OrCam, the Jerusalem-based company that has developed both handheld and wearable artificial vision devices to enable visually impaired people to read and identify objects through audio feedback, has signed soccer star Lionel “Leo” Messi as a global ambassador for three years, the company announced on Wednesday.
OrCam said the company launched the collaboration with the soccer legend to “increase awareness of the challenges faced by the blind and visually impaired community globally.”
Messi also posted the news on his own social media accounts, saying he wants to bring awareness to innovative technology that promotes equal opportunities. Messi said he was proud to be a voice for the blind and visually impaired community.
While Messi has represented brands and products before (including the Israeli-founded startup Sirin Labs in 2017) OrCam director of media communications Rafi Fischer tells NoCamels this is the first time that Messi has partnered with an organization that is not focused on consumer goods.
“We’re calling him an ambassador because in this case he really is a working ambassador,” Fischer says. “He is rising to the occasion of wanting to bring awareness to the challenges faced by visually impaired people all over the world and of course, the solution that OrCam provides.”
As a major component of the collaboration, OrCam will organize face-to-face meetings between Messi and visually impaired people pre-selected by the company who will get the chance to see first-hand how the OrCam MyEye device works when they meet the soccer star.
Earlier this year, just before the coronavirus pandemic hit Europe, OrCam arranged for 12 high-achieving visually impaired athletes from countries around the world to meet Messi in Barcelona as a surprise.
The 12 users, dubbed the “OrCam Dream Team” and hailing from Israel, Japan, Germany, Spain, Uruguay, Brazil, France and the US, had no idea they were meeting the soccer legend until Messi was announced in front of them by the OrCam MyEye device.
Members of the OrCam Dream Team included Israeli triathlete Oren Blitzblau, who competed in the Iron Man competition as part of his recovery after losing his vision in a terror attack; Kento Kato from Japan, a captain of the blind soccer team set to compete in the next Paralympic Games; and 17-year old Bailey Martin from Iowa, who got back into athletics after losing her vision through an organization called United States Association of Blind Athlete (USABA) and hopes to compete in the Paralympic Games someday.
Members were asked to snap on the OrCam MyEye, the company’s lightweight wearable vision device that assists visually impaired users to read printed text and digital screens, recognize faces, and identify products, bar codes, money notes, and colors.
When he announced the partnership on social media, Messi also unveiled a commercial featuring members of the Dream Team meeting him in Barcelona. During the three-minute video, Messi flips through a photo album, remembering some of the “magic moments” in his life. The camera then cuts to a visually impaired member of the Dream Team having his own “magic moment” when he meets Messi with the help of the OrCam MyEye device snapped onto the frames of his eyeglasses.
Members of the Dream Team learned they were going to meet a sports figure or someone who was famous, but they didn’t know who, Fischer explained.
“They were led into this room where Messi was standing. He told them he was going to put these glasses on them and then snap on a webcam device. Once he did that, the facial recognition feature automatically recognized Leo Messi,” he said.
“The OrCam MyEye transforms the lives of the blind and visually impaired, enabling them to live more independently and discover magic moments every day,” said a narrator during the commercial.
“The emotion was incredible,” Messi said in a company statement, “Meeting with this amazing group of people from around the world was truly a magical and inspiring moment. Witnessing each of the members of the ‘Dream Team’ trying out the OrCam MyEye features, it was clear that this would be a life-changing device for each of them.”
Jonathan Hepner, OrCam’s VP of Marketing and Creative, witnessed the meetings between Messi and members of the Dream Team first hand.
“Some of [the members of the team] were excited and emotional. Some of them were just in shock. Some of them asked if it was really him. Some of them just started chitchatting with him,” he tells NoCamels.
The video “really shows a different side of Messi, not the fierce competitor on the football pitch,” Fischer added.
While the ongoing health crisis has thrown a wrench in the company’s plans — the team was supposed to have sent the next batch of Dream Team members to Barcelona this month — the company aims to arrange these meetings twice a year, according to Fischer and Hepner.
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“We’re also planning that he will come here for our next product, which should be launching by the end of the year,” Hepner says.
“I am proud to be an OrCam ambassador to truly make a difference for so many,” Messi added.
“This technology supports users in maximizing their inherent potential,” said Professor Amnon Shashua, co-founder and co-CEO of OrCam (and Mobileye. “We are convinced that this collaboration with Messi – who is the embodiment of maximizing potential, and an individual who is admired worldwide – will allow us to reach millions of people in need.”
New products from OrCam
At least 2.2 billion people are blind or have a vision impairment, according to figures from the World Health Organization. What’s special about OrCam products, like OrCam MyEye, the company explains, is that for the visually impaired community, it really “helps to dramatically change their quality of life.”
The company was co-founded in 2010 by Shashua and Ziv Aviram, who are also the co-founders of the Intel-acquired assistive driving tech innovator Mobileye. OrCam is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Since its first product, the OrCam MyEye, was released in 2015, OrCam has raised $130.4 million to date from investors. As of two years ago, the company has been valued at $1 billion, transforming OrCam into one of only 38 global healthcare unicorns, according to CB Insights.
OrCam has since released the OrCam MyEye 2, a meticulously-designed, updated version available in 25 languages and in 50 countries. The device was named to the TIME Best Inventions of 2019 list.
“It’s not just assistant technology. It’s the cutting edge of assistant technology. People who use the product sometimes tell us they can’t believe we put so much effort into creating this kind of high tech technology for someone who is visually impaired,” Hepner explains. “They are really moved by it. It’s also something that Messi understood.”
In July, OrCam announced the US release of its new, voice-activated interactive Smart Reading feature. The feature gives the MyEye platform a new level of accessibility and assists users who are blind, visually impaired or have reading challenges, including dyslexia, with the ability to use voice commands for a clearer reading experience.
The device also features a beta version of the new orientation feature, which helps make users aware of physical surroundings, including doorways, hallways, chairs and more. Both features were previewed at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
The OrCam Read was also first introduced to the public at CES 2020 earlier this year. This handheld device has a smart camera that effortlessly reads text from any printed surface or digital screen for people with low vision, reading fatigue, and dyslexia.
The OrCam Hear, an AI-enabled device for hearing impairment, was showcased at CES 2020 and nabbed a “Best of Innovation” award for accessibility at the three-day event.
Hepner says that the company plans to bring Messi to Israel for the Orcam Hear campaign, which they plan to kick off with the launch of the product by the end of the year.
“We’re already planning our next campaign, to bring awareness to people dealing with hearing loss,” he says.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, the company says that much of their daily operations have moved online, but the firm is still forging full speed ahead as usual. According to tech critic Trevor Long, their “unbelievable” products have also helped the visually impaired elderly community, who are quarantined in their homes.
“The story of OrCam’s founding is, first and foremost, a story of people – people who struggle with real problems and challenges in their lives. Our goal is to use sophisticated ‘AI-as-a-companion’ technology that helps people with disabilities in real time, in the real world,” said Professor Shashua.
“In the performance of daily activities, the device offers independence, providing users with critical support to better integrate in society, especially within employment and educational settings.”