Sunu launches sonar wristband that will help blind and visually-impared people navigate


Navigating city streets, public transportation, and unfamiliar buildings can be challenging for the blind and visually-impaired.

“On trash day, you may run into trash cans that aren’t ordinarily there. You may hit tree branches or signposts,” says Fernando Albortorio, co-founder and CEO of Sunu. Not to mention standing in front of an elevator wondering if the doors have opened yet. Albortorio is legally blind, but he doesn’t like to stand out by using a cane.

His Boston startup just launched an online funding campaign for a sonar system built into a wristband that can vibrate to let the wearer know about obstacles ahead. He calls it “FitBit for the blind.”

The company says it can price the wristband at $250 — and with high-volume production, Albortorio says it will become much more affordable. Sunu, originally hatched in Mexico, hopes to raise $50,000 in a campaign on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo.

The Sunu wristband uses sonar to take about 30 “pictures” of the environment every second. When it’s in indoor mode, useful in a crowded space like a train station, it is looking for obstacles that are about four feet in front of the wearer; in “outdoor mode,” it looks about a dozen feet ahead.

The company also is producing a tag that works with the bracelet, to help the wearer locate objects. As an example, Albortorio says it can sometimes be stressful for him to find his luggage on a carousel at the airport. “I can attach one of the tags to my bag, and when I press a button on the control surface of the wristband, the tag starts chirping, and the wristband vibrates to help me find it,” he says.

Several organizations, like the Perkins School for the Blind and the National Federation for the Blind, have been working with Sunu to test the wristband and provide feedback.

The company participated in the MassChallenge startup competition in 2014, when Albortorio originally served as a mentor to founders Marco Trujillo, Fabiola Suarez, and Cuauhtli Padillas. Sunu won two cash prizes in the competition, totaling $75,000, but hasn’t raised other outside funding, Albortorio says.

The goal of the crowdfunding campaign, he says, is to produce a “pilot run” of 250 to 300 units, which Sunu hopes to begin delivering around May 2016.

A company-produced demo video is below.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
Follow Scott on Twitter - Facebook - Google+