Member Spotlight: Cyber Timez Engineers Wearables for People With Disabilities
Sean Tibbetts watches CES every year, sure that it’s the year another innovator will announce a new app that uses voice-control to move objects. So far, his startup, Cyber Timez, remains alone in the market it’s created, engineering technology that can move physical objects at the sound of a user’s voice.
Cyber Armz, Tibbetts’ voice-control app, allows users to move objects via a smart watch. After a friend of his lost his arms while serving in the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Tibbetts and his team got to work creating the app, combining newly available, open-source microprocessors with smart watches. The work took several months, but eventually Cyber Armz was ready.
Building technology to help people overcome the challenges of living with physical limitations has been Cyber Timez’s mission since it began. In July 2014, Tibbetts attended a Jimmy Buffett concert with a dear friend of his who was going blind. She tried on Tibbetts’ Google Glass and started tearing up, her voice shaky in disbelief that no such product existed for patients suffering vision loss. That was the night Cyber Eyez, and Tibbets’ new startup, was born.
Today, 7.2 million Americans are blind. Much of that vision loss has to do with the spike in obesity and subsequent diabetes, which attacks the eyes. Of the 20 percent of obese American children, 20 percent have diabetes, and 80 percent of them will lose their vision by age 20.
The problems don’t stop there. Seventy-two percent of blind people lose their jobs. Tibbetts said,
“If you think about these numbers, it’s really depressing, but if you’re working to solve the problem, it helps you sleep at night.”
Cyber Eyez does work to solve that problem, by giving independence back to the blind with the help of wearable devices, micro controller boards and environmental sensors. A pair of Cyber Eyez glasses locates doors for the user and indicates the kinds of doors and how to open them.
Twenty percent of Cyber Timez’s blind customer base is low-income, but the majority of its customer base earns enough to qualify as middle or upper class. Cyber Eyez is as affordable as possible, costing less that $2,000 per pair; the federal government will refund patients who file the costs in their taxes up to $3,000.
Cyber Timez’s products have to earn approval from each medical agency and insurance company for its customers to receive coverage, and the process takes 10-12 months for each institution. The startup then has to work with state-level school systems, tech assessments and vocational rehabilitation centers to help them understand the technology, and each state is different.
Still, the small trials are worth it for the overall reward. Tibbetts left his six-figure salary as a CTO when his wife was four months pregnant. Explaining his motivation to take the risk, he said,
“All of our stuff is meant to help people. We’re not sexy, nifty stuff, just helping real people.”
According to the United States’ census data, 56 million Americans have physical disabilities, and as baby boomers are living well past 65, the country has a massive aging population. After age 65, one in three will develop mobility issues; one in four will suffer vision loss; and one in two will suffer hearing loss. For those with hearing loss, Cyber Timez offers Cyber Ears.
The startup’s products see adoption curves that are the exact opposites of competitors’ because they’re wearable, hands-free, voice-controlled and personalized. Personalization is essential for wearables. When customers are in physical contact with products they heavily depend on to live, having cool apps and capabilities don’t cut it. Tibbetts focuses on the way Cyber Timez’s customers perceive the products as parts of themselves and how they’ll consider others’ perceptions, too.
Another challenge Cyber Timez is tackling is how to build software that will automatically maintain and update itself since Cyber Timez’s disabled customers can’t easily go into the app store to manage that themselves. Right now, games are the only apps that do that, so Tibbetts is looking to game developers to make sure Cyber Timez can implement the same concepts in the right ways.
Also on the horizon for Cyber Timez are new partnerships, clinical trials and new features. Cyber Timez is heading into trials and distribution partnerships with the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins and others. The startup is also bringing on six deaf interns from Gallaudet University for various roles such as accounting, marketing and computer science. After adding color and facial recognition to Cyber Eyes, Tibbetts and his growing team will focus on getting more customers and pushing the products out there.
The light-up doorbell arrived on the scene in 1972 and could have marked the beginning of tech solutions for the deaf, but nothing else ever came of it. Like the simple doorbell, many other examples represent failed opportunities to use innovations to improve quality of life for the disabled everywhere. Tibbetts said,
“As a technologist for 25 years, I say shame on us for leaving accessible technology behind. That’s what keeps me up at night.”
Cyber Timez is the only one developing commercial, off-the-shelf glasses; the only one using commercial hardware to provide tech solutions for the disabled; the only one pursuing accreditation through every state and insurance company to ensure affordable products for its users. Despite Tibbetts’ close watch for new competitors, his company, born out of a simple, human moment at a Jimmy Buffett concert, remains the only one.