By SHELAGH BRALEY
BOSTON—There are few moments where you feel as powerless as seeing your child get hurt.
Unless your child is blind, then it’s exponential. You watch as your son or daughter attempts to play like other children, fearless like other children. Then an accident happens. And another.
If you’re lucky, the injuries are small. But little by little, you see confidence shrink and fear take over.
SUNU founders Marco Trujillo and Cuauhtli Padilla Arias saw this firsthand working at a school for blind children in Guadalajara, Mexico. From this experience grew SUNU, a discrete wearable wristband that uses sonar to help the blind perceive their full environment and avoid potentially dangerous obstacles.
For children, it restores joy and freedom to play.
“You see these children who are blind, especially in other countries, they are not really allowed to play and jump around like other kids,” said Fernando Albertorio, co-founder in charge of development and strategy.
“They usually are fearless, but they harm themselves, “ Arias said. “It’s just a matter of time before they lose pleasure for playing and running around.
“They’re afraid to get hurt.”
It was a semester-long college project for two engineering students that turned into a year and a half of working to understand these children—then trying to solve a problem that could change their lives.
Trujillo and Arias, friends since middle school, had already created a wristband using proximity sensors and electroshock that activated as the wearer approached obstacles. “We both tested it, it was just for fun,” said Trujillo, laughing. “We thought, this could be useful for someone who has visual impairment. We knew there was a little spark there to keep working, to modify it to be useful.”
The SUNU band, wearable tech for the visually impaired, uses sonar to help identify and avoid dangerous obstacles.
So they adapted their invention to employ sound waves and pain-free, gentle vibration instead. They wanted to lighten up these visually impaired children who could not play, with a game where they could be mobile and navigate their surroundings. So they built a makeshift maze and the kids could solve it by wearing the band.
SUNU locates objects 360 degrees around the wearer, delivering a mild or stronger buzz, depending on the distance and density of the obstacle. The band completes the picture of environmental conditions better than the typical white cane or guide dog alone—and is designed to work with both, not replace them.
“The cool thing about it was we were just having fun, trying to solve the problem. We created a functional prototype, then asked the children to solve the maze,” Trujillo said.
The maze, set up for children between the ages of 8-13, was made of obstacles at shoulder, waist and knee heights. “We made two groups, one with a cane, one with SUNU. The group with SUNU was 23 percent faster, with just one minute of training,” said Arias.
The renewed sense of pride, fun and belonging among the kids caught the attention of the school’s teachers and parents. “It was pretty much the most important thing to them,” Arias said. “It was one little girl in particular (who made an emotional impact on the team), she was telling us she could use it really well, it was awesome for her.”
“I like to teach people about improving their lives, and it really takes me a lot of effort to do that (with visually impaired children). I can see it’s hard to inspire these kids,” Trujillo said. “But this technology is giving me that tool to let them know, you can enjoy going to play, you don’t have to worry about hurting yourself. I can finally tell them they can do great stuff.”
Ramona Walhof, speaking at a seminar for parents hosted by the National Federation of the Blind, said blind children often learn to depend on sighted people more than they need to or should, and less on themselves. Walhof is an advocate, author, board member at the National Federation of the Blind, and blind herself.
“Elementary school is not too soon for a blind child to begin traveling independently, keeping track of print papers, looking for things that are lost or dropped, keeping track of clothes that match, etc. As a child matures, he or she needs to develop more self-reliance in all these areas,” she said.
But often, society has other ideas about what the impaired are capable of, and those impressions shape what they do.
“One of the things that surprised us the most after parents saw their kids—they approached us to offer us money, contacts, as much help as they could give us. They said, ‘We will do whatever is in our power, just please put these bands on our children,’ ” Trujillo said.
“At that moment we realized, whatever we were doing wasn’t just a product for a competition, it was actually giving value back to society, pushing us to do more and continue to develop the band.”
The SUNU team, from left, Fabiola Suarez, Marco Trujillo, Cuauhtli Padilla Arias and Fernando Albertorio.
To do that, the duo needed more help. Around that time in Mexico, they brought on Fabiola Suarez, who wears many hats for the company, including handling CFO and R&D functions. “Basically I make sure we don’t have any gaps, from finance to R&D. I deal with legal issues here in Mexico and in the U.S., and everything that has to be done with other entities: outside money, paying taxes, following up with accelerators,” she said.
Though she deals in technicalities, Suarez, like her other teammates, realizes the importance of building a product with heart. “My mom, she’s a spiritual teacher, she told me I had to look for work to help people and that’s what I’m doing. It feels great to know I am having a big impact on people’s lives,” Suarez said.
Her duties had a big impact on the team as well: She was the one who filed the application to a Mexico accelerator with ties to MassChallenge and destined the company for global exposure. SUNU cleaned up at that competition and headed for the Hub – where they went on in October 2014 to win a $50,000 prize, plus the Perkins Assisted Technology sidecar prize, worth an additional $25,000 from the Perkins School for the Blind.
Albertorio said SUNU has always been bootstrapped, operating on donations, grants and money won in competitions. The MassChallenge winnings went toward developing a new prototype, structuring the IP, and pushing the device closer to market.
Suarez did not make the journey to participate in the Boston accelerator, but rather stayed in Guadalajara to oversee current production with money received from the Mexican government. “I kept working so we didn’t miss that link we have with the government,” she said in an interview from their office in Guadalajara. “They gave us a grant, so I was here keeping production going.”
Boston was home to the fourth team member, Albertorio – who brought his skills and expertise to the group when MassChallenge kicked off that year. Albertorio is visually impaired himself, and was able to recognize immediately the value of the SUNU product.
The first time he wore the SUNU band, he said he was just floored.
“When I wore it for the first time going home, I was able to avoid certain tree branches that I usually hit my head with. Even navigating the T, especially South Station when it’s so busy, sometimes I don’t see well and I hit people by accident. And you know what? You want to avoid that type of situation.
Albertorio qualifies his deficit as being less limiting than for those who are fully blind, but he still benefits from wearing the band.
“I’m a little bit more fortunate than most people with my similar condition, I can move about, I don’t have to use a cane or require a guide dog, thankfully. But every once in a while, at least once a month, I’ll hit a sign post because I just didn’t see it, or I may walk into a glass door or get hit in the head with tree branches.
“So with this device, I’m able to navigate around and find clear openings and just be more confident and empowered when I’m moving about in crowded spaces,” Albertorio said. “I just fell in love with this device and said, ‘This is definitely something I can help and get behind 100 percent.’ ”
Research shows only 2 percent of people with legal blindness use a guide dog, and the white cane is only used 20 percent to 30 percent of the time in daily activities. Albertorio points to those stats as proof of not wanting to stand out in society as impaired. “Since the development of the cane, people don’t want to be labeled or stigmatized,” he said. “So we developed a discreet, beautiful product that makes a difference. We want people to be proud.”
The SUNU wearable wristband allows the visually impaired to navigate their surroundings with sonar.
“Our principal philosophy in design is not to let people know those who wear it have a disability,” Trujillo said. “We try to make them feel part of the trend, like regular people using the newest iPhone. We want to break that barrier, and make them feel more normal and not excluded.”
Currently, the team (save for Albertorio) is back in Mexico—for now. “We came back because living in Boston was very expensive for us, compared to Mexico. All our manufacturing and development partners are here,” Trujillo said. “But we kept our relationship with Perkins that we built during MassChallenge. We have never stopped working.”
This past December, the team ran a test with Perkins that Trujillo called “very successful.” They deployed 10 units and tested to see if wearers could stop before hitting their heads, get to from point A to point B and find lost items, according to Arias.
After receiving all the feedback, they developed a new version of the software inside the band. “It’s just smarter than it was before,” Trujillo said. Now they plan on raising funds, and conducting their next round of beta tests with the National Federation of the Blind, Project Starfish and other invited partners.
“(Project Starfish) approached us to partner, to help us bring SUNU to market,” Trujillo said. Project Starfish is a group committed to helping the visually impaired or otherwise disabled professionals (as well as veterans and homeless) reenter the work force.
“There’s a 65 percent unemployment rate for people who are totally blind. Worldwide it’s even bigger,” Albertorio said. “And in part, if you can get people who became blind during their professional life out of the house, they could have a chance at a career again, if things align for them.”
With 1 in 50 Americans already legally blind, 20 million Americans with severe visual impairment predicted by 2020, and much larger numbers looming globally, SUNU is focused on raising money, launching a pre-order campaign (go to sunu.io for more information) and getting to market as quickly as possible.
“We just want to enhance people’s perception of their surroundings,” Albertorio said. “With baby boomers coming up in age, there’s macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts, peripheral vision loss and more. They will start to have vision loss but still want to go for their evening walks or jogs.
“We want to give that protection to keep going about your daily life,” he said.