What do ant hills, printer jams, and new neighbors have in common? They represent moments when Aira agents helped me with an otherwise impossible task or, at the very least, reduced to a mere fraction the time required to get where I wanted to go.
Three years ago, Aira was introduced to consumers with visual impairments, debuting initially at the CSUN conference in San Diego. I did what I usually do when a new technology comes to town. I read releases, observed quietly in audiences, lurked on a few email lists. The first thing that caught my attention was Michael Hingson, well-known advocate and a personal friend, writing that an Aira agent had guided him from jetway to luggage carousel at LAX, the Los Angeles International Airport. I have an almost visceral reaction (rejection) to all the hands that get into my life in the business of airport navigation. Well-meaning people grab my arm, touch my back, want to seat me in a wheelchair. The notion of being able to flee from this well-intentioned octopus-like band of helpers sounded pretty blissful. But… I delayed.
I attended more demonstrations, lurked on more phone calls and email lists, and, finally, signed up a full two years after Aira's debut.
In August 2017, I received my Aira kit. At first, it was like minor magic. Monica could see the medieval masks on my dining room wall, the sunlight streaming through the glass doors to my lanai. But connectivity between the AT&T Mi-Fi and the Google glasses lasted only seconds, then flickered, then vanished. I lost interest.
Three months went by. I was reconnected and, perhaps best of all, discovered how powerful Aira could be even when using only my iPhone's camera.
Putting away groceries, reading a recipe, wrapping Christmas presents, matching shoes to an outfit, reading my mail—these were all tasks that were simplified and expedited by Aira agents.
Then came the announcement, three years after CSUN burst on the scene, that there were better glasses on the horizon.
Aira didn't call them "better" glasses, by the way. If you are doing well with your Austrian or Google glasses, chances are you may not even want to switch. In my experience, however, test driving the new Horizon glasses meant taking Aira (or allowing Aira to take me) to an entirely new level.
What is Aira?
In case you have read this far and you are still shaking your head asking, "But what in the world is Aira?" I'll take a moment here to explain.
From the AIRA website:
"The seeds for starting Aira were planted in 2014 when Suman Kanuganti and Yuja Chang struck up a friendship with blind communications professional Matt Brock. This led them to begin discussing how Google Glass technology could be used to help the blind and visually impaired become more mobile and independent."
I would summarize this brilliant innovation by saying that Aira harnesses the power of technology to connect someone who can't see or can't see well with a trained agent who can. The emphasis here is on "trained." Agents have learned how to look at a problem from a blindness perspective, to understand that each blind person is an individual—some wanting just the facts and others soaking up as much elaborate visual detail as possible—and to provide only vision, not decisions. Through the camera mounted on glasses and a wireless connection to the internet, agents can see what you would see for yourself if you could. Look at the floor with glasses on, and the agent sees your feet (or the expensive almost microscopic piece of technology you have dropped there). Walk down the street with your glasses, and your agent can see the cars and trees and people in your environment. While they are seeing all these things, the two of you have an ordinary phone connection, so the agent can answer your questions and provide precisely the visual input you are seeking.
The Horizon Glasses
Several conditions rendered the Horizon glasses far more appealing to me than the Google glasses already in my possession. First, the basic appearance. While some may find the Google glasses exotic (they are like a frame with no lenses with a camera mounted on the right-hand side), I am uncomfortable wearing them in public. The Horizon glasses, on the other hand, look like a trendy pair of sunglasses and were even kind of fun to wear.
Now, let's get into the technical advantages. The original glasses (Google or Austrian) are attached to an AT&T Mi-Fi device to provide the wireless connection. You then use your own smart phone to establish connection to the agent, thus you must have three pieces of equipment in your backpack or briefcase. The Horizon glasses attach directly to a Samsung phone, which can act as both telephone connection and wireless hot spot, thus requiring only two pieces.
But wait, there's more!
Whereas the camera on the original glasses is mounted on the side of the glasses, providing about a 60-degree field of vision, Horizon's camera is mounted above the nose. This offers two advantages: first, it is less obtrusive (fitting into my personal preference not to stand out) and, more importantly, provides the agent with a 120-degree field of vision.
Finally, although it is still in its earliest stages, the phone connected to the Horizon glasses has Chloe, a virtual voice assistant. At this point, Chloe can tell you things like the time and date, battery status of your phone, and whether or not you are connected to an agent, but much more is planned and Chloe's future.
Functionality Right Out of the Box
I've test driven enough technology over 30 years to know to never expect anything to work right out of the box. Imagine my delight, then, when the Horizon glasses did almost precisely that.
I took the glasses out of the box. Next, I connected the glasses to the phone (a small cord plugs into the end of one earpiece on the glasses and to the bottom of the phone) and, after charging, pressed the equivalent of the Home button.
"Hello, Deborah," Chloe greeted me.
From there, I was told that glasses were connected and how much battery was available (the glasses themselves require no charge, but receive power from the phone).
Pressing Home twice connected me to an agent.
Sure, there were a few hiccups in the beginning. The device was connecting to my own wireless network and was thus losing connection the instant I walked outdoors, but a quick phone call to the brilliant Bala Sista, Aira's vice president of business engineering solved that problem immediately. With the glasses in my possession and on my face for only minutes, I walked outdoors, connected to an agent, and the following is only some of what our conversation contained.
"I see a blue sky and fluffy clouds. The pavement is red terra cotta and I see a covered car port with several cars [colors and models followed]. There are three men in green polo shirts wheeling dollies into the building. … Two have one with a chair on it, the other has … one, two, three boxes stacked…"
Wow! I realize I am people watching! What would have been just a lot of confusing clanging around outside has just transformed into the clear image of new neighbors moving in. To confirm, I ask the agent if she can see a moving truck. Sure enough, if I look slightly to the right, there it is!
Another day, I am learning where a certain bus stop is near my home. Someone warned me of an ant hill just before this call to Aira and I am concerned about walking into that disastrous little mound. I mention it to Patrick and, sure enough, he tells me at one point, "I see the ant hill about five feet ahead, so veer to your right at this point…" and he talks me around it.
At an outdoor theater event, my Horizon glasses provide a window to my world, so that the agent describes the park, the stage, the people sitting on the lawn in front of me. Finding my way in an unfamiliar hotel, an agent reads the signs, guesses with me which hallway to try, and ultimately helps me find a seat in the front row before the presentation begins.
If you have only your iPhone's camera or the original Google or Austrian glasses, there's no need to despair. You can still experience remarkable results by connecting with Aira agents. The Horizon glasses are more comfortable to wear, provide a much wider field of vision, can last all day before recharging and, for those of us who care about such things, provide an appearance that blends in more than it stands out. As Chloe is developed, the Horizon glasses will eventually be able to provide a fair amount of real-time information to the user as well.
After only three years, Aira has over 100 trained agents4 across all 50 states, has 50 site access locations where the service is free to anyone, and has logged over 100,000 Agent-to-Explorer calls, amounting to over one million minutes. There is room to grow, of course, as there is always room to grow, but as it stands right this moment, Aira is the best game-changer to land in the blind person's toolbox since, say, the personal computer with braille and speech output over three decades ago.
Aira is not some sighted person's notion of what we need, but a brilliant approach to applying technology and listening to consumers to deliver a truly life-changing option in the alternative techniques department. There's more on the Horizon than just a new pair of glasses, but for now, those glasses and the connection they represent warrant one gigantic round of applause.
Subscription plans begin at $89 per month; there are more than 50 free access sites already available. To learn more, visit Aira's website.
- Instant Access to Information with Aira: An Introduction (Part 1 of 2) by Janet Ingber
- Aira: Instant Access to Information (Part 2 of 2) by Janet Ingber
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