| June 26, 2019

Aira helps the blind and visually impaired conquer their surroundings and the world

Anca Spanu

Anca's career in journalism spans over 2 decades. She has served as staff writer, editor and deputy chief editor at... Anca's career in journalism spans over 2 decades. She has served as staff writer, editor and deputy chief editor at various media outlets all over the world. At Healthcare Weekly, Anca writes about current events, innovations in the healthcare space and events/ conferences with a focus on investing & startups.

Blind and vision impaired people are using a variety of tools to gain more independence and lead full, productive lives. From Braille typing machines to voice synthesizers that read for them, from cane sticks and guide dogs to AI&T powered apps and glasses, all discoveries matter when trying to close the gap between the seeing and unseeing worlds.

On of the most recent such discoveries for using AI in healthcare, and certainly the most talked about, is Aira. The service connects blind and low-vision users with sighted guides called an Aira agent, who use the live video stream from the client’s smartphone camera to provide visual information or smart glasses to act as visual interpreters and navigators.

 

Aira, a winner of Fast Company’s 2019 World Changing Ideas Awards, in both the Apps and General Excellence categories, has raised over $15 million in three rounds of funding. The product is so revolutionary, the National Federation of the Blind joined as a strategic investor for the latest round in 2017. In the 80-year history of this nonprofit organization, this is only the second time it invested in any innovations for the blind.  The first one was the reading machines that translate text into speech, developed in the 1970s.

How does it work? What are its uses?

Before last year, Aira used Google Glass and Bluetooth for its glasses, connecting those to the app. In 2018, Aira put its custom glasses, called Horizon, on the market . These have longer lasting batteries and connect more easily to assistance, offering a better experience for users.

The service works like a virtual reality game, only it is real life streamlined to the agent’s eyes.

Users download the app onto their smartphone using the built-in audio features to navigate to the app center. Aira is available on Android and iOS devices; the smart glasses can be ordered from the company.

By tapping a button on the app the user is connected to an available trained agent. This agent will basically be the eyes for the journey or task ahead, be it reading a food recipe in the kitchen, or navigating a busy airport to get a flight. The agent will see the client’s surroundings and act as a second set of eyes, describing what’s in the visual field. Pointing their smartphones in any direction, users will enable the agent to see what’s in front, to either side or behind them, all in real time.

The agent also has a dashboard with various helpful data about certain points of interest of either the area the user navigates, or facial recognition that allows the user to identify people walking nearby. The board also has the user’s personal data. For example it holds names of friends or family members, emergency contacts etc. Aira agents are able to place calls for the users, call a cab to take them home or follow a user’s contingency plan in case of an emergency.

How much does Aira cost to use and where is it available? 

After downloading the app, users have to decide how much they want or can afford to spend for Aira. They will have to set up an account and decide on a monthly subscription. Depending on the needs, paid plans differ. If users do not want to pay, they can remain at the bottom tier, as guests, and have some free access. The most expensive plan, advanced, offers 300 minutes and a pair of smart glasses, among other perks, for $199 per month. Aira users, known as  “Explorers” by the company, buy minutes that are deducted every time they use the service. 

As is the case with a guide dog, both Aira and the user need to have specific training and time to get accustomed to each other.  A few test calls to Aira are needed, so an agent can familiarize users with how the system works. Users have to try it out in familiar surroundings, before they use the service when traveling.  

Aira service is available for free in more than 35 U.S. and international airports. In May, the app made its debut at LAX and Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport, plans to expand its reach even farther than what is now available.

“Digital or cellular navigation will become easier and more widely available to people because Aira has created a business model that works for everyone,” said Eric Lipp, executive director of Chicago-based Open Doors Organization, which is partnering with Aira to expand the service to the travel and tourism industry.

At airports, the Aira experience can help reduce anxiety for the blind and allow them to perform some needed tasks by themselves, without another person leading them around. An Aira agent helps people find the ticketing counter, read a flight board, find luggage at baggage claim or find vending machines or vending points, toilets etc, while blind people wait to take the plane.

Besides airports, other Aira Access locations — such as museums that have joined the Aira Access Network — offer the service for free. This is the case at the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., for instance. 

When exploring is done, Aira also has rideshare integration to help users request an Uber or Lyft. The agent helps track the car and informs the user when the driver arrives. 

For now, Aira has thousands of users, but the ambition is to reach more people everyday.  

Who are Aira’s eyes and how do they help the blind?

The eyes of Aira users are a  few hundred agents who answer calls as a part-time job.  They are paid $15 an hour. It is not easy to become an agent, since only 1 percent of the applicants make it through the initial screening. “We like to joke that it’s harder to become an Aira agent than it is to get into Harvard,” Greg Stilson, the head of product management for Aira, who is himself blind, says. New agents are then trained for 30 days, so they become able to pick out and translate the necessary details of a scene for a blind or visually impaired person and to work efficiently, while remaining calm and kind, when taking a call from an Aira user.

In addition to live agents, Aira also has an Artificial Intelligence agent named Chloe, who is capable of doing simpler tasks, such as reading.  Chloe can also learn new skills. 

The implications of using Aira are mind-blowing when it comes to people’s lives and their future. Aira’s head of AI and research Anirudh Koul says they have received great feedback from people using the technology. They gained the ability to do everything, from walking in their neighborhood with no other help to hikes in the wilderness or participating in marathons. The numbers speak for themselves when it comes to show how the technology helps students. According to statistics, only around 53% of blind or low-vision students make it past the first year of college. Last year, out of 100 such students using Aira, 92 percent  made it to sophomore year. Even more important, Aira intends to similarly help visually impaired people have access to the mainstream workplace. As of now,  around 70 percent of low-vision people are not employed full-time, the idea is to lower that percentage to 7.

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