What would you do if you suddenly lost your ability to read, and the text you’re reading now became an incomprehensible jumble of letters?
That’s the world Keisuke Shimakage’s father faced after he experienced a stroke in 2012. Since then, Shimakage, 26, has been working to develop a product that helps patients like his father by using his own expertise — product design mixed with digital technology.
“Perhaps it’s difficult for us to imagine a world where things you were able to read before become suddenly incomprehensible. We forget about the days when we were unable to read, before growing older and becoming literate,” Shimakage, CEO of Tokyo-based startup Oton Glass, said during a recent interview with The Japan Times.
“It was after my father was hit by the stroke that I first realized our world is actually full of letters, and that being unable to read them may cause a significant disadvantage in our daily lives,” he said.
When his father started experiencing the reading disorder in 2012 after a cerebral infarction, Shimakage was a Tokyo Metropolitan University junior studying product design. While wondering what to do for his graduation project, he decided to develop a product that could support his father.
“Before developing the product, I asked my father’s doctor about the kind of symptoms he has. I also went out with my father and asked him how words on the street looked to him and what he couldn’t read,” he said.
After much trial and error, Shimakage came up with an idea in 2014 for an eyeglasses-type device that reads out text captured by camera. It was the very first prototype of Oton Glass — a pun combining two Japanese words: oton (dad) and oto (sound).
The idea crystallized when Shimakage accompanied his father to visit a doctor.
When his father had to fill out a form before receiving treatment, the doctor read it out for him because he couldn’t understand what was written.
“Seeing that, I realized it might be a great help for people who have difficulty reading if I develop a device that converts the text they see to speech so they can access various information without the help of others.”
But what made Oton Glass possible was the latest digital technologies.
When a user sees text with the device and presses a button on its frame, a camera inside sends the data to a separate computer the size of a pocket book, attached with a cable, that the user carries typically in a bag or suspended on a neck strap. The computer then sends the image to Google’s cloud platform to process the text. Amazon’s cloud service converts the text into speech, so that the device can read it aloud. The whole process takes just a few seconds.
Oton Glass, the frame of which is made using a 3-D printer, can also translate text written in one language into speech in another by using Google’s cloud translation engine. Although similar text-to-speech services have already been available as smartphone apps, Shimakage said glasses are the most suitable form for a device because “they can provide an experience that is the most natural for humans.”
“The key is how we can let users experience the device as a part of their own body,” he said. “Holding up a smartphone is not an instinctive human action, and it looks odd from the standpoint of other people as well. But seeing something through glasses is closer to people’s instinctive behavior. . . . People often start to feel like glasses are part of their body as they use them.”
Shimakage launched his own company in 2014, after he started studying at the Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences in Gifu Prefecture as a graduate student, with hopes of delivering his product to more people who have symptoms like those of his father.
“People who establish their own startups often say they have always wanted to run their own company. But I’m rather driven by my curiosity about the research and desire to create my artwork,” he said.
“I needed money to develop the device before actually commercializing it. I also needed colleagues who could work together to realize it,” he said. “My company grew out of my motivation to fulfill social needs rather than business feasibility. But I believe business feasibility will follow after we produce a product that many people want, and so far we have received positive feedback from people who actually used it.”
Shimakage may have created the device first to help patients with reading disabilities. But now people with other visual disabilities and people with tired eyes are also finding the device useful.
The number of awards Oton Glass has received proves there are high hopes for the product. The invention won a James Dyson Award in 2016 for products with an innovative design to overcome social problems.
Then in October the Oton Glass project was selected for the internal affairs ministry’s initiative to sponsor innovations that may bring “disruptive changes” to society. The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa Prefecture exhibited Oton Glass at its design gallery from April to July.
Shimakage currently sells Oton Glass on an experimental basis to people who have agreed to help improve the product. The price is ¥400,000, and about 15 units have been sold to individuals and organizations so far. The company plans to produce 100 units next year and cut its price in half, with a target to sell a total of 30,000 units by 2021.
Shimakage also plans to push municipalities to officially recognize Oton Glass as a welfare device, which will allow users with disabilities to purchase it for as little as ¥20,000 and cover the rest with social insurance.
But Shimakage said a lot of things need to be done before his product can be commercialized. In fact, he left the current Oton Glass unfinished on purpose, so users can engage in the process to improve the product together. “I have many ideas and I can probably realize them if I spend time and money. But they may not be something that users want from my product,” he said.
Shimakage also made Oton Glass’s functions as simple as possible, focusing on just detecting text and reading it aloud for welfare purposes. This helped him avoid the privacy concerns presented by some smart glasses.
When Google Glass debuted in 2013, the versatile smart glasses become a target of public criticism over fears it would allow users to secretly record videos in public places without the consent of people on the street. The device is currently available only for business use.
“A device that can be used in many ways needs to overcome many hurdles before gaining widespread acceptance. We tried to make our device’s function as simple as possible, so people can easily accept it,” he said.
After five years, Shimakage’s father has regained his ability to read after making efforts toward rehabilitation. But Shimakage says his own endeavors will continue until his innovation becomes the go-to device for people who have difficulty reading text — an achievement that would restore greater freedom in their lives.
And the fact that Oton Glass is making a difference in someone’s life is a constant motivation to make the product better. Shimakage recalls a story about one of the users, a blind person, being able to play “Pokemon” on a Nintendo DS thanks to Oton Glass.
“I was very surprised, but also delighted to hear that,” he said. “I was confident Oton Glass could help people fulfill basic needs in their daily lives. But actually, it could make their lives more colorful by helping them do what they want.
“Ultimately, I want Oton Glass to be a device that enhances the basic senses of human beings,” he said. “And I believe people who have difficulties in their lives are important partners for me to work with together toward that goal.”