Ask Marwan Refaat how he transformed himself into the CEO of VocalEyes, and his answer may surprise you: “When you are directing a play, besides building a team, raising money and interacting with actors, technicians, you are being fine-tuned in public speaking and presentations. All these skills I gathered during my performance days proved helpful in my role to steer VocalEyes.”
Marwan loves musical theatre: it combines his two passions of acting and singing. But it is in app development that the 18-year-old from Egypt seems to have found his greatest calling. Last June, during a summer internship programme at MIT, Marwan and his friends Neil Deshmukh and Mahmood Alfayoumi developed VocalEyes, an app that helps the blind and the vision-impaired. Developed using artificial intelligence, it uses a smartphone camera to take photos of things and explain what they are.
Knowing full well that chatbots and narration would add little actual value if the app didn’t prioritise users, their habits and their real needs, Marwan and his team collaborated with people at the Perkins School of the Blind, the oldest school for the visually impaired in the US, located close to the MIT campus.
“Initially, they were excited about the idea, but the product was not at the level where it was useful for them,” Marwan told My Salaam. “It was inaccurate and slow. And so we constantly worked on improving it.”
VocalEyes supports more than 35 languages and currently enjoys a 4.7-star rating on the App Store. It has been downloaded more than 20,000 times and has identified more than 4 million objects for the blind. According to Marwan, most downloads are from the US, Canada and the UK.
Musical theatre isn’t Marwan’s only source of inspiration, of course; he also credits Sayd Farook, Non-Executive Director of Goodforce Labs, as one of his mentors in entrepreneurship. Goodforce Labs is a startup incubator focused on ethical startups in the Islamic economy and halal sector. As Sayd tells it, “There is a huge imperative for us to create opportunities and solutions that can have an impact on this region and help them become more self-sufficient within a globalized, technology-based order.”
Marwan is set to up his game, preparing for the seed round and engaging in early negotiation with potential funds and venture capital firms. “Our investors should understand that AI is costly and the research for that is costly as well,” he said.
He is also quick to compare VocalEyes with Microsoft’s Seeing AI, a smartphone app that uses computer vision to describe the world for the visually impaired. “Microsoft’s app has helped tonnes of people. That said, it’s not perfect, and there were ways we wanted to improve upon it. For one thing, accuracy is of the utmost importance to us, so we spent a lot of time training to offer more accurate identification. Also, our app is completely buttonless; this makes it far more intuitive for people who are visually impaired.”
VocalEyes is free to download, but Marwan is exploring possibilities in the surveillance and retail space to monetize it. AI can provide security cameras with digital brains to match their eyes and enable them to analyse live video. “Dubai is a big market, where the demand for surveillance infrastructure from corporate firms and government agencies is huge,” he said.
AI is currently the big thing in the mobile world, and Marwan is confident that leveraging it will help VocalEyes scale quickly. “Developing AI is costly, and while things are improving at a faster rate than ever, more money needs to be injected into the ecosystem if we want to start seeing the kind of products that are glamorized in movies and media. We can get there; we just need the resources.”
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