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It may surprise some to learn that one of the most important breakthroughs in technology to aid the blind wasn’t made by an ophthalmologist, but by a 20-year-old automotive electronics engineer.
The millennial wiz kid Cornel Amariei, now 23, hails from Bucharest, Romania. Since mid-2016 he’s been an innovation manager at Continental Automotive Systems in Bremen, Germany, one of the world’s largest automotive electronics manufacturers. He’s been productive, to say the least, with a whopping 21 innovations under his belt for the company so far. Recently, he received the 2016 Innovation and Technology Leadership Award from the Aspen Institute, an award sponsored and presented by ExxonMobil Romania.
But Amariei isn’t a 9-to-5 innovator. He’s passionate about tapping technology to solve problems that improve people’s lives. And so he’s always looking for problems to solve. One of his most impactful after-hours projects is a device called Lumen, which uses a 3-D scanner and sends electrical signals to the brain to allow the blind to conceptualize the shape of objects and attain depth perception.
“I was discussing a problem with a friend, and by the end of our discussion we came up with the idea of inventing glasses for the blind,” Amariei recalled. “It was just a random phrase, but we began analyzing if that concept was doable,” he added.
What he found was a gaping discrepancy between the number of blind people in the world and guide dogs available to assist them.
“When there are 20,000 guide dogs in the world and 40 million blind people, you know there’s a problem. And as an engineer, you want to find a solution for it.” Over the past couple of years, Amariei and his small team have nailed down the appropriate sales and marketing channels for Lumen and are now engineering the last bit of tweaks it will take for the product to successfully function 100 percent of the time. For his invention, Amariei has been awarded multiple recognitions, including being named to the Forbes 30 under 30 Europe: Industry list.
When Lumen is made commercially available in late 2018, it will provide blind people up to 30 percent of the visual understanding a person with normal vision has. They will be able to gauge distances, like how far away furniture and other objects are, which technically also makes them able to drive a car.
It’s fantastic, and it begs the question of how a double major in electrical engineering and computer science solves problems about brains and blindness.
According to Amariei, it’s because he isn’t an expert.
“But when you have an open mind and you have experiences from completely different fields, you tend to see a problem from different angles that no one has thought about,” he says.
That would explain his interest in photography. And computer science. And playing the piano. And the drums. And guitar. And traveling the world. Some would call him a true Renaissance man, but it’s really his incessant curiosity that has helped fuel the success of Lumen.
By applying a suite of knowledge in one field to an entirely different one, Amariei is giving a new perspective to the blind.
“Seeing people walk through an open door without touching it, or seeing them catch a ball for the first time in their lives, it’s incredible,” Amariei says.
Good thing he’s not an expert.