- Founders: Hugo Furtado
- Founded in: 2019
- Employees: 8
- Money raised: -
- Ultimate goal: Make navigation intuitive, hands-free, and screen-free for everyone
Just imagine: you are on a city trip in an unknown city and want to go to that one good seafood restaurant. You type the address of your destination into your phone and slip it into your pocket. You do not have to look at your screen, you only have to follow the sounds of your navigation app. If it were up to Hugo Furtado, founder and CEO of Dreamwaves, in a few years time navigation would no longer need a screen. His start-up is working on the development of waveOut: a navigation app that uses 3D audio and AR navigation to take users from A to B.
Dreamwaves’ goal is to make navigation accessible for everyone, including the visually impaired and the blind. High Tech Campus (HTC) in the Dutch city of Eindhoven also wants to improve accessibility for this group of people and has teamed up with this start-up. Flyers promoting the use of the app are displayed on coffee machines throughout the campus. Dreamwaves wants to develop the app as much as possible together with the users and needs test users for this reason, says Hugo Furtado in this edition of the Start-up of the day.
If all goes well, more and more people on the HTC will be walking around with waveOut. Getting back to where it all began: how did you come up with this idea?
“We use sound to get our bearings. It is often present in the background, but we are constantly registering it. When you enter an area, you can determine roughly how many people are present based on the surrounding sound. Whenever you hear sirens, or when someone yells your name, your attention is immediately drawn to that sound. You instinctively store all those sounds and turn them into images. Your imagination creates those images from those sounds. Since sound is so intuitive, you can use it to navigate your way around really well. Then I thought, why don’t I build a platform that can deliver all that information virtually? That’s how waveOut was born.”
What can a user expect from waveOut?
“It’s a regular navigation app with a search field and a map. You can navigate by using the screen, but also by using 3D audio. You also see the route on your screen, or via augmented reality with green dots. When you need to turn right, you will hear music or percussion-like sounds in your right ear. The current version of waveOut still needs the phone camera to pinpoint your location, but eventually you should be able to just stow your phone away while you navigate your way around.”
It may sound uncomfortable, even a bit frightening, to rely entirely on the sound. What kind of feedback are you getting from the users?
“The best compliment that we ever received was from a partially sighted user. He said it felt almost as if he could see. In other navigation apps, you hear one sentence with an instruction and then it’s a matter of waiting for the next set of instructions. With waveOut, you are constantly hearing sounds – as also happens when you navigate by sight. You can ‘see’ how long it will be before you need to turn and you are prepared for what comes next.”
“For sighted users, it takes some getting used to relying solely on sound. Especially if they don’t read the instructions carefully beforehand. We have learned that almost all users skip the tutorials. Even though that is important, because it is a new way of navigating and it requires a few minutes of explanation. We are still trying to find a solution to that.”
You mentioned it just now: waveOut uses 3D audio. How does that work?
“We make use binaural audio, a technique that transforms virtual sounds into 3D sounds. Users should feel as if they are in the same room as the waveOut audio. Our ears and head have a certain shape, which causes all incoming sounds to be distorted. Is a car passing by on the right? Then the sound arrives in your right ear just a tad earlier. These are only really subtle changes in time and frequency, but they do help you understand where things are spatially via sound. The application of binaural audio still needs to be developed further. The shape of everyone’s head and ears are all different. That means each user should have a customized filter that mimics these shapes, to make the sound as realistic as possible. Right now, that’s not possible; so our app isn’t yet able to work equally well for everyone.”
Besides the use of binaural audio, what has been the greatest challenge so far?
Precisely pinpointing locations. It is extremely difficult to know exactly where a phone is in the world. To pinpoint the location as accurately as possible, we use GPS as well as a smartphone camera and inertial sensors. These are inertial sensors that measure how fast the phone is moving in order to calculate real-time locations. We also use machine learning to detect certain street features that we link to those corresponding ones on conventional maps. But it’s still difficult when you’re walking in the middle of a wide street, or if you’re not near an address. We still have to work on that, because until the app can precisely locate users anywhere, anytime, it cannot be trusted.”
Where will Dreamwaves be in five years from now?
“Then we will be better able to compete with ‘sight.’ It’s an ambitious goal, and one we’re far removed from at the moment. But, we have come a long way. We started with a prototype that was tested within four walls. Right now, our app is so far along that it’s already being used in actual practice. In five years, we plan to be the global reference for audio navigation, and we will have expanded our business. Audio is still underutilized in technology, even though it is becoming more and more popular. People are becoming fed up with screens. Just look at the popularity of podcasts. We are on trend. When combined with augmented reality, the possibilities are endless. Consider, for example, three-dimensional audio experiences, tours for tourists where our app shows what a street looked like a hundred years ago, or traffic alerts.”