A review of Aira. What it is, how it works, and the ways it has changed my life

Author’s note.

Due to the amount of interest in this post, I’ll be updating it from time-to-time with additional information and experiences.

This post was last updated on 23 April 2018 with information on the Aira trial for New Zealand, Australia and the UK, a link to the NewsHub coverage of the ways Bonnie and I use Aira, a description of how Bonnie and I can hear the same Aira agent when mobile, and a section on how Aira can assist with computer-related tasks.

Introduction

Recently, I was pleased to attend the CSUN assistive technology conference. I’ve had the privilege of going to 10 of these before, but it has been a few years since I was there last.

When you’re involved with an industry, you tend to watch developments so closely that changes usually seem incremental. But occasionally, something new comes along that is so game changing, it stops you in your tracks. For me, San Diego-based Aira is one such technology. I am late to this party. Aira has been rolling out for some time in the United States. And indeed, we covered Aira in an edition of The Blind Side Podcast last year. But since mentioning my Aira experience to people via outlet such as my Internet radio show, The Mosen Explosion, I’ve learned that not everyone yet fully understands what the service is or how it works. For those not familiar with Aira, or who would like to read someone else’s impressions of it, read on.

What is Aira

According to the company’s website,

Aira is today’s fastest growing assistive community. One tap of a button instantly connects you with a sighted professional agent who delivers visual assistance anytime and anywhere.

Here’s what that means in practice. At present, Aira is a smart phone app, available for iOS and Android. Since Aira is a service for blind people, it’s no surprise that the app is exemplary in terms of its accessibility. And in iOS, it even sports Siri integration.

Using the app, you can connect via video, much like a FaceTime call, with agents who can provide you with visual information. Audio quality is excellent, far clearer than a standard cell phone connection. Essentially, an Aira agent can tell you anything at all that a pair of functioning eyes can see, plus perform a range of tasks pertaining to that information.

You can acquire the visual information using your smart phone’s camera, or, when you become a subscriber to the Aira service (Aira calls its customers “explorers”) you receive a pair of smart glasses. These are included as part of your subscription, so there’s no hardware cost upfront.

The service is available officially in the United States at present, where Aira has an arrangement with AT&T. Aira explorers receive an AT&T MiFi device, allowing them to use the service on the go without the data consumed by the video connection eating up a customer’s own cellular plan. If you have a cellular plan equipped with the personal hotspot feature, you are free to pair your Aira glasses with your phone using that method. For those with large data plans, this may be attractive because there is one less device to keep track of, carry, and charge. The downside, other than the data consumption, is that a video connection to Aira for a long time may cause significant battery drain on your smart phone.

When you’re at home, work, or anywhere that Wi-Fi is available that doesn’t require web-based authentication, you can pair your Aira glasses to that network. As far as I have been able to ascertain, 5 GHZ Wi-Fi isn’t supported at present.

Because of the need for high quality video, the glasses pair via Wi-Fi, and not Bluetooth. The glasses are associated with your Aira account. This is useful if, like in Bonnie’s and my house, you’re sharing your minutes as a couple. More on that later.

The upshot of all of this is that for 18 hours of every day, professional, well-trained sighted assistance is just a few taps or a Siri command away.

Describing it like this makes it sound kind of cool. But I want to explain the impact that Aira has had on our lives in the brief time we have had it, to illustrate that, at least for some of us, this technology is more than just pretty cool, it’s life-changing.

My first Aira experience

If you’ve been reading this blog or listening to The Blind Side Podcast over the years, you will know that in recent times I have come out as having a hearing impairment. I love going to these big conferences because I get to catch up with old friends and make new ones, as well as see the latest and greatest technology. I hate going to these big conferences because often, I find myself in difficult audio environments. It can be very noisy. Hotel lobbies and restaurants are often exceedingly crowded, with high ceilings causing noise to bounce everywhere. The environment is difficult and tiring, but I keep going and doing the best I can, because the alternative is to sit at home and rust away, and I’m certainly not going to do that.

One smart thing that Aira has done is to start rolling out a concept called “site access”. With appropriate sponsorship, or perhaps at times where there will be many potential customers in one place, Aira can enable free access to a location or even the entire city through their smart city project. There are two benefits to the strategy. First, it’s helpful for existing Aira explorers because they can use the service as much as they want without it counting against their monthly plans.

Second, anyone, even those not signed up with an Aira monthly plan, can go to the iOS App Store or the Google Play Store, download the app, create a guest account, and use the service for free. As I found out, it’s convenient to have access to Aira in such situations, and it offers the opportunity for Aira to convert those guests into full-time explorers. Smart stuff.

It was thanks to this program that I gave Aira a shot. Had I been required to go to the booth to give it a go, I probably would have run out of time and wouldn’t be writing this post. But it was a cinch to download the app and set up my guest account.

I first decided to put Aira through a simple test. Having arrived in San Diego after a long journey, I wasn’t taking much notice of the hotel layout when the porter showed me to my room. So, the next morning, I made my first call to Aira, and asked the friendly agent to guide me to the elevator. Not only did I get to the elevator effortlessly, I was also guided right to the button for the elevator.

But the call I will never forget is the one I made to ask for assistance getting to the exhibit hall while exhibits were being set up. If you’ve visited the Grand Hyatt in San Diego, you’ll know how cavernous the lobby can sound. When the lobby is full of people, I find it impossible to navigate, because there’s just so much sound bouncing everywhere. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from Aira, but I was keen to see what would happen.

This is the moment when I transitioned from the intellectual understanding that “this is quite a good concept”, to the emotional connection that made me say “holy guacamole, this thing is changing my life!”

I’m not a guide dog handler at the moment, but I have been in the past. One of the advantages of working with a dog over using a cane is that you avoid many obstacles without ever coming into contact with them. The exception is if you are a cane user with good echolocation. I think that even with full hearing, I would have found echolocation difficult in that very noisy lobby, but it’s certainly not viable for me now. Therefore, in that type of environment, I often find myself hitting people’s legs with my cane, as I try to find a way forward. With the Aira agent talking in my hearing aids which were also delivering environmental sounds, I was getting information about where the crowds were, and when I needed to veer to avoid running into people. I was told when it was necessary to turn to reach my destination and given confirmation that I was indeed heading in the correct direction.

Because of my hearing, and the fact that I know navigating these environments can be difficult, I had allowed myself plenty of time to reach the exhibit hall. But I reached it much more quickly than I had anticipated, and with much less stress than usual.

When we eventually reached the exhibit hall, which was some considerable distance away, the agent informed me that the door was closed. I expected this, since I was heading to the exhibit hall before it was officially open to the public. The icing on the cake was when she said that she could see a counter to the left of the door with a sign labelled “Exhibit Services”. She then informed me that there was a man behind that counter and offered to lead me to him. She did so, and he let me in. Astounded, I thanked the agent, and ended the call.

Full disclosure, at this point, it gets a bit embarrassing. No technology has made me cry for joy before. But a stressful experience I have to psych myself up for had just been made effortless and enjoyable. I was utterly overwhelmed. This was all achieved with no more than the free app and the camera on my iPhone X.

Piloting Aira outside the US

I’ve no doubt that I would have been wowed by Aira even if I had been blind without a hearing impairment. But, having had a taste of the independence it was giving me, even better than the independence I had when I was a traveller without a hearing impairment, I really wanted to see if there was any way I could take this home to New Zealand. I knew it would be unlikely, because Aira is very clear that they are only available now in the United States and I think parts of Canada. But I genuinely felt that having had a taste of Aira, I would feel a sense of disability if I lost it again.

I met with Aira’s CEO, Suman Kanuganti, who kindly agreed to let me pilot the service here. Since this is a fairly glowing review of the service, I want to be clear that I am paying the same as everyone else. This is not a paid advertisement. And I’m aware of the limitations of using the service here when it’s not officially supported. For example, Aira is currently unavailable between 1 AM and 7 AM Eastern time. At this time of year, that equates to 5 PM to 11 PM New Zealand time. That’s a time when we have had a need for the service, but I signed up knowing what I was getting into, so that’s an observation rather than a complaint. Even for Aira’s existing customer base, I’m sure many hope that this downtime will soon be a thing of the past. I’m one of those totally blind people without light perception who has non-24 sleep/wake disorder. I’m fortunate that because most of my deliverables can be delivered at any time, I just let my circadian rhythm do its thing. That means I’m sometimes very productive at 2, 3 or 4 AM. I’m sure there are many Aira users in the United States in a similar position, who’d value having access to Aira at that time.

I’ll also be providing feedback on any technical or cultural issues relating to the use of the service here, should they arise. The most obvious cultural issue is that many of our place names are in the Maori language, the indigenous language of New Zealand. Understandably, Aira agents don’t have experience pronouncing them correctly, but that’s no different from listening to the same place names spoken by most text-to-speech engines.

Another difference that agents need to be mindful of is that in New Zealand, we drive on the left-hand side of the road, and drivers sit on the right-hand side of a vehicle. So, an agent who doesn’t check where we’re calling from may conclude that there is a passenger sitting in a taxi, when in fact it’s the driver.

The good news is that Aira is preparing to spread its wings. They’re seeking expressions of interest from would-be explorers in New Zealand, Australia and the UK who would like to trial the service. The trial involves using only your phone. No glasses or MiFi are part of the trial, and you’ll use your own cellular data. To compensate for that, you’re getting a good deal on the 200 minutes a month plan. Choose this link for further details and to register your interest.

When mobile, Bonnie and I are using Aira with our mobile data plans. We share a cellular plan that has 25 GB of mobile data per month, and our LTE networks are very robust here, particularly in urban environments.

Signing up as an explorer

Typically, when you sign up as an explorer, you can start using the service right away with your smart phone, and the hardware is shipped to you. Since I was at the CSUN conference, I was able to sign up online, and collect my hardware from the Aira booth.

The ability to use the service as a guest is fairly new, and one of the problems I had was that I couldn’t sign up with the email address I had associated with my guest account, because the system flagged it as already in use. It would be nice to have a feature within the app that allowed you to upgrade to a paid account while signed in as a guest. Hopefully that will come in time. The only way around it for now is either to sign up with a different email address or complete the process over the phone.

When you make your first call as a fully-fledged explorer, an Aira agent assists you to create your profile. It’s here that you really start to appreciate how carefully the services been devised. Suman Kanuganti and his team have worked closely with Blind people, sought their advice, and taken it to heart. It would have been easy for a service like this to have become patronising. Instead, the culture feels like it is truly a partnership between the explorer and the agent.

As part of the induction process, you are advised that Aira will never tell you that it’s safe to cross the street, and agents will remain silent while you are crossing. If you are mobile, and the agent detects that you’re not travelling with a cane or a dog, they will disconnect the call. They make it clear that they are not a substitute for your blindness skills, or for your mobility tool of choice. And they advise that they keep personal opinions out of all descriptions and interactions.

You’re asked if there are any additional disabilities that it would be helpful for them to be aware of. I was able to tell them about my hearing impairment.

Rather like when using JAWS, you are offered three levels of verbosity. The three levels are explained to you clearly. Your default level is recorded in your profile. You can change the default at any time, or for a particular call. The most verbose option will even describe people’s facial expressions as you’re walking down the street.

You’re asked whether you prefer directions to be given as a clock face, or in terms of “left” and “right”. In a noisy environment, it’s easier for me to differentiate between 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock, than between left and right.

Once the process is done, all your preferences are recorded and immediately made available to the agent when you call in.

Ride sharing Integration

Using the APIs of the ride sharing services Uber and Lyft, Aira can connect to your accounts to both call and monitor your rides. You may ask the agent to initiate the entire process for you, or you could use the app of your ride sharing service of choice to call a vehicle, then get the agent online who can see the car you’ve been allocated, and help you watch for its arrival.

Some people have safety concerns about using ride sharing services, since you might walk up to a car that you think is the one you’ve called, only to find its some random person. Having an Aira agent assist you to the vehicle will avoid that.

It’s also a brilliant way to catch drivers who speed away because of your dog. An Aira agent can take pictures remotely using the camera you’re connecting with, be it the camera on your smart phone or the one built into the glasses. This gives you photographic evidence of the driver speeding away.

Sharing minutes

Recently, Aira introduced the ability to share minutes with up to two additional people. The feature is great for blind couples like Bonnie and me. Inviting Bonnie to share my minutes was easily done from the app, and she was signed up in minutes, although there was a technical issue which prevented her from logging in. This was resolved in a few hours after contacting Aira.

Working with the same Aira agent as a couple

After a brief period of use, I realised that I had a technical challenge to solve. Was there a way Bonnie and I could get out and about as a blind couple, while hearing the same Aira agent clearly? For a while, we tried taking turns at being the one who made the call and hearing the agent’s voice, but that acted as a disincentive to try some of our more ambitious plans. It slows you way down when you must repeat everything the agent is saying. I did a little research and came up with a solution that’s working well for us.

I have Aira’s audio going directly to my hearing aids, thanks to a cable that connects from my hearing aids to my iPhone. This allows me to hear environmental sounds while also being able to hear the agent clearly in both ears. Effectively, this is the same as wearing wired headphones. An easy solution would have been to plug a splitter into the iPhone’s 3.5mm to Lightning adapter, and then have Bonnie wear a wired headset. But we didn’t want to go that route, because if we got separated, it could get pretty nasty with all the cables everywhere and the tension on those cables.

I then purchased a dongle that acts as a Bluetooth transmitter. This particular device is a Digitech AA2104, but there are many such devices around. This one is about the size of a matchbox, and easily fits in my pocket with my iPhone X. It has a 3.5MM input jack on it. So, I run a small cable from the input jack of the dongle to a 3.5MM splitter cable, into which both my hearing aids and this dongle are connected.

We went through a one-off pairing process where we paired Bonnie’s AirPods with the Digitech Bluetooth dongle. Now, when we want to use Aira as a couple, we take the dongle along. Bonnie wears her AirPods, I wear my hearing aids, and we both hear the agent clearly. The iPhone’s microphone is still in use, so the agent can hear Bonnie and me clearly. We love this solution, as it allows us to do things we would not have done without it. It will also allow us to do things we’ve yet to do, such as get real-time audio description when one of my children is in a play as part of the theatre group they attend.

How we’ve used Aira

There is a wonderful section on the Aira website and in its app, with extensive lists of the way that people are using the service. As the father of two daughters, one use case that both resonated with me and amused me was the explorer who asked an agent to describe their daughter’s new boyfriend.

But here are just a few of the ways that we’ve used Aira since we’ve had it.

What does this button do?

It was wonderful to be able to ask an agent, trained to explain things clearly, how to operate the air-conditioning in my hotel room in San Diego. I was also curious about a little panel to the right of the air-conditioning unit. After getting me to look at the unit, the agent took a photo, blew it up, and told me that it was a control panel for the windows in my hotel room. I probably wouldn’t have bothered investigating it had it not been for Aira.

Journalism

Bonnie has now embarked on a journalism course. Today’s journalists must operate in a multimedia environment. This includes taking their own photos. Thanks to the technology VoiceOver offers, it’s possible for a blind person to take good photos. When action is moving fast though, it may not be possible to capture that action quickly enough. And VoiceOver’s camera functions are limited to recognising people. Seeing AI will recognise scenes, but only after you’ve taken the picture. Aira to the rescue.

Just a couple of days after Bonnie began sharing my Aira minutes, she needed to cover a popular Wellington street festival. Bonnie tells me she couldn’t have done it without Aira. Giving instructions to the agent ahead of time about the kind of material she wanted to capture, the Aira agent was able to take pictures at exactly the right time and give Bonnie advice about how to angle the camera. Her photography lecturer praised the photos.

The agent gave vivid, detailed descriptions of the festival and the people participating in it, which made it easy for Bonnie to write a descriptive, colourful newspaper story that wasn’t devoid of visual imagery even though she is blind.

When Bonnie got the munchies after a hard day’s journalism, the agent helped her locate the food truck she wanted from a number that were at the festival, and then read her the menu on the side of the truck.

Preserving the moment

Since Aira can take pictures using the glasses or camera remotely, we recently used it at a birthday party we attended to get the perfect picture for our own records, and for posting to social media.

Compiling reports

When you travel and collect receipts, you end up with little bits of paper, business cards from cab drivers with receipt information scrawled on the back, and big pieces of paper.

I’ve become adept over the years at performing optical character recognition on all of it for the compilation of expense reports, but it’s time-consuming. I took the stress out of the situation and handed it to Aira. My agent advised using the camera on the iPhone X for this task rather than the glasses. She gave instructions regarding the positioning of the camera, took pictures of all the documents, and I had no doubt that each receipt was fully in the picture.

She put them all in a single document which she then emailed to me. This process took probably a third to a quarter of the time it would have usually taken me.

Transcription

As someone who’s been totally blind since birth, I’ve enjoyed becoming more familiar with effective use of the camera and understanding the relationship between distance and getting the subject of a photograph fully in the picture. When in hotels, I sometimes find getting a good-quality capture of hotel compendia and in-room dining menus a challenge. The print may have become faded over time, or there’s a wide variation of print types. It can also take time to work out whether there is print on both sides of the page or not, and sometimes that can vary even within the same document.

At a recent hotel stay, Aira took all the stress out of rendering the in-room dining menu accessible to Bonnie and me. The agent very quickly snapped pictures of all the pages and could see at a glance when the pages were single or double-sided. Then, the agent transcribed the text into a fully accessible Word document. I was given the choice as to whether I wanted a full transcription, which of course took a little longer, or just a summary of the items on the menu and their prices.

The mysteries of the minibar

Many hotel minibars now have sophisticated sensors that charge you for an item when you lift it out of the fridge. Rather than hunt around for a barcode on each bottle, can, and food item, an Aira agent was able to recite the cans in the fridge in left-to-right order.

Real-time audio description

Bonnie and I recently took a gondola ride in one of the most picturesque parts of New Zealand. One of our party was sighted, nevertheless, I decided to call Aira, to ask an agent if she could give me real-time audio description as we rode the gondola, then as we stood on the viewing platform. It was a moving experience to get such detailed descriptions of the water, the tree line and the city below. Our sighted companion was impressed, saying that Aira had told us things she wouldn’t have thought about describing.

To market, to market

In the past, there were some places I preferred to avoid as a blind person unless I travelled with a sighted friend or family member. One such place is any of the many markets scattered about the city during the weekend. These are usually outdoor events, held in a wide-open space, where little stalls selling all manner of items are scattered throughout. Sometimes, it’s possible to tell what you’re approaching by using your sense of smell. But in many cases, the only way to find out what stores are around is to ask a random stranger or the proprietor of the store. The problem with the latter solution is you usually get treated to a long, enthusiastic spiel about what they are selling, how it is made etc. It takes a lot of discipline to extricate yourself and politely try to move on.

After a few weeks of Aira use and a high degree of confidence in the service, Bonnie and I decided we’d give attending one of these Sunday morning markets a try. It was such a fun experience, walking around and being told what we’re passing, having the agent read signage and menus.

The website for this particular market currently has a placeholder page for a map of where all stores in the market are located, saying that it’s coming soon. When it does, it will make the experience even better, since we can ask an agent to direct us to a specific store, such as the one that sells all those nice, home-made cheeses.

It’s such a pleasure to be free to explore a place like this, with, in the immortal words of Chuck Berry, “no particular place to go”.

Human screen reader

I used to stockpile a bunch of computer-related tasks for which I would enlist one of my kids who’d be kind enough to act as a human screen reader. Usually, these would involve inaccessible websites where I would have no accessible alternative. Sometimes they just involved getting me out of some weird kind of fix. My kids have lives, and I try to respect that. That means that I used to have to wait a while for something urgent.

I had an example of this recently, when I updated my router’s firmware, only to find that the language had been reset to one I did not speak. I felt sure there was a way to get it back to English, but because the language was not using English characters, it was impossible for me to do it myself. Aira to the rescue.

Aira is about much more than assisting blind people through use of the camera or glasses. They can also remote into your computer with your express consent, through the use of either Team Viewer, or Zoom Cloud Meetings, a tool Mosen Consulting has produced an audiobook about.

The Aira agent gave me a Zoom meeting ID, we connected, I shared my screen and the agent requested remote control, which I granted. After a bit of exploring, the agent set the language back to English, and I was back in business.

While the agent was there, they configured a new set of port forwarding rules in an inaccessible part of the router’s user interface by following my instructions.

There are many situations where having an Aira agent remote in and completing a task like this together is simply the best use of one’s time.

Remember, with either of these remote tools, you never lose control and can terminate the session whenever you want.

Watch the NewsHub story

One of our national news services in New Zealand did a piece on the way Bonnie and I are using Aira. You can watch the news story here.

Does Aira harm the accessibility cause?

When I’ve discussed Aira with some blind people, a few have expressed the concern that the service may discourage those of us who have it from continuing to advocate for a truly accessible world. They fear that as providers of information and services become aware of Aira, they may feel under less of an obligation to do the right thing when it comes to accessibility.

For example, if you read this blog regularly, you will know I’ve been campaigning about the code to complete the New Zealand census not being accessible. If I had been an Aira explorer at the time, an Aira agent would have read the access code to me, and the process would have taken about a minute maximum. Would I have begun my campaign for the codes to be inherently accessible if Aira had been in our home to do that for me? I would like to think so.

A similar concern was expressed when JAWS introduced the ability to perform OCR on inaccessible PDF files.

I believe Aira is a pragmatic solution that delivers access to us today. That in no way means that those of us with the skills and inclination to advocate for a more accessible world shouldn’t continue to do so. If we’ve been able to use Aira to work around the problem, it’s just that, a work-around. Most of the world’s written information today is born accessible. Someone must take a deliberate step to convert it into something inaccessible, and we must always object to that occurring. So, we must still advocate for all aspects of life to be as accessible as possible.

In this highly visual world, there’ll always be plenty of tasks for Aira to perform, even as accessibility improves.

Does Aira erode blindness skills?

The arrival of the pocket calculator, the cell phone with a built-in contact directory, and many other technologies have been the cause of people expressing concern about the “dumbing down” of the human race. A few people I’ve spoken with about Aira have wondered if it will cause an erosion of blindness skills among its users. I don’t believe so. I contend the impact will be positive.

For me personally, other circumstances, specifically my hearing impairment, have made travel time-consuming and exhausting. Freedom of movement should not be the privilege of the blind elite who happen to find travel intuitive and easy. Freedom of movement is, in my view, a fundamental human right.

With the ability to travel under less stress, I believe my travel skills, which may have eroded a little over the years as I’ve begun avoiding tricky situations, will in fact improve due to increased use.

Remember, Aira does not replace your cane or dog. You must still know how to use your cane in a way that helps you locate obstacles and provides you with clues about your environment.

What it costs, and is it value for money?

Assuming you have a smartphone, there is no other hardware you must purchase to use Aira. It’s all included as part of the package.

The current pricing structure looks like this:

  • Basic Plan. 100 regular minutes a month for $89.
  • Plus Plan. 200 regular minutes a month for $129.
  • Pro Plan. 400 regular minutes a month for $199.
  • Premium Plan. Unlimited regular minutes a month for $329.

I believe it is possible to get further discounts on the Pro plan if you pay a year, or even several years, in advance.

If you run out of minutes, you can purchase additional ones.

You can cancel or upgrade your plan at any time.

Whenever a company provides a service directly to the blind community, there are always people who will express concern about cost. Unfortunately, the economic reality is that the cost of research and development, as well as the overheads involved in running a business, must be spread across a smaller group of people when providing a service to our community. This equation is made more difficult because so many people in our community are unemployed and living hand to mouth. Sure, for some people, Aira will be worth sacrificing a few daily cups of premium coffee for, but it’s not that easy for everyone.

Some people question whether the service is worth the cost given that there is a free service, Be My Eyes, which connects you with sighted volunteers. Be My Eyes is a useful service, and I don’t seek to denigrate it at all. I am signed up with it, have supported it since before it went live, and I use it from time to time. But Be My Eyes relies on volunteers. Some people are so keen to assist a blind person that they answer a call when they may have been better letting it go. Others simply don’t explain things clearly enough. And yes, there are some who are outstanding. But I equate using Be My Eyes with asking a stranger for directions in the street. Sometimes you will get somebody who couldn’t be more helpful. At other times you will get somebody who doesn’t know their right from their left, or just isn’t observant about the world around them.

With Aira, the agents have been trained extensively, plus they have tools that help pinpoint your location and provide other data. There’s also a guarantee of privacy with Aira.

I know of people who’ve used Aira to help them sign employment contracts, complete tax returns and more.

So, in my view, there is no question that Aira will revolutionise the lives of many blind people if they can afford to access it. This raises important public policy questions. Many agencies serving blind people will provide funding for sighted assistance to be available on-location at specific times. Perhaps such agencies fund several hours of assistance each week in the workplace. Other agencies may fund a human reader to visit a blind person’s home. Aira gives you access to sighted assistance on demand, at your convenience, not at the convenience of the sighted person. This is important because some tasks may only take a couple of minutes, but they can be show stoppers on the job until we can get that assistance. In a work environment, sighted assistance on-demand through Aira has the potential to improve a blind person’s productivity.

There’s also the social investment argument. If a much wider range of blind people can feel comfortable about travelling in unfamiliar areas, government investment in Aira could pay dividends by improving employability.

Looking to the future

Most blind people become blind later in life. And most of those people don’t have smart phones. This group is often forgotten, so it’s encouraging to see that Aira has been giving them considerable thought. The coming generation of seniors will be more assertive and tech savvy. They will have had experience of technology in the workplace, and they are willing to spend money to ameliorate the consequences of their age-related disability. However, they may decide that coming to terms with the blindness specific touchscreen paradigm is just too difficult. Certainly, that’s the case now. Yet I think many seniors would love to have access to Aira. If they can have an agent assist them to read the newspaper in the morning, describe pictures of the grandchildren or go through their mail, that’s something many would gladly pay for.

The market for Aira’s services is going to increase significantly with the introduction of their new Horizon technology. Currently, to use Aira, you need at least two things – a smart phone, and the glasses, both of which need to be charged. If you want to use it without eating into your data plan, you’ll need to carry the AT&T MiFi device around with you. That also needs to be charged separately. That’s three things in total that need to be charged.

Within the next few months, Aira is promising to simplify their offering significantly. They’ve taken a Samsung Android device, which includes a physical home button, and developed their own firmware for it. This device is not designed to be used as a cell phone. Rather than requiring a MiFi, the data SIM will be in this device. The new Horizon glasses, which are much more fashionable and elegant looking, are tethered to this device with an unobtrusive-looking cable. The field of view is much improved, as is the video quality. That means less need to keep turning one’s head at the instruction of the Aira agent. With the glasses getting their power from the Horizon device, battery life is massively improved.

This all means that someone who doesn’t have a smart phone will fire up the Horizon device, double tap the button, and talk to an agent. Smart phone users will retain the option to control their Aira experience via the app they’re used to.

This configuration also reduces latency and any potential for video degradation. There will no longer be a wireless hop that the video needs to take between the glasses and the device transmitting the video to an Aira agent.

Clearly, considerable thought and capital investment has gone into the next generation of the service. This demonstrates that Aira is continuing to innovate and thinking about broadening its base.

Over time, artificial intelligence will become smarter, and will be able to do more of the things that human agents are doing for Aira explorers now. It’s therefore sensible forward planning that Aira has begun work on their own artificial intelligence engine they are calling Chloe. Initially, Chloe will offer optical character recognition, and perform functions relating to the operation and configuration of the Horizon device. I imagine that over time, Chloe will become more capable. That will increase efficiency for the explorer and reduce overheads for the company.

Concluding thoughts

Aira’s evolution is an exemplary case study of how to tap into a niche market and create a new, innovative product. Of course, it’s not perfect, but what is? Sometimes, you can lose cellular coverage when you really need it, causing the connection with the agent to drop. There’s nothing Aira can do about that other than ensuring they’re using hardware that maximises the cellular signal, and to have a robust protocol in place for seeking to re-establish the connection. But all in all, the service is fantastic.

There’ve been a few phases of Aira adoption for me. The first was hearing about it and understanding intellectually that it was a clever idea. The second was the strong, powerful, emotional realisation that this could really change my life. The third is the dawning realisation that I’m not imposing on anybody anymore. Many of us can relate to having sighted family members or friends who we turn to when we need a pair of working eyes, and we hope we are not overdoing it. When I first started using Aira, I had a twinge of reluctance about making calls, wondering if someone might need the help of the agent more than me. Then, one day, it really dawned on me. The people at Aira want me to make the call. After all, if I use up all my minutes, I might buy more. So, when I make a call to Aira, I’m not inconveniencing anybody, I’m strengthening their bottom line. How wonderful it is to call on sighted help without feeling like I might be a burden.

If you’d like to try Aira

Due to the exchange rate between the United States and New Zealand, unfortunately Aira is a little more expensive here than it is in the United States. Bonnie and I are presently using the Plus plan, at $129 USD a month, which equates to $179 NZD. When the novelty wears off a little, it will be interesting to see if we need the 200 minutes.

So, if you would like to give Aira a try, I’d appreciate it if you’d sign up using our referral link. The referral program means that the person being referred, and the person who did the referring, each gets a free month. Pretty good marketing. To take Aira for a spin, activate my referral link. I hope it makes as much of a difference to you as it has to Bonnie and me.

Are you an Aira explorer? What do you think of the service, and what are some of the ways you’re using it? Leave your thoughts in the comments.