A blind man who narrowly escaped death when he was gunned down in the Philippines has developed software he hopes will offer life-changing independence to blind people.
Marx Melencio was buying fried rice with his wife at a roadside store in Manila when he was shot in the chest and the head in an apparently random attack.
The first bullet hit him 3mm from his heart. The second missed his brain by 2mm but singed his optic nerve, rendering him blind.
Witnesses say the man who fired the gun was under the influence of both alcohol and drugs, but he’s never been convicted.
It was 2003 and Marx was 23 years old.
Fast-forward 14 years and Marx now runs a successful IT company. And he’s determined to develop guided “vision” for blind people, through the use of artificial intelligence and smart glasses.
‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’
Marx has developed an app that voices up the video-recognition data provided by Microsoft.
The Microsoft platform, known as Cognitive Services, recognises what objects appear in a video and translates that information into text.
Marx has developed a computer code that can turn that text into spoken audio.
“We’re standing on the shoulders of giants,” he says. “They already have the database there. The only thing left to do is process that data into a usable form for blind people. And to automate the system.”
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The Microsoft software is open to third-party development by members of the public.
Currently, Marx’s prototype provides audio descriptions of video captured on a smartphone camera.
He’s currently trying to raise money on a crowdfunding website to make the software available in smart glasses.
“We’re banking on the support of others in empowering the blind. It’s a new technology. It’s the type of innovation I’m looking for because I myself am blind,” he says.
The blind bass player
At the time of his shooting, Marx was the bass player in a heavy metal band that he’d joined at college.
He continued to play with the group even after he lost his sight.
A competition calling for videos of local music acts led to him developing his first piece of computer software.
“First, I searched for video editing software that I could access even though I’m blind. I had a hard time finding one, obviously,” he laughs.
Undeterred, Marx customised the screen-reading software he was already using to work with a video editing programme.
He entered the competition, although his band didn’t win.
The self-taught web developer
Soon after that, Marx discovered a computer school for blind people operating in Manila.
The school was offering a medical transcription course that taught how to transcribe the audio notes kept by doctors.
Marx didn’t have enough money to pay for the course, but he asked the school if he could do something else in exchange.
The school told him they needed a web developer.
“At that time, I didn’t know how to make websites but I told them I did. They gave me a week before I started. In that week, I learned how to develop websites and applications,” he says.
“I just did some Googling!”
Marx eventually got a job as a content writer for a local technology company, but soon realised he could start a business of his own.
In 2005, he set up Grayscale, a company offering web design, software development and search engine optimisation for overseas companies.
He started with four workers: himself, his wife Cherry, and two friends. Today the company employs 200 people, a fifth of whom have disabilities.
From cruise ships to call centres
In 2012, Marx decided to expand Grayscale in to the call centre business.
The Philippines is home to more call centres than anywhere else in the world, providing jobs for 1.2 million people.
“I noticed there was a gap in the market for non-English call centre support services,” he says, “so we focused on Japanese, German and French.”
Marx hired Filipinos who had previously worked as cruise ship performers, entertaining Japanese tourists. They already had the language skills, so Marx trained them in IT support.
“Once their contracts are up they come back here [to the Philippines] and don’t have any employment opportunities, so we trained them in tech.”
He also set up a call centre in Poland offering IT services for German speakers, and call centres in Bulgaria and Georgia offering IT support in French.
Inspired by Tesla
Three years ago, Marx heard that Tesla, the Silicon Valley tech company, was developing self-driving vehicles.
“When I heard about Tesla, I thought, if artificial intelligence can be used to detect certain objects [on the road], then it will be fairly straightforward to convert what it detects into human readable text and for that text to be converted in to spoken audio,” he says.
Since then, Marx has been working to realise that aim.
“I want a piece of software that describes things that are happening around me at any moment,” he says.
“First, it will bring back the independence that we’ve been longing for. I would like to travel and walk around. Even here, I would like to walk around the park with my pet dog. I would like to buy things on my own. I would like to go to the ATM [cash machine].
“These are basic things for everyone but we are missing out.”
Marx also has plans to develop the app so that it can read text on a page and translate it in to audio.
“If the blind person looks at the page of a book, our software will be able to read it for him,” he says.
Marx is hoping to raise $25,000 (£20,000) to continue developing the app, called SmartVision.
“We’ve made the algorithms and we’ve tested it and we want to improve it further. And we also want a way for the blind user to help build the database, to be able to privately name the faces of people, even pets or objects.
“That way, when the blind person uses the device, it will speak out the name of the person that he labelled.”
Marx hopes a final version of his app, available on Android and Apple operating platforms, will be ready to release to the public later this year.