Google Glass lives on through award-winning app Envision

Generation Start-up: AI has provided boost to smart glasses for the visually impaired, says Amsterdam-based Envision

UAE resident Khalfan bin Dhaher, who has a visual impairment, regularly wears Envision's smart glasses to help him shop and run errands. Photo: Khalfan bin Dhaher
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The much-hyped and later discontinued Google Glass technology has found a second life through Envision, a company that builds hardware and software tools for the visually impaired.

“We got a little bit of an exemption,” says Karthik Kannan, founder and chief technology officer of Envision.

“We're the only company in the world today that's allowed to sell to the consumer directly, because you can't just buy these anywhere, you have to be a distributor.”

Envision's journey to selling smart glasses started in 2017, when the Amsterdam-based start-up's smartphone app, now called Envision AI, began to gain popularity.

The app uses a phone camera to identify and read signs, objects, menus, books or other material in real time, making it easier for visually impaired users to navigate situations.

The popularity of the free app, according to Mr Kannan, also fuelled Envision's desire to improve the user experience based on feedback from customers.

“If you're a low-vision person and you have to have a phone in one hand and a cane in the other, that can be cumbersome,” he says. “So, we started looking for something that might be sleek and modern-looking to implement.”

Part of enhancing the experience, Mr Kannan says, was to take the best aspects of the Envision app and realise the in glasses.

As Envision's app won a Google Play Award in the category of “best accessibility experience”, Mr Kannan says Envision was able to come to an agreement with Google and eventually use the company's technology for its Envision Glasses.

The glasses, priced from $1,899 to $3,499, were introduced in 2020 but have since undergone improvements during the AI boom.

“It's opened up a whole new world for us,” says Mr Kannan, reflecting on AI's impact on Envision's glasses.

“Eighty per cent of the things you could do with the glasses initially relied upon being online, but that's down to 30 per cent … it's been phenomenal over the last three years, taking complex AI and putting it into a form factor like this,” he adds.

The global assistive technology market is projected to reach $32.25 billion by 2030, from nearly $23 billion in 2023, expanding at a compound annual growth rate of 4.7 per cent during the period, according to Coherent Market Insights.

The growth comes as technology develops and products can be scale at a more rapid pace. It can be attributed to the increasing prevalence of disabilities, rising geriatric population, and technological advancements in assistive technology devices, the research agency said.

Meanwhile, the Envision glasses can also be used to recognise faces, among other features, Mr Kannan says.


Name: Envision
Started: 2017
Founders: Karthik Mahadevan and Karthik Kannan
Based: The Netherlands
Sector: Technology/Assistive Technology
Initial investment: $1.5 million
Current number of staff: 20
Investment stage: Seed
Investors: 4impact, ABN Amro, Impact Ventures and group of angels

“You can even make video calls directly from the glasses if you need to,” he says.

Videos provided by the company show people with limited eyesight using the glasses to carry out a variety of tasks such as read restaurant menus or navigate busy streets.

Although Envision's primary product is the glasses, Mr Kannan says providing exposure to the company's app continues to be a priority.

Soon, the company will unveil a desktop version of the Envision app and it is already enabled for use with Apple's Vision Pro, with negotiations with other tech companies under way to broaden availability.

“We're currently in talks with Meta to see if we can put our software on their Ray-Ban Meta glasses,” he says.

Making Arabic a priority

Envision's app, according to the company, can read more than 100 languages, but Mr Kannan says there has been a major focus on Arabic, which traditionally has proven to be challenging, despite advancements in machine-learning, because of its complexity.

At first, Envision relied on various commercially available optical character recognition (OCR) technology to quickly implement Arabic but later evolved strategies to make the most from AI and other tech developments.

“As our userbase in the Middle East grew and we built up a community of users, we've started to bring a lot more of those efforts in-house,” Mr Kannan says.

“As a result, we now have more control over how the AI works when translating documents that are scanned and how it works if there's written text on a blackboard.”

In Dubai, Khalfan bin Dhaher, 36, is one of many sending feedback to Envision.

“I was selected as part of the company's ambassador programme back in 2019,” says Mr Dhaher, who is visually impaired.

“At the beginning I used it occasionally and gave them feedback and suggestions, they've really improved it since.”

Depending on the situation, Mr Dhaher says he's able to wear the glasses for half the day and navigate places where he used to require assistance such the grocery shops or restaurants.

“They are somewhat magical,” he says, adding that the glasses have also helped him reduce the amount of time he spends with his smartphone.

“Sometimes people used to get confused and assumed you were taking a picture of them but really you're just using the app to help yourself,” he says.

“Now I'm able to walk by myself in the mall just using my white cane and the glasses.”

Future plans for Envision

“We're ultimately a software company,” says Mr Kannan, reflecting on plans for the future.

“We really want to build an accessibility assistant, not just smart glasses, not just a smartphone app,” he says, hinting what Envision is working on.

In the months and years ahead, Envision would also like to widen its offerings to appeal to people with other types of disabilities such as dyslexia and dementia, to name a few, according to Mr Kannan.

“All of these things are now possible with the generative AI revolution upon us,” he says.

While it remains to be seen exactly what Envision will pursue or release next, there's definitely an appetite in terms of the overall assistive technology marketplace.

Q&A with Karthik Mahadevan, chief executive of Envision


Where do you want to be in five years?

In five years, I aspire to see Envision as the global leader in assistive technology, with our solutions fully integrated into everyday devices, making accessibility universal.

What new skills have you learnt since launching your start-up?

Since launching Envision, I’ve honed my skills in adaptive leadership, technology development, particularly in AI and machine learning, and deepened my understanding of global accessibility standards.

What other successful start-up do you wish you had started?

While I admire many start-ups, I am deeply committed to the mission of Envision. If I were to choose another area, it would likely be in environmental technology, focusing on sustainable solutions.

Who is your role model?

My role model is Steve Jobs, for his unwavering commitment to innovation and design, coupled with his profound impact on technology and how we interact with it.

What is your next big dream to make happen?

My next big dream is to achieve seamless integration of our technology into daily life, eliminating barriers for people with visual impairments and promoting an inclusive society.

Updated: April 04, 2024, 10:13 AM

Name: Envision
Started: 2017
Founders: Karthik Mahadevan and Karthik Kannan
Based: The Netherlands
Sector: Technology/Assistive Technology
Initial investment: $1.5 million
Current number of staff: 20
Investment stage: Seed
Investors: 4impact, ABN Amro, Impact Ventures and group of angels