Marita Cheng: The Australian roboticist helping blind people see with the click of a button

08 Dec 2016

Author: Imogen Brennan



Discover how roboticist Marita Cheng is helping vision-impaired people see the world around them.
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It was a dream come true for Marita Cheng when she won a rare position at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University (SU) in 2015.

She had had her eye on SU since 2009, after seeing its co-founder, American engineer and entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, give a TED talk about the future potential of technology. 

As a young entrepreneur and roboticist herself, Cheng knew she had to be involved in the University’s Global Solutions Program.

She applied in 2015 and was accepted to travel to California for the 10-week program. Cheng was the only Australian in her cohort of 80 people from around the world who were chosen to take part in the technology incubator program.

Cheng always had a passion for creating life-changing technology, but it was at SU that her skills were finely honed and supported to success. 

In those 10 intense weeks, she met her soon-to-be-colleagues and developed a smartphone app called Aipoly that uses artificial intelligence to help blind and vision-impaired people identify objects around them.

Seeing-eye phones

The Global Solutions Program encourages students to build a company which uses exponential technologies, with the aim of improving the lives of a billion people in the next 10 years. 

After taking part in a speed-dating event to find her best colleague match, Cheng was partnered with her Italian peer at SU, Alberto Rizzoli. 

Rizzoli is an entrepreneur and futurist, who has written about artificial intelligence in education and how it can be used to solve big problems. 

The pair are dangerously intelligent. At 27 years old, Cheng is a former Young Australian of the Year, a mechatronics and computer science engineer, the creator of a non-profit organisation inspiring girls into engineering called Robogals Global, and the founder of the Melbourne-based robotics company aubot.

With their combined intellect and passion for improving the lives of people around the world through technology, they created Aipoly.

The app is free to download and simple to use. Users point their phone camera at any object they want to identify, and a voice tells them what they’re looking at.

“The algorithm has been trained on 10 million different images so it can identify almost anything,” says Cheng.

It took the pair less than a week from brainstorming the idea to making the first protoype of the app.

“After the first prototype was made, we visited a whole bunch of organisations that work with vision-impaired people in California to chat to them about the app and ask them what improvements they thought could be made,” Cheng says.

Initially, the idea was received with skepticism.  But a simple show-and-tell of Aipoly was all that was needed to win over any doubters

“They loved it. They were like ‘this is amazing!’. For example, at one place, a vision-impaired guy used the app to ‘see’ the painting on the wall in the room. He hadn’t known until that point what it was.”

Their idea was born in August 2015 and launched in January 2016. It had 10,000 downloads in its first week and since then, there have been another 120,000. The app is now available in seven languages.

Cheng and Rizzoli also brought a third co-founder onboard. Swedish computer science engineer Simon Edwardsson knew Rizzoli from participating in hackathons together in London. He studied at Sweden’s Chalmers and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, after teaching himself to code at the age of six. Cheng says Edwardsson’s research and development experience was a welcome addition to the team.

Improving life with tech

Cheng is buoyed by the fantastic feedback they’ve received from Aipoly users all over the world.

In one email, a teacher at a blind school wrote about how the students say the app gives them independence and privacy, which they didn’t have before.

“When they go to a public bathroom, for example, they can now see where the basin or bin or toilet is,” says Cheng.

As the daughter of a single mother who grew up in government housing in the far north Queensland city of Cairns, Cheng was driven from a young age to create technology that improves the lives of its users.

Her Melbourne-based company aubot recently launched its new ‘Teleport’ robot, which allows people to be in multiple places at the same time.

“You just log into the robot and it gives you the ability to move around with the robot, seeing what’s happening in an office or home, for example, and being part of conversations… whatever you please!”

Cheng still takes great pleasure from being involved in the the non-profit organisation she founded in 2008, Robogals Global. 

Since it began, the organisation has run thousands of workshops and programs around the world, educating more than 55,000 girls about the benefits of a career in engineering.

Marita Cheng
Marita Cheng, Alberto Rizzoli and Simon Edwardsson

Aipoly's future

Cheng says being recognised as the Young Australian of the Year in 2012 has set her up for success. Not only has she been busy creating life-changing technology, she is regularly asked to speak at events around the world.

At a recent TED talk she gave in Melbourne with Aipoly co-founder Alberto Rizzoli, the pair spoke about the incredible potential uses of the artificial intelligence technology they’ve created.

They demonstrated how the same technology that’s used in Aipoly can be integrated into wearable glasses, to help blind people recognise the world around them.

“They said one of the most time-consuming things was going to the supermarket,” says Cheng.

“But our glasses meant they could walk around supermarkets and identify everything, it was amazing!”

The Aipoly team has been approached by various companies who are licensing their technology. For example, a kitchen appliance company is hoping to use the technology in their machines to identify food and cook it accordingly without any human interaction.

There are also education opportunities. Cheng says it could be used for teaching languages to children and foreigners.

“Anything you can think of ... if you can think of a technical solution to it, you can fix a problem,” says Cheng.

Cheng says her time at Singularity University has given her a responsibility to create technology that makes a positive difference to the world around her.

“I like the idea of democratising technology and making it accessible to all people.”

  • Find out more about Aipoly

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