From left, Vanessa Bourget, orientation and mobility intern at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB); Mark Rankin and Emily Baarda, CNIB orientation and mobility specialists; and Yusup Mollayev, iMerciv vice president of data and analytics, at Sherwood Park in Toronto, Ontario, where they were testing audio prompts of saved geotags, such as benches, in the MapinHood app. Photo by iMerciv.

Published: October 29th, 2019

Microsoft recently announced 11 new grantees in Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility program, naming iMerciv, a Toronto-based startup among them.

A $25 million 5-year grant program, AI for Accessibility targets projects that help people with disabilities through AI tools and platforms that support independence and productivity. The grant is a mixture of cash and Azure credits.

iMerciv is developing MapinHood – a navigation app for pedestrians who are visually impaired and also for the people in wheelchairs that want to more efficiently navigate the routes they take. The app uses iMerciv’s custom routing engine, and with the grant, will use Azure machine learning, storage and virtual machines.

The app will audibly alert users to obstacles and hazards — from paths with elevation and staircases to low hanging tree branches, street lamps, benches, water fountains and signages — to avoid or take care of while walking.

The app uses open source information from the City of Toronto and crowdsourced data.

“We have built a fully-flexible, customized routing engine that only caters to pedestrians. The MapinHood app is essentially a crowd-sourced mobile mapping platform built for pedestrians by pedestrians,” said Arjun Mali, iMerciv Co-founder.

All the navigation systems available today provide users with route options that are the shortest or fastest for getting to a destination, and are generally used over long distances. Mali considers this to be a problem and an opportunity as he thinks they are not always the best routes for visually impaired or differently abled pedestrians trying to walk shorter distances and find the best walking route to a destination.

iMerciv aims to make navigation as assistive and interactive as possible. MapinHood is currently in the alpha stages of being tested with help from four key partners. The startup is working with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, Walk Toronto and Microsoft. Microsoft has also been helping the company with AI offerings, including machine learning.

The company is investing most of the grant money into the AI components of the project and aims to roll out the app on both Android and iOS in March 2020, in the Toronto and Greater Toronto Area to begin with.

But anyone looking to try the app today can visit the company’s website and subscribe.

iMerciv was founded in 2014, and developed its first product – BuzzClip – earlier this year. It is a 2-ounce, clip-on wearable device that uses ultrasound to detect obstacles in a person’s path, then alerts the user with different vibrations and frequencies.