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Based at the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP), Bonocle is the brainchild of Abdelrazek Aly and Ramy Soliman who, when they came up with the concept, were both engineering students at Qatar University. At the time, Aly had broken his hand in a car accident, and sought help from his university’s special needs center to keep up with his studies.
This led him to interact with students at the university who were visually impaired, and Aly met a blind student pursuing a law degree who was struggling to obtain study material in accessible formats. “It was a long, three-step processfrom getting the content from the professors, to getting help transcribing them in an accessible format by volunteers, and then finally plugging it into his braille display, a device that cost upwards of US$5,000,” says Aly. “We were shocked… And our engineering mind then came to play.” Having thus seen this problem affecting blind students and the wider visually impaired community, Ali and Soliman thus came together to find a solution, and over the next few months, they joined QSTP’s incubator program to work hard on turning their solution to a reality.
Launched in August 2022, Bonocle is a braille-based education and entertainment platform for the visually impaired. With a vision to improve the lives of the blind community through technology, its first product is the eponymously named Bonocle, a next-gen assistive device enabling the visually impaired to do a myriad of tasks. A portable, handheld device, Bonocle is designed with a “braille cell,” which consists of three buttons and different haptics that enable users to interpret the contents of any electronic device through the medium of braille. The gadget helps visually impaired people to read, write, count, take measurements, and even play games.
Designed to be affordable and portable (it’s about the same size as an iPhone Xs Max), the device has an optical sensor that detects its relative position, just like a mouse, and buttons to move to another text line, giving the user autonomous control when navigating content. To maximize its use, the team also created a growing application library for Bonocle to offer more functions, such as apps for education, productivity, and games. “Braille, combined with gestures, haptics, and audio, makes accessibility immersive,” Aly says.
When it comes to its business model, the team have set a one-time payment for the device at US$499, as well as recurring revenue from Bonocle’s apps and services. A distinct aspect about the startup is that Bonocle has been designed for the blind community, while keeping in consideration that they are surrounded by sighted people, and thus, all of its apps and games have been designed with inclusivity in mind. As an example, Aly points out a classic tic-tac-toe game- a blind gamer can use Bonocle to play against a sighted friend who’d use a screen. “We believe that gaming plays a very important role in developing an inclusive society, where everyone can have fun and socialize with their loved ones, and raise awareness about accessibility.”
Next year, Aly and Soliman are planning to launch an online education platform to connect the blind community with a teacher worldwide to learn braille, math, or even music. This platform will allow the blind community to make extra income in the comfort of their home by sharing their knowledge and experiences,” Aly points out. Aly and Soliman admit to having their fair share of troubles to get Bonocle off the ground. “Even though the problem was obvious, the solution wasn’t,” Aly notes. “We were just starting to learn about the blind community and the assistive technologies available to them. For a while, we kept brainstorming and creating unfeasible and impractical solutions.”
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People’s reactions varied from finding it too expensive, too big, not good enough, or not working at all. And it’s thanks to the connections they made with the visually impaired community that have led to the creation of the current product. “We like to say that Bonocle was created for the blind community, by the blind community,” Aly says. “It sounds a lot like a cliché, but it was the case for us. Our conversations with people from the community inspired all of our improvements and design choices. We were fortunate to meet people who worked on and used the latest technologies, and gave us harsh feedback when we had earned it.” }Initially, the duo had thought of building the product was a braille-centric concept, but that didn’t pan out as it’d have turned extremely bulky and expensive. “It also wouldn’t achieve the desired outcome of inclusivity, since it would only show braille, which would lead to segregation in society,” Aly adds.
The entrepreneurs then pivoted and designed a glove with a refreshable braille cell integrated inside, so that the user could point at text, and then have it translated to braille in real-time, under their fingertips. However, when they tested the product, the Bonocle team found that it wasn’t userfriendly. The team tried changing the glove to a stylus, but that came with difficulties too. Fast forward to the current version, and Aly states that it’s packed with high tech like motion sensors and haptics to provide an immersive user experience. But there were challenges aplenty getting to this version as well, be it with establishing a production line remotely for a new product, or dealing with the chip shortage amidst the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having said that, the Bonocle team tackled the issue by establishing partnerships with manufacturers and suppliers to secure critical components, while also designing a robust quality assurance process to test and maintain the quality of the product. And the startup’s efforts have certainly paid off. For one, Boncole gained a massive boost when it was tasked to convert digital content into braille during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. The startup has also been shipping the first batch of its pre-orders to customers too. Focusing on the local and regional market, the team is keen to make Bonocle available in schools, universities, public libraries, and assistive technology centers. “Our plan over the next two years is to launch a crowdfunding campaign to help us further expand our production line, and make sure we can get Bonocle in the hands of the blind community all around the world,” Aly adds. In September 2022, the startup also held an inclusive e-sports game tournament, wherein the blind and visually impaired community in Qatar played its first arcade game, Bo’s Run, alongside other gamers.
Looking back on their entrepreneurial journey, Aly remarks that he’s learnt a crucial lesson in building a startup that advocates for inclusivity. “I have come to understand that disability is relative, no one is born disabled,” he explains. “You could be born with an impairment (visual impairment, hearing impairment, physical impairment, etc.), but that doesn’t mean you are disabled; you are only disabled if the environment is inaccessible for you.” Giving an example, he says, “Imagine if all the staircases around us were designed with a one-meter-rise per step, guess how many of us are disabled now? Inclusion is a choice we all make every day as individuals and organizations. And thus, we always need to pause and question if what we are doing is accessible to everyone, whether it is building a website, or an app, or even writing social media posts or emails.”
In terms of advice for his fellow entrepreneurs, Aly highlights the importance of companies being customer-centric with their offerings. “Make sure your customers are at the center of your decision-making, not the product/service,” he urges. “And always listen to their problems, and validate your solutions.” At this point, Aly reflects on Bonocle’s early days to drive home his point. “When we first started Bonocle, we did not have a clear solution, yet we had a clear problem that should not exist, and the blind community was behind every decision we made,” he recalls. “Regardless of your industry, always think about the social impact your startup can make. Whether it is a food delivery service or a fintech [startup], there is always a way to make an impact on society.”
As for the road ahead for Bonocle, Aly and Soliman say that they are planning on designing different experiences for its users, as well as releasing more apps and games to target different needs and uses. Next year, the startup also plans to release its software development kit to allow third-party developers to improve accessibility in apps and games by integrating Bonocle’s solutions. “I am personally looking forward to blind developers designing new experiences and developing their own ideas,” Aly says. “Our end goal is to have the blind community further integrated into classrooms and workspaces, while having equal access to technology.”
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