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Karthik Mahadevan of Envision: “Trust your gut”

Envision’s technology is currently levelling the playing field of access to visual information. It enables the blind and visually impaired people to have access to the same visual information that the rest of us have, be it shop names, street signs or documents and contracts. As we continue developing this technology and as smartglasses and […]

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Envision’s technology is currently levelling the playing field of access to visual information. It enables the blind and visually impaired people to have access to the same visual information that the rest of us have, be it shop names, street signs or documents and contracts. As we continue developing this technology and as smartglasses and wearable cameras become more ubiquitous, Envision will not just enable vision but also help enhance vision for everyone. The camera powered with AI can increase the speed of access to information by making it available at a glance. So you can find out where the person in front of you got that jacket from or while picking up a food at a supermarket, you can easily glean all of its nutritional information. The possibilities are endless and the impact far-reaching, from healthcare, manufacturing to services.


As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Karthik Mahadevan.

Karthik Mahadevan is co-founder and chief designer of Envision, the AI-powered, assistive technology that allows the blind and visually impaired to ‘see’ the world around them and achieve greater independence. Founded in 2017, Envision has since grown to thousands of paid global users and changed the lives of many visually impaired people by using AI to read text from any surface, recognize faces, describe scenes, find objects and more. Prior to founding Envision, Mahadevan previously designed personal health care products for UNGA and worked as a product designer. He received a master’s degree in Industrial and Product Design from the Delft University of Technology and holds a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from the College of Engineering in Guindy, India.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The idea for Envision started when in 2017, I was invited to a school for the blind in India to speak about design. On posing a question to the students there about the problems they would like to solve when they grew up, the answer was overwhelmingly one thing: “We want to be more independent”. They wanted to go to school on their own, hang out with their friends without assistance and pick up and read a book by themselves.

This experience really stuck with me, so when I came back to my university I decided to pick this up as my master’s thesis and dive into how to increase independence for the blind and visually impaired people. Upon conducting several interviews, I realized that for a lot of them, “independence” almost always meant access to information. And since so much of information around us happens to be in a visual form, their inability to access it is what is causing a dependency in their lives. So when they walk into a train station, the information is up there on a display, but since it is purely a piece of visual information they can’t access it and hence have to ask for assistance.

At the same time, I also understood that it is impractical to expect all the visual information and infrastructure around us to change. You can’t really put a braille sticker on everything. That’s when I teamed up with an old friend and my current co-founder of Envision, Karthik Kannan, to explore how we could use the technologies of today, like artificial intelligence and computer vision, be used to extract information from images and have them be spoken out. Thus began the very iterative process of building prototypes of this software with a group of beta users, which eventually led to the creation of Envision.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

An early validation that we got for our idea was when we were attending a local exhibition in Utrecht in 2018. We met a lady who was in her early 50s and due to Retinitis Pigmentosa, was losing her vision drastically. We demonstrated the Envision app to her and helped install it on her phone. As soon as we did that, she reached into her purse, pulled out a €20 note and shoved it into our hands. We tried to explain to her how the app was currently free and we haven’t built a payment plan yet, but she wouldn’t have it. She was so genuinely delighted by what Envision could do for her that she wanted to offer her gratitude instantly. This meant a lot to us at the time, because as a young company, this was a clear indicator that we are onto something important and meaningful.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Two main philosophies have guided my life and career:

  1. Thinking from first principles: Whenever we are faced with a task or a challenge, we always like to approach it by understanding what the first principles are, what the most basic blocks of it that we know to be true, and then work our way upwards. This has been super helpful as it often helps break the status quo set by the industry and makes us realize we don’t have to do things the way they have always been done.
  2. Bias for impact: Whenever we are at a crossroad and have to choose from one of the several choices, we always pick the path that has the most impact and most people. This helps to keep us all aligned and make decisions more quickly.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

We believe Envision Glasses can truly and thoroughly change the way we access visual information. Envision Glasses is a platform, consisting of a series of computer vision modules that can extract different information from images and speak it out. It can read all kinds of text in over 60 languages, recognize faces, find objects, describe scenes and so much more. This software platform is brought to life with the Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2, which in addition to being a sleek pair of smartglasses packs in a bunch of technical specs suitable to run Envision’s AI operations. These glasses currently are designed to enable blind and visually impaired users to become more independent by speaking out the visual world around them. With Envision Glasses, they can read a book, catch a train, find a friend or order a coffee, just by themselves.

How do you think this will change the world?

Envision’s technology is currently levelling the playing field of access to visual information. It enables the blind and visually impaired people to have access to the same visual information that the rest of us have, be it shop names, street signs or documents and contracts. As we continue developing this technology and as smartglasses and wearable cameras become more ubiquitous, Envision will not just enable vision but also help enhance vision for everyone. The camera powered with AI can increase the speed of access to information by making it available at a glance. So you can find out where the person in front of you got that jacket from or while picking up a food at a supermarket, you can easily glean all of its nutritional information. The possibilities are endless and the impact far-reaching, from healthcare, manufacturing to services.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

While the camera and AI unlock a lot of possibilities, there definitely are concerns that companies building these tools must think deeply about. The most important one is privacy and how best to communicate that in a simple to understand way. At Envision we think about this very deeply and never want to put our user’s data in a compromising situation. Whenever the camera is active, there is a clear LED that lights up along with an audio cue indicating both the user and the people in front of them that the camera is currently active. Also, whatever images the user takes are immediately discarded as soon as the relevant information is extracted from them.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

The “tipping point” was when towards the end of my graduation, we had a good prototype of the app which when we started showing it to blind users they were blown away by. They really wanted to have this product and were willing to pay for it. This made us put serious thought into how we could build this technology out to make it sustainable and scalable. And before we knew it, a startup began to take shape. We haven’t looked back since.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

The cost of Envision Glasses is still a limiting factor for many. For many blind or visually impaired people from countries with socialized healthcare, the cost of these devices are paid for either through insurance or state agencies. However, there are still some users for whom the cost is unaffordable. Our focus over the next two years will be to use the revenues from the first version of Envision Glasses to make a more affordable version that will be accessible for everyone.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Knowing how to market/sell the product is equally, if not more, important than building the product. We learnt the hard way that “if you build, they will come” is a myth and just because you build a cool product doesn’t mean people will hear of it on their own.
  2. It always takes longer to close and investment round than you think. No matter what the stage and scale, we have always learnt that new investment takes much longer to execute.
  3. Hire slow, fire fast. The early team that you build as a startup is what makes or breaks it. Hence, it’s crucial to make sure the right people are being hired, so take your time with that decision. If you see someone underperforming, fire them instantly before they hurt the startup more. This is one of the pieces of advice that is much harder to implement in practice.
  4. Trust your gut. I have come across several instances where doing something just doesn’t feel right to the gut, with no rationale to it. In hindsight, this has always proven to be right. So trust your gut and intuition, as it knows what is up.
  5. Zoom out. As a founder, especially one who loves to build a product, it’s often easy to fall into the trap of focusing too much on the day to day operation and missing out on the bigger picture. Every once in a while, compel yourself to zoom out, realign and dive back in.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

Just do things. I know far too many people, far more intelligent and creative than me, who are robbed of their greatness because they spend too much time thinking and less time doing. There will always be a rosy explanation for why you aren’t ready yet and why tomorrow is a better day to start than today. Only when you learn to put that aside and act today, will you learn how to build.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Envision is at the brink of enabling independence for more 250 million visually impaired across the world. With a proven traction of app subscription and glasses sales, a kick-ass diverse team and a grand vision, we are building the future of computer vision on wearable cameras. We are building technology that is not just bleeding-edge but is making a real-life impact on the lives of millions. If you believe you can help accelerate this progress for us, to scale our ambitions globally, please give us a shout. We would love to have you on board.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

We are active on:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/LetsEnvision

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LetsEnvision

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/envisionai

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/EnvisionAI
Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7eUmJAV5QPioca3cinAa20

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/letsenvision/

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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