The blind and visually impaired community numbers over 285 million people globally, many of whom are disconnected from everyday technology due to archaic or expensive accessibility tools. A new startup, Conversant Labs, is working to change that reality with its new conversational applications called Say Apps.
Based in Pittsburgh, the company is seeking to add conversational interaction to iOS apps and improve accessibility to technology for blind and visually impaired users. As a result, Conversant Labs was selected as one of eight finalists to compete at UpPrize, the BNY Mellon Social Innovation Challenge sponsored by the BNY Mellon, BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania, and The Forbes Funds. In the event finale on July 31 in Pittsburgh, Conversant Labs won the top prize in the amount of $400,000 in funding and grants (Marinus Analytics took home a $200,000 prize).
Startup seeks to make online shopping easier and more intuitiveChris Maury, CEO of Conversant Labs, shared with social-startups.de that he was diagnosed in 2011 with a degenerative eye condition that will leave him legally blind in five to ten years.
He was dismayed when he learned that existing accessibility tools available for the blind and visually impaired would not allow him to maintain his current level of productivity. Determined to make a positive change for himself and others, he formed his company with the goal of improving accessibility to technology for blind and visually impaired people. After setting up Conversant Labs, Maury’s company was selected to be part of AlphaLab’s accelerator program for early-stage technology companies in the Pittsburgh area.
Conversant Labs recently launched its first app, Say Shopping, in partnership with Target.com, which allows users to shop and make purchases by speaking into the app. Say Shopping gives people the ability to shop by using their own voices, something that Maury states had not been done before. Maury believes that his app, which relies on Natural Language Processing (NLP), offers users an easier and more intuitive way to shop online.
Already 35% of Say Shopping app guests use the app on a weekly basis, said Maury during the event finale.
Currently, blind or visually impaired shoppers can shop independently online only via screen readers, a decades-old technology that costs in excess of $2,000. Moreover, Maury says the old technology is difficult to use. Due to the hurdles that a large number of blind users, particularly older adults, face in using the screen readers, many forgo using new technology or interacting online altogether.
Maury sees his company’s efforts at introducing conversational interaction to iOS apps as empowering greater independence within the blind and visually impaired communities. Conversant Lab’s novel approach could potentially be paradigm shifting. “The history of accessibility for the blind has been playing catch-up to technology, trying to adapt to new technology whether, computers or mobile,” said Maury. “With our conversational interaction and voice based approach, we’re driving consumer technology rather than following it.”
Plans to support software developers with accessibility tools
Conversant Labs is looking to extend its conversational interaction-based technology to software developers by offering its Say Kit Software Development Kit (SDK). The Say Kit SDK would allow interested developers to add conversational interaction to their iOS apps. By licensing this technology to developers based on usage, Conversant Labs is confident that its business model is sound.
For the time being, Maury is focusing on the iOS platform, since he says iPhone ownership skews higher in the blind community than the overall percentage of smartphone users. The company plans to release its first version of SDK in September.
Reach of accessibility tools depend on funding
Winning the UpPrize provided a much needed funding boost to Conversant that will allow it to offer greater functionality with its Say Shopping app and speed up development of other apps. Maury seeks to support as many platforms as possible (e.g., Apple’s Carpay) with his company’s new, voice-driven technology, but its reach will depend on continued investment.
About the author
Parisa Jade Baharian is a Washington, DC-based contributor. She currently works as a freelance writer, editor, and research consultant. Parisa has over nine years of experience in business intelligence collection and analysis across a range of industries and market segments. Her writing covers a broad spectrum of topics, including education and social innovation. In her spare time, she enjoys martial arts and mentoring kids.