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Loro’s mounted wheelchair assistant puts high tech to work for people with disabilities

A person with physical disabilities can’t interact with the world the same way as the able, but there’s no reason we can’t use tech to close that gap. Loro is a device that mounts to a wheelchair and offers its occupant the ability to see and interact with the people and things around them in powerful ways.

Loro’s camera and app work together to let the user see farther, read or translate writing, identify people, gesture with a laser pointer and more. They demonstrated their tech onstage today during Startup Battlefield at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

Invented by a team of mostly students who gathered at Harvard’s Innovation Lab, Loro began as a simple camera for disabled people to more easily view their surroundings.

“We started this project for our friend Steve,” said Loro co-founder and creative director, Johae Song. A designer like her and others in their friend group, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, a degenerative neural disease that paralyzes the muscles of the afflicted. “So we decided to come up with ideas of how to help people with mobility challenges.”

“We started with just the idea of a camera attached to the wheelchair, to give people a panoramic view so they can navigate easily,” explained co-founder David Hojah. “We developed from that idea after talking with mentors and experts; we did a lot of iterations, and came up with the idea to be smarter, and now it’s this platform that can do all these things.”

It’s not simple to design responsibly for a population like ALS sufferers and others with motor problems. The problems they may have in everyday life aren’t necessarily what one would think, nor are the solutions always obvious. So the Loro team determined to consult many sources and expend a great deal of time in simple observation.

“Very basic observation — just sit and watch,” Hojah said. “From that you can get ideas of what people need without even asking them specific questions.”

Others would voice specific concerns without suggesting solutions, such as a flashlight the user can direct through the camera interface.

“People didn’t say, ‘I want a flashlight,’ they said ‘I can’t get around in the dark.’ So we brainstormed and came up with the flashlight,” he said. An obvious solution in some ways, but only through observation and understanding can it be implemented well.

The focus is always on communication and independence, Song said, and users are the ones who determine what gets included.

“We brainstorm together and then go out and user test. We realize some features work, others don’t. We try to just let them play with it and see what features people use the most.”

There are assistive devices for motor-impaired people out there already, Song and Hojah acknowledged, but they’re generally expensive, unwieldy and poorly designed. Hojah’s background is in medical device design, so he knows of what he speaks.

Consequently, Loro has been designed to be as accessible as possible, with a tablet interface that can be navigated using gaze tracking (via a Tobii camera setup) or other inputs like joysticks and sip-and-puff tubes.

The camera can be directed to, for example, look behind the wheelchair so the user can safely back up. Or it can zoom in on a menu that’s difficult to see from the user’s perspective and read the items off. The laser pointer allows a user with no ability to point or gesture to signal in ways we take for granted, such as choosing a pastry from a case. Text to speech is built right in, so users don’t have to use a separate app to speak out loud.

The camera also tracks faces and can recognize them from a personal (though for now, cloud-hosted) database for people who need help tracking those with whom they interact. The best of us can lose a name or fail to place a face — honestly, I wouldn’t mind having a Loro on my shoulder during some of our events.

Right now the team is focused on finalizing the hardware; the app and capabilities are mostly finalized but the enclosure and so on need to be made production-ready. The company itself is very early-stage — they just incorporated a few months ago and worked with $100,000 in pre-seed funding to create the prototype. Next up is doing a seed round to get ready to manufacture.

“The whole team, we’re really passionate about empowering these people to be really independent, not just waiting for help from others,” Hojah said. Their driving force, he made clear, is compassion.

WiARframe wants to make building AR experiences easy

Augmented reality has been a buzzword for years, but for the most part, it has remained a novelty. WiARframe, which is competing in our Startup Battlefield competition today at Disrupt Berlin, believes that we are still very early on in the AR game and that part of what is holding the market back is that the tools need to become easier to use and that designers need to find better ways to find inspiration for their AR experiences.

WiARframe tackles these issues by providing budding AR designers with an easy-to-use web-based interface for building AR experiences and a community feature that allows them to share these experiences with anybody who downloads the company’s iOS and Android apps.

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The actual scene editor, the company’s founder Jeremiah Alexander told me, is modeled after other 3D modeling tools. In it, you can lay out the scene, but then also make it interactive. Typically, developers would do this in a complex and multi-faceted tool like Unity, but Alexander argues that the barrier of entry there is still too high for many non-developers, while wiARframe removes a lot of that complexity by offering a specialized tool that’s only for building AR experiences.”Unity is not for designers,” he told me.

In addition to being able to import 3D models, the tool also allows designers to add menus to a scene that can be used for settings or other in-app experiences.

As Alexander stressed, though, the community aspect of the service may be just as important. The idea here is to allow other designers to take existing scenes and remix them. That’s not unlike what Microsoft is doing with Paint 3D and Remix 3D, though Alexander likened it more to GitHub.

GitHub is also the inspiration for what will likely become wiARframe’s business model in the long run. Like on GitHub, wiARframe users will be able to use the service for free, but their creations will be public. To make them private, users will have to pay. In the long run, the company may also offer an enterprise plan with additional features.

While wiARframe started out with Alexander as a solo founder, the company now has three full-time employees. The team went through the Comcast NBCUniversal Techstars program earlier this year, and Alexander has an extensive background in designing games and other digital products. Indeed, early on in his career, he built tools for developers at Atari.

Alexander compared the state of AR to the early days of the web, where you had to be pretty technical to get started. The idea behind wiARframe is to democratize the ability to create AR content. What remains to be seen is whether that consumer demand for AR will ever crystallize. If it does, tools like wiARframe will surely make it easier for anybody to jump in and build new experiences.

Attendee Info

Location
TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin will be taking place on 29-30 November at Arena Berlin (Eichenstraße 4, 12435 Berlin).


Transit
Please take public transportation and or ride share to the venue. Parking is not available.


Registration Hours & Check In
Thursday: Registration opens at 7:30 and closes at 17:30
Friday: Registration opens at 7:30 and closes at 17:00
Bring your photo ID each day as we will check those against the name on your badge.
Bring a print or digital copy of your ticket AND your government-issued photo ID for quick entry!


Bag/Cloak Room
There is a cloak/bag room each day of the conference to check your items.


Lunch & Beverages
Lunch and select beverages are available for purchase at Arena Berlin from food trucks – cash only. Coffee and water will be served gratis.


Lost Badges
There is a €75 reprint fee for lost badges.


Code of Conduct
All attendees must follow the TechCrunch Code of Conduct. Any violation will be cause for expulsion from the event without a refund and potential legal/police involvement.

Report incidents to TechCrunch staff by calling +491777258761 or emailing codeofconduct@techcrunch.com.


CrunchMatch
Join CrunchMatch powered by the Brella app today to start networking with Disrupt Berlin 2018 attendees! CrunchMatch let’s you message and schedule meetings right at Disrupt Berlin. New attendees are added every day so make sure you keep checking back in the app for new connections.

You can also download the App from the App Store & Google Play – and use our code tcdisrupt18 to join us on your mobile device.

SIGN UP HERE


Disrupt Berlin 2018 After Party
21:00 – 24:00
Thursday, 29 of November
Watergate
Falckensteinstraße 49, 10997 Berlin, Germany

Bring your government-issued photo ID along with your Disrupt Berlin badge.
18+ only


signals One Year Anniversary Party
To celebrate signals Venture Capital’s one year anniversary TechCrunch and signals have joined forces to host an exclusive party. Signals will take care of the drinks, food and music. All you have to do is RSVP and come by for an unforgettable evening to connect with interesting people from the investment and founder ecosystem. Space is limited!

Wed 28 November 2018
19:00 – 23:30 CET

signals Open Studios
Am Nordbahnhof 3
10115 Berlin

RSVP TODAY


Agenda
With 3 stages of content and amazing speakers, you’ll need to plan your days to maximize your ROI. The agenda is fluid so make sure to check the website for updates!

CHECK OUT THE AGENDA


Workshops
Register your interest to attend these awesome workshops at Disrupt Berlin.. Workshops occur across both days and are a great way to deep dive on topics that interest you.

REGISTER YOUR INTEREST


Startup Alley Exhibitor Directory
Startup Alley is the Disrupt Berlin expo hall where hundreds of early-stage startups and sponsored exhibitors demo their companies. Startups change out each and every day and represent multiple verticals. Companies are added to the list daily!

SEE EXHIBITOR DIRECTORY


Book a Semi-Private Room at Disrupt
TechCrunch is offering semi-private meeting rooms at €25/30 minutes at Disrupt Berlin. These rooms are great for taking meetings of up to 4 people or catching up on some work. Meeting spaces can only be used by registered Disrupt Berlin ticket holders.

These meeting rooms are separate from CrunchMatch/Brella networking program.

BOOK A ROOM


Having trouble finding your tickets?
Search for “universe” in your inbox, spam, trash, and/or promotions folders. “Universe” is Disrupt’s ticketing platform.


How to transfer a ticket
If you need to transfer a ticket follow these instructions.


Update information on your ticket
To update the information on your ticket follow these directions. The information provided on your ticket will need to match your government-issued photo Identification Card and the information provided will be used on your badge during the event.


Pass Refunds
Pass purchases cancelled by October 24, 2018 are subject to a €250 cancellation handling fee. You must email events@techcrunch.com on or before this date to request a refund. Passes cancelled by October 25, 2018 and later are not eligible for a refund for any reason.

Disrupt Berlin 2019

If you’re serious about startups, we’re still keeping it as real as ever. At Disrupt, everyone is a startupper – no matter if you’re a founder, investor, hacker or tech leader. So much more than just on-stage interviews, Disrupt is where you’ll find the renowned Startup Battlefield competition, hundreds of startups in Startup Alley, Workshops and legendary networking at our After Parties… and we’re in Berlin, right where many startup dreams begin.