How The Vision-Impaired Are Being Gouged By Aid Device Makers

12/08/2017 03:43 pm ET

During his introduction in Animal Crackers, famous hunter and full-time schnorrer Jeffrey T. Spaulding – Groucho Marx – slyly observes that he could "set up a 75-cent meal that'll knock their eyes out. After we knock their eyes out we can charge whatever we want."

Apparently, the opportunistic capitalistic exploitation of the vision-impaired Groucho espouses in jest seems to be the serious business model adopted by an Israeli company called OrCam, which has just started selling a product called MyEye 2.0.

MyEye 2.0 is a fascinating and clever device designed to allow the vision-impaired to "see." About the size of pack of gum and weighing less than an ounce, MyEye 2.0 attaches magnetically to the temple of nearly any pair of glasses. You literally point a finger at what you want to read on paper, package or screen, and MyEye's camera "sees" the text, which is then softly dictated to the wearer via a small speaker at MyEye 2.0's ear-end.

MyEye 2.0 also recognizes faces (once you've stored an image of the individual), can identify paper money denominations, can tell you what color you're looking at, and recognizes when you make a looking-at-your-watch wrist turn and tells you the time. You control it via touch, it'll run for a couple of continual hours on a single recharge, and you get one-on-one personal orientation training.

Remarkable. After seeing the demo, I was duly impressed. My mother suffers from macular degeneration, and she's been casting about for solutions. MyEye 2.0 seems like a compelling option.

Until I heard the price:

$4,500.

You read that right. $4,500.

Not only did this price offend me from a professional POV, from someone who has been writing about consumer tech for more than three decades. But I'm just plain pissed off on a personal level, as is likely anyone who is or knows someone whose life could be transformed by the MyEye 2.0.

You Want HOW Much?

For the LIFE of me I cannot figure out why this tiny gadget should cost $4,500 when a tenth of that seems about reasonable.

What's the rationale behind the prohibitive pricing? According to an OrCam spokesperson, "OrCam has developed its own technology platform over the past 7 years. The price of MyEye 2 can be compared to basic level hearing aids, which [are] also not covered by health insurance but provides a solution for people who need it. There isn't any other technology that exists that is as advanced and can do what OrCam MyEye 2 can."

Some of that statement is true. But that last sentence is wrong. More precisely, there isn't any other PRODUCT that can do what OrCam MyEye 2.0 can. But there are plenty of long-established TECHNOLOGIES that can duplicate many of MyEye 2.0's core capabilities, and some do what MyEye 2.0 does better.

For instance, there are OCR/text-to-speak smartphone apps such as SeeNSpeak, free with per-scan add-on purchases ($6.99 for 1,000 scans), for iPhone, and VoxDox for Android, also free with similar in-app per-document purchase options.

And, of course, there's the well-regarded, award-winning KNFB Reader app ($99.99) app, developed jointly by serial inventor Ray Kurzweil, the National Federation of the Blind and Sensotec NV, which develops, manufactures and distributes technological aids for the vision-impaired. The Reader also scans and reads any text – in nearly any language.

Admittedly, none of these solutions are wearable or are as immediate as MyEye 2.0, and that has value. But the app solutions are all less than 100 bucks, available in mobile hardware that can be had for less than $500.

So, what we're left with is the other tech and hardware in the MyEye 2.0. Other than the OCR and text-to-speech technologies, the MyEye 2.0 is comprised of now largely pedantic technologies. Object and face recognition are common smartphone and Wi-Fi security camera features. There's a camera module, two LEDs to light up a page when it's dark, touch and gesture controls, and obviously some sort of processor.

All props to the OrCam engineers, coders and industrial designers for shrinking the clumsy first gen MyEye down and cramming all this tech into this lightweight, thumb-sized form factor and creating a breakthrough bit of truly life-altering technology. But if I had to guess, the MyEye 2.0 bill of materials can't come to more than around $200, if that.

Just compare MyEye's price/sophistication/value to the iPhone X, with its proprietary Face ID, Siri, and all its other AI, sensor, camera, speaker and app capabilities. iPhone X's bill of materials has been estimated at between $350 and $370, and priced at what many people complain is an exorbitant $999.

I defy anyone at OrCam to claim with a straight face that MyEye 2.0 is more than four times as sophisticated as the iPhone X, as the pricing suggests.

Bottom line: OrCam is charging what it does because, as the only game in town, it can. But as in all things, just because you can doesn't mean you should.

Other Gougers

OrCam is not the only outfit excessively pricing its vision aid devices. Last week, my sister came across a device called eSight, Geordi La Forge-like goggles with a camera, build-in screens and some clever algorithms that actually let the vision-impaired see. There are plenty of testimonials that attest to the delight that eSight brings to its wearers.

Before I tell you how much, however, bear in mind that there are goggle gadgets equipped with similar hardware, sophisticated motion and movement sensors, and sophisticated software and AI. These video goggles include sophisticated tethered VR gear such as the HTC Vibe, Sony Playstation VR and the varying Microsoft MR choices, along with personal theater products such as the Royole Moon that I'm currently testing, and the Avegant Glyph, all of which run between $400 and $800.

To the hardware included in these VR or personal theater goggles, eSight adds a couple of external cameras and eSight algorithms to enhance the video feed.

These advanced VR and personal theater goggles fetch between $400-$800.

eSight's price?

$9,995.

Your expletive here.

Bad Business Models

Getting back to OrCam's pricing on the MyEye 2.0, not only is $4,500 absurd on a pure bill of materials basis, it makes no sense from a business model point of view.

Worse, the Groucho-inspired exploitative pricing philosophy borders on the hypocritical based on the company's stated goals.

"Our mission is to empower people who are blind, partially sighted, and have reading difficulties, including dyslexia and other conditions, to study, work, and live their lives with a high degree of independence," solemnly states Ziv Aviram, OrCam co-founder, President and CEO, in the MyEye 2.0 press release.

If empowering the vision-impaired is your goal, why not price the MyEye 2.0 (and the eSight, while I'm at it) more reasonably so more of the estimated 253 million vision-impaired people worldwide can afford it? Even though I'd still think I was being over-charged, I'd pay you $1,000 right now for one. I do recognize than unlike standard consumer electronics, vision aid devices are more need than mere desire, so pricing is based more on supply and demand, and on perceived value, of which MyEye 2.0 has plenty.

But my guess is at a quarter of the MyEye 2.0 price, OrCam would sell 10 times as many, thereby making the company a lot more money and truly fulfilling its mission.

But by pricing MyEye 2.0 so unconscionably high, OrCam blocks the bulk of the market it claims to want to empower.

Over the Counter Aids

In a parallel situation, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine estimate that 67 to 86 percent of adults 50 years and older who may benefit from hearing aids do not use them, primarily because of their similarly unconscionable $1,000-$6,000 price tags.

This lack of affordability for a life-changing product is what prompted Congress to recently pass, and President Trump to sign, the bipartisan Over the Counter Hearing Aid Act of 2017, which enables the manufacture and sale of hearing aids without an intervening audiologist at a fraction of the price.

MyEye 2.0 and the eSight are essentially over-the-counter vision-aid devices.

OrCam seems vision-impaired itself, near-sighted and myopic about the far greater revenue opportunities a popularly-priced MyEye 2.0 presents. Dozens of tech companies, whose own eyes just popped at a potential addressable and captive market of 253 million needy customers, could reverse engineer these puppies and produce similar – likely improved and lower-priced – versions. By pricing the MyEye 2.0 more accessibly, it would forestall such copycat competition and bring OrCam far more profit as well as philanthropic approbation.

Any consumer electronics COO worth his or her spreadsheet would be able to come up with a reasonable pricing/profit margin/revenue formula to ensure maximum income and sales for MyEye 2.0.

If you folks at OrCam lack this kind of consumer electronics production, marketing and distribution expertise that could help you reposition and re-price MyEye 2.0 for the mass market, contact me. I'll gladly hook you up. And my match-making fee would only cost you only a free MyEye 2.0 for my mother.

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