The rise of artificial intelligence has ushered in amazing technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality. These advancements have made video games cooler and more life-like. They’ve helped industrial designers push the boundaries of their creativity. And they’ve made it possible for autonomous vehicles to haul a load of cargo from Salinas to Santa Fe. But one segment of the population was conspicuously not benefiting from these new technologies. “If you just do a little bit of research, you’ll find that there’s not much AI being used for people with disabilities,” says David Hojah, co-founder and chief technology officer at Loro, which develops assistive devices for people with physical challenges.
In 2017, Hojah and a team of engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs from Harvard and MIT collaborated on Loro, a project to bring AI-enabled assistive devices to people with physical limitations, such as those with multiple sclerosis or ALS, so they can better manage their day-to-day lives. In January, the company plans to debut its first product, a small device that can be mounted to a wheelchair and provides users with 360-degree visibility, smart communications, connectivity to smart home devices, and other high-tech solutions. The device can help a wheelchair user back up without fear of hitting obstacles, or let a nonverbal person use a laser pointer to identify objects as they communicate with caregivers. “We want to use all the tools possible to help this community,” Hojah says.
Advances in broadband technology—5G in particular—are a critical factor in bringing the Loro device to market. The new 5G networks can transport huge amounts of data quickly, making it possible to use technologies such as AR and VR over wireless networks. “5G isn’t just 4G plus one,” says Christian Guirnalda, director of Verizon’s 5G Labs, a proving grounds of sorts for this technology. “It puts new tools into the hands of people who are creating the next wave of innovation.”
POWER AND POTENTIAL
Loro has embraced 5G as an essential building block of its product. Loro’s founders also are looking at 5G as a way to take the company to the next level: The company entered Verizon’s Built on 5G Challenge, a nationwide search for the products, services, and applications that demonstrate the power—and investigate the potential—of 5G technology.
In fact, Loro is among 10 companies still in the running for the top prize of $1 million (the runner up receives $500,000, and third place gets $250,000). As a finalist, Loro has had the opportunity to access Verizon’s 5G Lab. “It’s super exciting for us to be working with Verizon,” Hojah says. “Their mission is very similar to ours: They’re a leader in communication, and we help bring communication to people with physical challenges.”
Verizon has been at the forefront of developing 5G networks and in supporting research to expand their possibilities. Its 5G Labs are located in cities across the country, including New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. At their core, these labs are a combination of co-working spaces and incubators, where innovators and companies can take advantage of Verizon’s 5G network as they develop their ideas, applications, and own new technologies.
Guirnalda says each 5G Lab tends to reflect the types of technologies being developed in the city where it’s located. In Los Angeles, for instance, many companies are working on immersive content and storytelling. In D.C., several innovations are focused on first responders and public safety. “Each city brings a different flavor, a different culture, and a different set of industry expertise,” he says.
Verizon’s 5G Lab in Cambridge, Mass., where Loro is developing its product, focuses on industrial robotics and IT. The 5G network makes several key features of the Loro device possible. For instance, say a user takes their wheelchair outside. The Loro device uses AI and machine learning to help identify objects or impediments, such as curbs, cars, and bikes—even dogs—to avoid. And Loro’s device will continue to learn about the user’s environment. A blazing-fast wireless connection allows that identification to happen essentially in real time, helping users navigate the outside world more safely.
Hojah says these kinds of features simply aren’t possible on a 4G network because technologies such as AI and machine learning are so data intensive. What’s more, other features such as text-to-speech are much faster with 5G’s high data-transfer rates and low latency—a measure of how long data is delayed before being transferred. “With 4G, you can still do text-to-speech, but it takes much longer to write a sentence,” Hojah says. “With 5G, you can triple that speed or more.”
While faster wireless networks will let us watch higher-quality videos on our smartphones and make our digital assistants faster and more accurate, Guirnalda says the benefits of 5G are more profound. Ultimately, he says, they’ll have a substantive impact on our lives. He notes how 5G is helping to drive augmented-reality devices that help firefighters to effectively see better through smoke using helmet-mounted cameras and sensors that stream over 5G to a centralized command center. “We think 5G is going to fundamentally change the world,” Guirnalda says. “It starts to change everything about application development and hardware development in ways that we haven’t seen before. And our job is to find the best ways to create impact for businesses, for consumers, and for society.”