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Exclusive: African inventor tackles visual impairment with ThinkAndZoom

July 20, 2015 • Features, People, Top Stories, West Africa

ThinkAndZoom

ThinkAndZoom creator, Zuby Onwuta.

Wearable technology is all the rage in the technology scene. These devices can track your movement, monitor your heart rate and even suggest how much exercise you need on a daily basis.

Wearables come in many forms, including devices like Google Glass, Smart Watches, Virtual Reality headsets and Tracking Peripherals. Setting a new benchmark for wearable technology is Austin, Texas-based, Zuby Onwuta.

Onwuta was declared legally blind in 1998, which led to a medical discharge from the U.S. military and ended his plans of pursuing a career in medicine. However, this did not deter him from working to improve himself.

Onwuta, who originally hails from Onitsha, Anambra State in Nigeria, developed ThinkAndZoom in a bid to overcome his disability, as well as assist others with similar challenges.

According to him: “The ThinkAndZoom application can run on Google Glass or devices of a similar nature, in order to offer hands free visual magnification to individuals who suffer from visual impairment.”

IT News Africa interviewed Zuby Onwuta, who will be speaking on “The future of Healthcare” at the upcoming Healthcare Innovation Summit in Johannesburg, to find out more about his invention.

How did the idea for the ThinkAndZoom application originate?
To see is a gift; however, there are many individuals out there who do not have the gift of sight as well as many individuals who have been declared legally blind. For these individuals, making out simple text or even images can be a demanding task. I myself was declared legally blind in 1998 due to Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, which is a genetic eye disorder that causes progressive vision loss.

What spurred the creation of ThinkAndZoom was quite honestly a series of devastating events that occurred after I was diagnosed. I was medically discharged from the U.S. Military, which forced me to abandon plans of pursuing a career in medicine. I settled for Computer Engineering but almost flunked out during my 3rd year at the University of Illinois, Chicago due to visual difficulties.

Mentoring from the School’s Minority Engineering Program as well as visual assistants provided by the Office of Disability Services helped me graduate.

I began working for IBM in 2004; however, after 2 years, I took medical leave in order to attend the Criss Cole School for the blind in Austin. I later returned to IBM, but the visual struggles continued to plague me at work. This made working on a day-to-day basis extremely difficult. Due to these events, I came up with the idea for ThinkAndZoom.

What is Think and Zoom, and how does it work?
Overall, Think and Zoom is a proprietary, patent-pending wearable technology that offers hands free visual magnification for individuals who suffer from visual impairment.

In its current prototype state, ThinkAndZoom is an app that performs magnification (zoom in) using Google Glass when it receives focus ( concentration) signal coming from an EEG Reader such as Neurosky Mindwave.

In other words, when a person is using the prototype, all they have to do to see better is focus on what they are looking at, and the app then tells the camera on a Google Glass styled device to zoom in.

In the early stages of development we were looking to incorporate the ThinkAndZoom app into Google Glass, but Google recently revealed that the device was going to be discontinued. Even without Google Glass, the ThinkAndZoom app can be implemented into any similar product that is built with an Android Operating System. This opens up an array of potential for the technology as it can be used in just about any device.

Who can benefit from ThinkAndZoom?
ThinkAndZoom has been designed for the visually impaired, but that does not mean that other individuals cannot use it. The idea behind the device is to offer hands free visual magnification.

For example: A student has positioned himself at the back of a lecture, due to lack of space or preference. The student may have a hard time seeing the notes on screen; however, if they are using ThinkAndZoom, they will be able to visually magnify the text in order to take down notes. Additionally, as there is no external input, the student will have both hands free.

Who else is involved in ThinkAndZoom?
Thankfully, I have had a lot of support with ThinkAndZoom. We have a working device that potential investors can demo. This would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication from the following people:

– Ernest Holloway: Entrepreneur and Experienced Android & Embedded Software Engineer
– Dr. Ike Obih: Neurologist
– Natalija Jovanovic: PhD, Business Management, Consultant
– Russell Pinkett and the mindRDR team at ThisPlace.com
– Any other ears who over the years got very tired of hearing me talk about “how to see better using your mind.”

Can corporations invest in ThinkAndZoom?
I’m looking for both investment and partnership with organisations like the Foundation Fighting Blindness FFB. Additionally, I would like innovative hubs like MIT as well as technology focused schools for the blind like Perkins, Boston, Massachusetts to invest in ThinkAndZoom.

I personally believe that ThinkAndZoom could benefit the lives of visually impaired individuals, which is why I am so passionate about this project.

What do you hope to achieve with ThinkAndZoom?
I want those who suffer from visual impairment to live their lives knowing that there is hope. Additionally, I want to promote awareness for those who suffer from visual impairment as well as other disabilities.

What advice can you offer to those who suffer from a disability or visual impairment?
I want people to understand that whether you are disabled or visually impaired you can overcome any challenge or pitfall that you may face. It is always possible to achieve your dreams, no matter what your situation is. I suffered for many years; however, I overcame my obstacles. Much like myself, you can also live your dream. Just because you may be disabled, or visually impaired, does not mean that you cannot create a better life for yourself and those around you.

What are your plans for the future?
Next I plan to work with a team of SMEs to launch a research to investigate the”Sustained use of EEG in daily living.” In pursuance of this research, I’ve created “Kenti”, a hands-free iOS game that will be used to conduct the research. “Kenti” received a scholarship to Apple World Wide Developer Conference 2015 in San Francisco.

Additionally, I’ve received a full scholarship to the 2015 MIT Global entrepreneurship boot camp. ThinkAndZoom was one of 50 startups selected from 24 countries including these Nigerian startups – “Bus Stop”, “Slatecube”, “Aajoh” and “Verdant”.

How can potential investors get in contact with you?
Potential investors can visit thinkandzoom.com in order to get in contact with us. Alternatively, they can reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Can investors view a demo of ThinkAndZoom online?
Yes, we have put together a video that showcases how the application and hardware work as one. This can be found below:

Darryl Linington


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