Ten years ago, Brandon Foshee of Magnolia was suffering from headaches and blurred vision. Doctors told him his optic nerve was swelling and they couldn’t do anything to prevent it from rupturing. The resulting scar tissue robbed Foshee of his sight.
Now, Foshee and his brother-in-law Tim Zigler are turning that tragedy into business with the development of “Roboglasses,” a product intended to keep the visually impaired aware of their surroundings and reduce injuries.
Zigler grew up in Magnolia but now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. When he met his brother-in-law, the first thing Zigler asked him was what type of technology was available to help the visually impaired move freely. Foshee was relying mostly on the traditional methods.
“As soon as he said he just uses the cane and guide dog, my brain started working,” Zigler said. “I thought that was crazy.”
Zigler was a finance manager for a car dealership and had worked in the auto industry for many years.
“When you start seeing cars that can park themselves and can tell what’s in front of you, I thought it was mind-blowing that we still didn’t have some technology that could recognize objects,” he said.
He started thinking about how Foshee, despite having an above-average sense of direction, would sometimes still walk into things and injure himself, even in familiar areas. Plus, his guide dog and cane couldn’t prevent collisions with obstacles at chest or head height.
“A cane doesn’t protect the traveler against low-hanging items like awnings on buildings that happen to be down low, or if tree branches are sticking out, or even a pole — you might miss the pole but you might not miss the sign,” said Larry Dickerson, CEO of World Services for the Blind in Little Rock. “Occasionally, visually impaired people get hit in the upper body with an obstacle in their path that the cane wouldn’t pick up. … Even a dog might miss picking up on an overhead object.”
Dickerson said there are “laser canes” that detect objects and send signals to the user, but very few people have those.
These thoughts were on Zigler’s mind as he was backing his car out of his driveway one day in 2011. Like many cars, Zigler’s had sensors that would activate an alarm when he was getting too close to an obstacle.
“He realized, why can’t this technology be used to help blind people like me?” Foshee said.
“I called Brandon and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea,’” Zigler said. “I’ve thought myself through this, and I think I can buy a back-up sensor kit and build a crude model. … At first it wasn’t a business idea. It was kind of a common courtesy idea. So what I did is I went to AutoZone and bought a back-up detector kit and built the first prototype.”
The prototype was simple: Zigler attached the parking aid sensors to a pair of normal glasses. “I rigged up a hip pack that attaches to a belt buckle, and I tested it by walking around the house,” Zigler said. “I was pretty thrilled with it.”
In June 2011, Zigler mailed the prototype to Foshee, who loved it. “The information that it gave me was really useful,” Foshee said. “It was great.”
Great, but not perfect.
“The downside to it was that the beeps were annoying and distracting,” he said. “For example, if you’re standing there talking to somebody, it was continuously beeping. It was distracting for other people as well as yourself. You could put in earphones where other people couldn’t hear it, but then you couldn’t hear what was going on. It’s especially important for blind people to hear the environment you’re in.”
The pair started talking about how to improve the device.
Foshee and Zigler tossed around different methods of alerting the user, including sound and vibration, but decided a third option would be best.
“We decided that what needed to be done was come up with a unique language that doesn’t use sound or vibration, because they just haven’t worked,” Foshee said. “So the sight-impaired individual can take advantage of that good information without the side effects.”
They figured out what the “unique language” would be, but Zigler said it will remain under wraps until the product is further along in development. The pair then applied for a patent and formed FauxSee Innovations — a pun on Foshee, who serves as president and CEO. Along the way they became clients of Innovate Arkansas.
They then began hashing out ideas for selling the product. They started at Southern Arkansas University, which both had attended as undergraduates. SAU helped them formulate a business plan, and then referred them to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Small Business & Technology Development Center.
There, they connected with Innovation Consultant Rebecca Norman. “We helped break down for them how best they could use the strategies of the SBTDC,” she said.
The two were able to take advantage of the center’s free research and consulting services. Norman connected them with professionals at UALR and helped them apply for financial support from the National Science Foundation.
In July, FauxSee received $150,000 as the first part of a two-phase NSF award. It will pay for the design and testing of the product for six months. Foshee said he has already started the process of applying for the second phase of the award, which would kick another $750,000 into the startup.
Hirak Patangia, a professor of electronics and computer engineering technology, will be cooperating with his students to test the prototypes at the World Services for the Blind. “The design will be a joint effort,” Patangia said. “They will probably do some startup and we’ll try to finish it at our end.”
Because the NSF award ends in December, Patangia said, he and his students will be trying to finish it within two to three months.
Meanwhile, William Jacobson, department chair of counseling, adult and rehabilitation education at UALR, will perform consulting with Fauxsee.
“My area is orientation of mobility for the blind,” he said. “I teach teachers to teach blind people how to travel using canes, dogs and electronic travel aids. With my background, I will assist in helping the researchers and inventors of the device to develop a device appropriate for the travel needs of a blind person.”
Zigler said the estimated time frame for the glasses to be available to the public is about two years.
“After phase two, there will be more to come as far as what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s actually pretty exciting. I think the best part of this for me is that we’re, obviously, not doing it for money. We have a small niche of clientele; it’s not something that everybody can buy. I certainly feel like we are going to be profitable — we’re not going to be a Fortune 500 business — but what’s exciting for me is I know how the product is going to work, and I’ve used some early prototypes. It’s going to be exciting to put these on children who maybe have never seen or experienced an object in front of them without physically touching it.”
Once the product is complete, Foshee and Zigler plan to manufacture and sell the product from FauxSee headquarters in Magnolia. How much it will cost hasn’t yet been determined. Foshee said Fauxsee will be developing more products after Roboglasses, but they go beyond a business venture for him.
“It’s so awesome for me not only to be developing this product that is going to be such a help for me, but for the millions of other people in the world that are in the same situation I am,” he said.