ideal time to launch a new product, especially in the accessibility space where people would love to feel the Glasses… touch and feel it.

Karthik Kannan:
But yeah, we just took the plunge and we’re happy we did because now we were able to ship the Glasses to over 100 people in 2020, the guys who placed the pre-orders. We started the pre-orders in March 2020, and we ended that around July, August. We shipped the Glasses to people in October 2020. We had over 150 people from across the world placing an order for the Glasses, so I’m really grateful for that. It was super exciting to build and launch the Glasses.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, for sure. What all can I do with the Glasses? Is it the same thing as I can do with the app? Is there different things it can do or how does that work?

Karthik Kannan:
I think the big thing with the Glasses is you can have a completely hands-free experience using the Glasses, right? You don’t even have to hold a phone in your one hand and a cane or a guide dog in the other hand and point it around, you could wear the Glasses and get done. So yes, it does have features that are similar to the Glasses, but there’s one feature that’s very unique to the Glasses. It is one of the most loved features of the Glasses, which is being able to call a friend or a family member directly from the Glasses itself. You can make a video call from the Glasses to a friend or a family member and they can answer the call… we’ve built a special free app that anyone can install on the App Store and the Play Store.

Karthik Kannan:
When you make a video call, they get a push notification and they open the notification and they see what you see and you can hear their audio. They get the audio and the video feed from the Glasses, and then you get the audio feed and it is the second most used feature on the Glasses. Since we launched, I think we’ve had more than 8,000 or 9,000 minutes of people using that particular feature. It’s an incredible feature. If AI doesn’t cut it out for you, you could just call a friend or a family member at the touch of a button and they can help you with whatever you’re doing. It’s incredible that way. Yeah, but that is unique to the Glasses, yes.

Josh Anderson:
Oh yeah. I can see how that can be very, very helpful to phone a friend and have them tell you if the Glasses aren’t able to… I don’t know, read something in front of you or see something in front of you or if something’s not the way that your other technology, your GPS or stuff’s telling you… being able to actually have a friend tell you what’s going on. That’s a great thing.

Karthik Kannan:
Yeah. I think that’s one of the things that make the Glasses stick. It’s really a solution that people can use, not just with offering all the AI features that it offers, but it also has this feature that’s very personal. It’s got a very strong human touch to it. Another thing which we are working on right now and we hope to bring out in the next few months is we’re actually opening up the Glasses to make it more of a platform. Just like how you have iOS, how you have Android, you also now have the Envision Glasses as a platform. We’re in talks with some of the most popular apps out there for the blind and visually impaired to see if they would like to come on to the Glasses and partner with us and bring their apps to all the Envision Glasses users.

Josh Anderson:
Nice.

Karthik Kannan:
We’re in talks with some big names in the industry. We’ve got some very positive responses so far, so yes, that is in the works. That’s going to be one of the most… I would say, killer features of the Glasses. You have all this cool AI stuff, you have this video callings feature, but then imagine you have all your other favorite apps that you use on your phone directly on the Glasses. That is something that we are working on, that’s the one I’m most excited about.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, I would be, too. Yeah, I’m excited about that because that would be… having everything in one, it’s one less thing to have to carry. Like you said, it’s hard to have your dog, your cane, your phone, all these different things out, so if all those apps went straight into the one wearable device, it just cuts down on the amount of things you have to carry around in a day, the amount of things you have to access… just have everything in one place. That will be awesome. If that does happen, we’ll have to make sure to have you back on so we can alert everyone to that.

Karthik Kannan:
Yeah. We definitely will be doing a lot of PR early, we’ll be doing a lot of talking and shouting to the rooftops once we have that because to me it’s a game changer. You have all your favorite apps, some apps for which you need to call an agent or somebody else, all of those apps that you currently use your phone, you could just use the Glasses. We’re also working on something like voice commands for the Glasses, so you can just be like, “Hey, app name, could you do this for me?” The app is just going to open up and do it completely hands-free, so that’s one thing that we’re really excited about. We have some very good partnerships lined up. We’re still also on the lookout for other partners to join us on this very first version of the Envision Glasses platform. Fingers crossed, we’re going to come to you guys with good news very soon.

Josh Anderson:
Well, that’ll be great. Well, talking about yelling from the rooftops and some things to be excited about, you guys are in the midst of a summer sale. Can you tell our listeners about this?

Karthik Kannan:
Sure. Every year, Envision has a summer sale and this year we’re basically having our summer sale in August and September. In the summer sale… users of the Envision app can get the annual and the lifetime subscription at a 30% discount. Yes, if you were looking to buy the Envision app or if you’re already a user of the Envision app and you’d like to go ahead and get the whole of the system, please go and install the Envision app. Within the Envision app, you’ll be able to find out more information about discounts and our summer sale. Yes, please give it a shot.

Josh Anderson:
Karthik, can you tell me a story about someone who’s maybe gained better access to the world around them by using Envision?

Karthik Kannan:
Yeah, I think what has been most rewarding for me is when people’s lives and their family’s lives have changed considerably because of the app. That’s been one of the best moments, so far. If I have to pick one or two of them, I think one story from India. Since I’m from India, it’s a story that’s a little bit more closer to my heart. The story was basically… there was this user who used Envision to go ahead and study for a bank exam. In India, you have these public banks, right? When you want to get a job in any one of those government-run public banks, you always have to write an exam. In order to study for the exam… it’s not a very easy exam to pass, you need to study a lot for that test.

Karthik Kannan:
The books and the materials that was available for people are not accessible. There are these PDFs that are not accessible at all. There are these images or web pages that aren’t accessible for people at all. There was this user who actually read a 2000 page PDF with Envision, studied for the exam entirely using Envision, and went ahead and passed the exam. He was the first graduate in his family and he was the eldest son in the family and he got a job. That materially changed the life of his entire family. When he got that bank job… now he has job security, he has a whole bunch of things and he still uses Envision at his job.

Karthik Kannan:
His job, as well, there are PDFs to read, files, documents… all that kind of stuff that he has to read, which are very inaccessible to him. To date, he uses Envision to do that. He used Envision to study for the exam and pass it on his first try and he uses Envision… of course, a lot of it is his effort. I definitely think he put in a shit ton of effort to do that, but I’m happy that Envision was a very small, but significant part of that whole journey. Being able to read a 2000 page PDF that was otherwise inaccessible, and that is something that deeply, deeply moved me and the rest of the team that day. There was another instance where there was a visually impaired mother who was unable to help her kids with their homework because most of the homework was hand-did and stuff and so on.

Karthik Kannan:
She tweeted about a year ago about how she used Envision to read the homework of her children and be able to help them at their schoolwork a lot better. She said that she tried a whole bunch of solutions to be able to read handwriting texts, but none of it was working. Envision was the one that worked out in the end. Now, she uses Envision every day to teach her kids math and science and all those other subjects, but she was unable to do a year ago. That was another story that moved me quite deeply. There are people from all different age groups from all walks of life using Envision to make their lives a little bit more accessible, a little bit more independently and fully. I think these are the two stories that I can immediately recall, but I think every other week… we have a separate channel on Slack where we post all these different stories that the team comes across.

Karthik Kannan:
Just reading through that is what I would love to do on a very difficult day, if I’m having a bad day at work and if things are not working out with the app or if I’m facing some issue and I’m just totally down in energy, I just go on that channel and I scroll through… and I realize the work that we do is hard. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it to all those people who put their stories out there. It’s amazing. These people are not from one country who speak one language, they’re from all countries. You go on Twitter… and I see so many people from Japan, from Korea, from Saudi Arabia who are all tweeting about Envision. It feels good to see that.

Josh Anderson:
Oh yeah, I’m very sure it does. I’m sure you probably even see folks using it for things you never even thought of… that you’re like, I never even thought to use it for that. Here they are finding their own uses and own ways to use it for better independence.

Karthik Kannan:
Yeah. That I come across all the time. People use it to read… for example, when their screen reader stopped working for some reason and they use Envision to read what’s on the screen and fix it. There was a user who actually installed Windows on his boss’s computer, entirely using Envision. I’m like, “Wait, I didn’t even know you could use Envision for that.” I didn’t know Envision would work really well in those situations. So yeah, it’s amazing. But, more than Envision… I think it’s the users whose creativity that really needs to be celebrated. We’re just building a tool and we’re just trying to make that tool as reliable and as versatile as possible. It’s the users who are really coming up with some incredibly creative ways of using it.

Karthik Kannan:
Another one that really… that I came across that was really interesting to me was reading notes. A lot of people within the community has asked us to build a money recognizer. We’ve been working on other problems, so we thought, okay, we’ll come to that eventually. But, users got a bit impatient so they took all the US dollar bills and used the Teach Faces feature of Envision to actually go ahead and take pictures of Benjamin Franklin or the other folks are there on the US bank note and train Teach Faces with that. Now, they basically use the face recognition feature to identify the notes… different denominations of US currency, the US dollars basically. That was another really creative use case that I came across. Some people are just super, super creative.

Josh Anderson:
Yes, they definitely are. That is awesome. Well great, if our listeners want to find out more, maybe order the Glasses, get the app or participate in the summer sale, what are the best ways for them to do that?

Karthik Kannan:
If you guys want to go ahead and participate or check out the summer sale, you can go to our website, www.letsenvision.com. That is L E T S E N V I S I O N.com/sale. That is S A L E. To go ahead and get hold of the summer sale while it lasts. It’s going to be on fully for the month, I would say go ahead and get your Envision subscription as soon as possible. If you want to know more about the Glasses, you can go to our website, letsenvision.com. Then, on the very first page you will have an option to go ahead and read more about the Glasses or more about the app. If you want to install the app, which I would very strongly recommend you do because there is a 14 day, no strings attached free trial that you can get. You can go to the App Store or the Play Store, just search for Envision and you’ll find the app over there.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. We’ll put all that down in the show notes. Karthik, thank you so much for coming on today, telling us all about Envision, all the great things you guys do, the great solutions that you have for folks, and the great sale that you have going on. Thank you again.

Karthik Kannan:
Thank you so much, Joshua. Thank you so much, everybody. I would love for you guys to try out the Envision app, especially during the summer sale, as you have a 30% discount on the annual and the lifetime plan. Do check it out and we hope to be back with more interesting information.

Josh Anderson:
Do you have a question about Assistive Technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? If so, call our listener line at (317) 721-7124. Send us an email at tech@Eastersealscrossroads.org or shoot us a note on Twitter @INDATAproject. Our captions and transcripts for the show are sponsored by the Indiana Telephone Relay Access Corporation or InTRAC. You can find out more about InTRAC @relayindiana.com. A special thanks to Nicole Prietto for scheduling our amazing guests and making a mess of my schedule. Today’s show was produced, edited, hosted, and fraught over by yours truly. The opinions expressed by our guests are their own and may or may not reflect those of the Indiana Project, Easterseals Crossroads, our supporting partners, or this host. This was your Assistive Technology Update, and I’m Josh Anderson with the INDATA Project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. We look forward to seeing you next time. Bye-bye.

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