Meet the innovator giving blind people a helping hand

Entrepreneur and inventor Rob Quinn made personal sacrifices to start work on an innovation to help visually impaired people navigate busy urban environments. Now with the backing of investors and support from Connected Places Catapult he is refining and testing his ‘Magic Torch’ and hopes to launch a commercial product within two years.

“Some people were emotional after they tried our device,” remarks Rob Quinn, a co-founder of MakeSense Technology – speaking from his parent’s garage in Bromley surrounded by a 3D printer, lathe and milling machine. 

Rob is describing how visually impaired volunteers have been impressed by a hand-held navigation tool he has helped to create known as Magic Torch that uses computer vision and artificial intelligence to provide turn by turn directions; a concept that is very similar to using a guide dog. 

“We weren’t sure until we tested it how blind people would react,” he adds. “If it didn’t work, I would have blown my life savings. But luckily the opposite was true, blind volunteers have found it easier to interpret than sighted volunteers.” 

Rob is still far from realising his dream of marketing his innovation globally. But he has come a long way from living in an abandoned building in Brixton for three years to save up enough funds to take 12 months out to develop the concept. Rob graduated with a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Imperial College in 2021 and is an honorary visiting researcher in the Intelligent Systems and Sub-Systems research group at Imperial. He has since teamed up with lecturer and co-founder Ad Spiers and their company has recruited two further members of staff. 

MakeSense Technology received £30,000 of financial support from Connected Places Catapult just over a year ago, as part of the Transport Research & Innovation Grants programme backed by the Department for Transport. Rob answered an open call for small to medium sized companies with bright ideas to come forward to receive help for developing commercial proposals. The company has since secured £150,000 of support from four high net worth ‘angel investors’. 

“The Catapult’s funding helped us to go from level two on the technology readiness scale up to level four, and we are now even further ahead. The Catapult was flexible in how we spent the money, which allowed us to focus on developing the system. I’m also grateful for the help of the SME Development Team who were on hand if we had any questions and to the Department for Transport for offering to introduce us to new connections. 
Rob Quinn, co-founder of MakeSense Technology

Sensory substitution 

Magic Torch was developed after Rob started researching an area of science known as ‘sensory substitution’, where information from one human sense (such as sight) can be passed to another (such as touch). He wondered if visual information captured from a camera could be transferred to the hand; something described as ‘haptic’ technology. His interest in helping those with limited or no vision get around more easily was driven by his friendship with Mark Baxter, who is blind. 

After two years of research and 12 versions of a prototype, Rob has created what he claims to be the world’s most effective sensory substitution device for blind people. 

The hand-held unit resembles a torch and has a built-in mechanism that changes the shape of the device, prompting a user to move in their intended direction of travel. It has a front facing camera and artificial intelligence processes the footage to understand the environment: detecting clear paths for people to follow and obstacles to avoid. 

Directions to an intended destination can be uploaded to the device by a mapping app, accessed using a connected smartphone via Siri or Google Assistant. With further refinement it is hoped the unit will provide users with navigational accuracy to the nearest half metre. 

“All of the associated technology we are using already exists such as mapping, computer vision and navigation,” says Rob. “But the critical thing is that no-one has developed the ability to communicate this information with enough fidelity to people who are blind. 

“We have measured the technology’s performance against eyesight and the results so far have been profound,” he adds. “Blind people using the device were asked to point towards targets in a 3D space generated by a computer and they were almost as fast responding as sighted people turning their heads towards the targets.” 

Alternative systems 

Rob also claims that the speed of users’ response from his haptic device is around 10 times quicker than other units that deliver vibrations to the hand. “Vibrations are good for alerting you, but terrible for giving you more complex information,” he says. “Constant vibrations can also make your fingers go numb.” 

Another option available to blind and partially sighted people is audio navigation. “Audio is fantastic at providing complex information, but not very good at communicating local navigation,” Rob insists. “Imagine if you tried to navigate someone around a room by giving them instructions over a video call; it is difficult. If a person cannot do it, a machine wouldn’t be able to either.” 

Of course there is a more traditional alternative. “The only effective means of communicating navigation information to blind people to date is with a guide dog tugging your hand,” he continues. “Guide dogs are amazing and there is no way technology can replace the companionship they provide. But they typically cost £55,000 over their life and retire after seven years. What we are making provides a similar outcome, costs less and fits in your pocket.” 

Next steps 

Formal testing of Magic Torch continues inside Imperial College with help from volunteers from the charity Blind Veterans UK, with outdoor trials set to begin soon. 

“The aim is to launch the device either late 2024 or early 2025,” adds Rob. “We probably need another £2.5 million to get to that point, when we can say to venture capitalists that if we bring this to market it will change people’s lives. 

“The market is surprisingly large,” he continues. “There are 39 million blind people in the world and Guide Dogs UK spends around £110 million a year but can only serve a small percentage of the population. We plan to continue working with Connected Places Catapult and secure more money from investors to turn this into a commercial product.” 

The project was self funded to begin with and there were several points where most people may have given up, Rob reflects. “But I kept going and now we have a staff of four. I’m paid a salary and everything is going well. 

“The biggest challenge has definitely been the number of hours I put in. Last December I worked 14 hours day, seven days week for six weeks and only took Christmas Day off. 

“But I have always wanted to be an inventor and every decision in my life has been geared towards that.” 

From left: Caroline Baxter, MakeSense implementation lead Mark Baxter, Rob Quinn, MakeSense developer Brandon Ellis-Frew, and chief technology officer Harry de Winton

Find out more about the Transport Research & Innovation Grants programme or register to join the SME Network.