Ottawa inventor sees rising interest in hands-free elevator-hailing app

ProtoDev module

Before the pandemic struck, Ke Wang had devoted the better part of the last two years to developing a smartphone app that would allow people with disabilities like himself to open doors and call elevators without touching any handles or buttons.

Little did he know his invention targeted at a niche market would capture the attention of Canada’s largest airport and a global hotel chain before 2020 was out.

“Once we got it done, all of a sudden COVID happened and then people realized that we can use this to avoid touching buttons,” says Wang, founder of Ottawa-based ProtoDev Canada, the five-person company that created the new Contactless Access app. He adds that the company received “a flood of interest” from customers interested in the product for uses that extend beyond accessibility.

ProtoDev’s system deploys plug-and-play modules that can be installed in less than an hour, activating Bluetooth signals that let users automatically open doors and hail elevators from a distance of about eight feet without needing to connect to WiFi. The free app can be downloaded online or by scanning a QR code on-site.

The firm’s technology was originally meant to help make elevators at Carleton University more accessible to students with disabilities. Now, it's being installed in venues across Ontario and beyond, even making its way across the Atlantic.

Pearson, NCC piloting products

Toronto Pearson International Airport is in the midst of piloting the app at six of its busiest elevators, with an eye to potentially rolling it out in as many as 40 more. Here at home, the National Capital Commission has ordered about two dozen modules for automated doors at its facilities in downtown Ottawa and Gatineau Park, and Canada Post is also keen on getting the system into doors and elevators at its Riverside Drive headquarters. 

Meanwhile, major international companies are also taking notice. Brewing giant Anheuser-Busch is already testing out the app at one of its facilities in Belgium, and ProtoDev is in talks with a prominent hotelier about installing the system at its properties.

“There's a market that’s hard-hit by COVID, and this would help make people more comfortable with the hotel environment,” explains Rob Dotten, who joined ProtoDev as its director of disability initiatives about two years ago and helped create the app. 

Dotten says the company is also hoping to break into the multi-residential market, adding he sees a wide range of applications for the system. The pandemic, he says, has catapulted accessibility tech into the mainstream “under the COVID wrapper.”

It’s not the first time Wang’s firm has spearheaded new technology for individuals with disabilities. Among its other inventions are a platform to turn motorized wheelchairs into autonomous vehicles. 

The veteran software engineer’s passion for helping make the lives of people with disabilities easier was born out of personal adversity. 

Fifteen years ago, Wang ​– then a project manager at JDS Uniphase ​– was struck by a car while walking in Old Ottawa South. The accident left him paralyzed in both legs and in much of the upper right side of his body.

A problem-solver by profession, Wang soon turned his attention to accessibility issues, founding a company then known as EightFold Technologies. 

Initially, he found it tough to make any headway. Many people with a disability are on tight budgets, he explains, and costly necessities such as motorized wheelchairs are often subsidized by various levels of government. 

'Long and tedious exercise'

“In order to sell anything, you pretty much have to get on to an approved list of things that the government will subsidize, which is a long and tedious exercise,” Wang explains.

In addition, he says it’s a hard sell convincing manufacturers to invest in new ideas for tried-and-true devices such as wheelchairs because the market is limited and customers are buying out of necessity, meaning they’re willing to take whatever merchandise is offered. 

“There's really no incentive to … develop new technology,” Wang says.

Eventually, he came up with other products – including sensors that monitor transformers on wind and solar farms – to help keep his bootstrapped enterprise afloat. 

Two years ago, he changed the company’s name to ProtoDev. The firm managed to land a grant from Carleton to help fund its efforts to develop the Contactless Access app – an R&D effort that’s now starting to pay off on a scale he never could have imagined back when the project began.

“It’s pretty neat,” Wang says with a chuckle. “I love my job.”