Keith Kirkland, a member of the second cohort at URBAN-X, helps the blind and visually impaired to easily and effectively navigate the world around them through haptic technologies. Keith Kirkland, who co-founded the company in 2015, talked about the origins of the venture.
What inspired you to start WearWorks?
We created WearWorks because we were all deeply fascinated by the idea of using the skin as a communications channel to deliver information. Kevin and Yang both worked with an inventor who was developing advanced haptics. Meanwhile, Keith was trying to create a new method of movement learning that combined motion capture and haptics. But there was a problem, there was no “haptic language” in existence, let alone one that could communicate information about movement in an intuitive way. So when the team came together it was clear that we wanted to explore the possibilities of using the skin to communicate information in an intuitive and non-obtrusive way.
What is your main mission?
Our mission is to become the “Bose of Touch” while developing products that actually shift people’s lives in a meaningful way. With Wayband, our first product, we are achieving this by expanding the ability of blind and visually impaired users to move through their environment using only tactile information.
How did being part of the URBAN-X ecosystem help you to grow and develop your initial idea/product and deal with the roadblocks you have faced so far?
Our time there helped us to solidify a product direction focusing on navigation, find the experts and mentors to help us understand our product roadmap and development needs, and direct a team to develop our finalized application.
URBAN-X also gave us access to EIRs (Experts in Residence) who built out the advanced electronics components and developed the firmware to communicate with the Wayband app.
Aside from the direct support and feedback about our daily business activities and development operations, URBAN-X connected us with a vast network of mentors, supporters, investors, government officials and leaders in the tech space.
Being associated with MINI gave us credibility within the startup tech space. By the end of the program, we had a fully functioning prototype, support from major blind organizations, a powerful presentation pitch and deck, and a clear road map to face the upcoming challenges.
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WE BELIEVE THAT CRADLE-TO-CRADLE DESIGN THINKING AND PLANNING IS NOT ONLY THOUGHTFUL, IT IS THE MINIMUM STANDARD.
—Keith Kirkland, Co-Founder of WearWorks
What are the main risks you are facing in the future and how can they be overcome?
One of our biggest risks is the assumption that, at scale, people will be want to purchase Wayband and trust it for their navigation needs. We are also facing the risk of competition swooping in on our space. A lot of larger companies with well-funded budgets can try our device, execute at a greater capacity than we can, and take our market from under us. We are mitigating these challenges by dealing with our users as much as possible: we have been working with the blind communities from the very beginning, therefore building trust. Moreover, to protect us from competitors, our patents, once filing is complete, will give us a foot hole in the tactile design space that has not yet been realized.
This last November, blind ultramarathon runner Simon Wheatcroft completed the NYC Marathon with the help of your device – what does this mean for Wearworks?
Simon’s run of the NYC Marathon has been equated to our version of Le Mans or Formula 1. We guided a blind runner, Simon Wheatcroft, 15 miles unaided using our technology. We set an impossible goal for ourselves. But we set that goal knowing that this race proves, without a shadow of a doubt, that our never-before heard of innovation can actually do what we say it can do, navigate a blind user to an end-destination using only touch. Simon completing this race made history. This was the first time something like this was ever attempted in history and we plan to keep pushing forward to reach farther every year. We were featured in the New York Times, The Verge, as well as in several other media outlets.
What’s next for WearWorks?
The NYC Marathon was the most rigorous testing ground we could have entered into for our first beta-product, Wayband. Now, after crossing the finish line and looking back at the experience on the moments of successes and failures, we are able to identify the best ways to fix the issue for a scale at large. At WearWorks, we take large challenges and turn them into opportunities that will one day help people and awaken the problems that can be solved. We believe in setting new standards for what is possible.
This thought piece has been put together by the URBAN-X team; with research support from Felix Keser and Adrian Dahlin.