SEOUL -- Since Apple's Steve Jobs launched the iPhone 10 years ago, smartphones have changed people's lives drastically. For many, it is now hard to imagine living without a device that, as well as making calls, allows you to connect with friends online, search for news, check the weather and watch movies.
However, at least one group of people has been unable to fully participate in the smartphone revolution -- the visually-impaired. Eric Kim, chief executive of South Korean startup Dot, recognized this imbalance. In South Korea, 253,000 people were registered as visually-impaired in 2015, according to data from Statistics Korea. And with some 285 million visually-impaired people registered around the world, Kim realized there was a market to bring a more appropriate device to them.
Now, after two years of ups and downs, the company is making final preparations to release the result of Kim's quest -- the first braille smartwatch. The Dot Watch, which will be priced at $290 before tax when it goes on sale in the next few months, has drawn more than 150,000 pre-orders from 15 countries, including one from musician Stevie Wonder, according to the company. It enables visually-impaired people to check messages, the time and set alarms via a Bluetooth connection to other smart devices.
In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review at his office in western Seoul, Kim said that it was his college roommates that drew his attention to those living with disability. "I lived with two roommates with physical disability during my college time. But, both of them had girlfriends while I had not. So, I realized that disability cannot limit their life."
He added that volunteering in social centers as a member of a local church further opened his eyes. "I noticed that visually-impaired people use a huge braille Bible, which also led me to focus on something to help them."
The 26-year-old South Korean entrepreneur, who studied social science at the University of Washington, launched his business in June 2014, aiming to make his product small and very cheap -- costing less than 150,000 won ($125.4). The only solution was to make a smartwatch specially designed for the visually-impaired.
First of all, he checked previous studies on this project. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology, the two major tech and science universities in the U.S., had carried out studies on the subject but no products had been commercialized.
Clunky braille products
"I was surprised to see that few things have changed in the braille market for the last few decades. Visually-impaired people still use big and expensive devices and materials to read and get information," said Kim.
Kim said that braille display screens cost about $5,000 and weigh a few kilograms, preventing most blind people from accessing the device. Moreover, its letter keys, made of ceramics, are easily broken, incurring further maintenance costs.
"We focused on translating numbers and letters to braille. The most important job was to make letter keys small enough to be set up on the watch. It was very difficult," said Kim.
After two years of trial and error, Dot's engineering team, led by Chief Technology Officer Ki Seong, who studied electrical engineering at the University of Utah, released a prototype of the Dot Watch in August 2016. The company has more than 50 patents in the product, including about 30 in design.
Dot sought feedback from blind users. Park In-beom, a history student who was born with visual impairment, joined the company as an intern to test the watch. Later he has become a full employee of the company.
"I was so excited that I could become part of the company which changes life for the visually-impaired," said Park. "I am proud of my job and feel huge responsibility."
Park has become a coordinator connecting the company and the blind community. "Blind people showed big interests in the watch. They were thrilled to test it."
He noted one major positive feedback from the testers: They were happy that they could check their messages on the device without being heard by others.
Usually, visually-impaired people have to check their messages through a voice recording, allowing others to listen in. To avoid other people hearing their messages, some in South Korea will set the voice in English or to a fast speed setting, Park said.
Dot said that it will initially release two language versions -- English and Korean -- but will later include other languages, such as Japanese, French, German and Arabic. The company said the Japanese version may have some additional braille lines to reflect the language's characters.
Buoyed by the positive early reception for his product, CEO Kim says that the Dot Watch device is just the beginning of his dream. "We aim to launch a tablet for education and set up public braille signs which provide up-to-date messages to the blind. We strive to reduce the invisible discrimination against people living with blindness in information accessibility."