Author’s note. Due to the amount of interest in this post, I update it from time-to-time with additional information and experiences. If you would like to support keeping this post current, I’d be super grateful if, when joining Aira, you would use my referral link. Thanks so much.
This post was last updated on 31 July 2018 reflecting that Aira is now 24/7 (YEA), the removal of the section on the need for external gadgets for two explorers to hear the same agent because Aira Live now handles this elegantly, a new use case added to the list and a description of the updated Aira referral programme.
What are the fundamental challenges of blindness? For me, the answer is twofold. First, attitudinal barriers. Sight is a dominant sense, so if you have it, it’s natural to be highly dependent on it. Therefore, many people find it hard to imagine how someone without sight can possibly function in the world.
The second barrier in my view is an environment that inadequately accommodates non-visual access to information. By information, I don’t just mean what’s written on a piece of paper, on a sign at an airport, or on an inaccessible website. Information is also about what’s around you, who is in a room, what colour something is, and more. It is our environment, not blindness itself, that causes the problem. Since we, as blind people, are a tiny minority, the world hasn’t been structured in a way that makes all the information we need accessible.
And that is why I am so excited about Aira, one of the most significant, life-changing services for blind people in a very long time. It is causing that second barrier to come crashing down. I’d like to tell you about Aira, and what it means to Bonnie and me.
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. The Aira service can be used stand-alone using its latest Horizon device, and/or through its smartphone apps and legacy technology.
Horizon is a huge breakthrough in terms of widening Aira’s reach. It’s a testimony to the company’s clear understanding of the needs of the community it serves, and to the brilliance of the engineering team who created one of the easiest to use blindness devices on the market today.
Aira started exclusively as a smartphone app, and that was exactly the right place to start. Tech-savvy explorers, the term used to describe someone who is an Aira user, have been able to help shape the service and iron out any kinks. But it’s time for the next phase now, and Aira has delivered a remarkable solution.
Most blind people become blind later in life. And most of those people don’t have smart phones. The coming generation of seniors will be more assertive and tech savvy. They will have experienced technology in the workplace, and will be 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 for many people in this age group now. Yet imagine the impact on the quality of life of many seniors that on-demand access to visual information can make. If they can have a professionally-trained agent assist them to read the newspaper in the morning, describe pictures of the grandchildren, assist with medication, give them additional confidence to travel and go through their mail, that’s something many would gladly pay for if the service was simple to use. And in my view, with Horizon, Aira has hit the jackpot.
Explorers who receive the Horizon kit get a box containing the dedicated Aira device, a pair of smart glasses, and some clear Braille instructions describing exactly how to get started.
The glasses have been designed by Aira to its specifications. They feel great to wear, are fashionable although my son says Bonnie looks cooler wearing them than me, and their field of view is impressive.
Most impressive of all though is that they don’t require separate charging. They get their power by being connected via Micro-USB to the port at the bottom of the Horizon device.
That device, by the way, is a Samsung J7, but it’s locked into the Aira ecosystem. Mindful of the demographics of our community, there’s no need to engage with the touch screen at all. Press the Power button, and the device vibrates to let you know it’s starting up. After a few seconds, Aira’s virtual assistant, Chloe, welcomes you to Aira and you’re ready to go.
All someone need do to get sighted assistance from a professionally-trained agent is to double-tap the physical Home button, or hold that same button down and tell Chloe to call an agent. Explorers can use the glasses, or the device’s camera.
Connection quality is superb, and the fact that the glasses are connected directly to the device has improved latency and quality.
People like me who use their smartphone a lot can connect with Aira from their accessible iOS and Android apps. The unique tether cable between the glasses and the Horizon device means it’s easy to keep the device in a backpack while wearing the glasses, controlling the whole experience from the phone you use regularly. There is no pairing needed between the Horizon device and your smartphone, because all the magic takes place based on both devices being logged into the same Aira account.
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.
On-demand, professionally-trained, sighted assistance at the touch of a button. You can acquire the visual information using your smart phone’s camera, or the glasses in those markets where they are available. Previous generations of glasses are still available, require charging, and work a little differently from the Horizon experience I outlined above.
The service is available at various levels in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Pilot programs are available in some other countries, see below.
In the United States, Aira has an arrangement with AT&T. Aira explorers once received 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. Aira offered devices for other carriers if you’re in an area where AT&T coverage is poor. Explorers are now being transitioned to Horizon devices as stocks of this new product build up over time, unless they have an expressed preference to keep the older technology.
When you’re at home, work, or anywhere that Wi-Fi is available that doesn’t require web-based authentication, you can pair your Horizon device to that network. One of the numerous advantages of the Horizon technology over its predecessors is that 5Ghz Wi-Fi is supported by the Horizon device, which can make a significant difference to video stability in areas where there’s a lot of congestion on the 2.4Ghz band.
In Australia, glasses are not included in the available plan but can be purchased separately.
The upshot of all of this is that 24 hours a day, seven days a week, professional, well-trained sighted assistance is just a press of a button, 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 big conferences such as the CSUN conference I attended in March, 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 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 Aira 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 now, 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 encountering 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 at that time, Aira was very clear that they were only available in the United States and 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.
The most obvious cultural issue I’ve experienced 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.
In recent months, Aira has spread its wings. Having launched officially in Canada and Australia through partnerships with CNIB and Vision Australia respectively, they’re seeking expressions of interest from would-be explorers in New Zealand, the UK and Ireland 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.
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 onboarding 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. With both Uber and Lyft, you may ask the agent to initiate the entire process for you, or you could use the Uber app 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.
Aira lets you 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.
Sharing minutes with someone in your household means you can share your Aira glasses with that person too. It’s all done from the app. If I was the last person to use the glasses, Bonnie can simply “claim” them from within the app, and she’s on her way.
Sometimes, it’s not appropriate or possible to communicate verbally with an Aira agent. Perhaps you’re in a presentation where someone has put some important visual data on a screen or whiteboard, and you need to know what that information is. Maybe you’re in a crowded theatre, and would like to ask some questions about costumes or scenery. The possibilities are endless.
But there’s another very important reason why verbal communication with an Aira agent might not be possible. Perhaps the explorer can’t hear the agent.
For all these scenarios and many more, Aira has Aira Messages. Basically, it’s the ability to receive text responses from, or even text back and forth with, an Aira agent.
An advantage of Aira Messages is that your message history is kept for 24 hours, very handy if you want to review material on a whiteboard although Aira can also email it to you.
You can use the text feature while on a call with an agent, and even initiate a call via text, providing the agent with information in advance about the help you’re seeking.
Because of your work or course of study, many of the non-verbal communications you require maybe quite similar. For example, Bonnie, as a journalist-in-training, may regularly attend media conferences where she wants an agent to read any visual information and take a series of photos for her. To help with those common scenarios, you can pre-programme a series of messages into the app, so they can be inserted with a double-tap. This means you can think the pre-sets through when you’re at home and have ready access to a Bluetooth keyboard, and then when you’re out and about, they’re just a double-tap away.
You can also communicate with Aira agents via a series of gestures, which agents can teach you.
If you’re an explorer, tasks related to job seeking are not counted against your monthly minutes. This could be anything from looking through job ads, sprucing up a CV, checking the visual appearance of a job application and more.
Occasionally, Aira has described events of public interest, such as the last Super Bowl, and more recently, the royal wedding in the UK. Agent Emily’s description of this latter event added a lot of value to the experience for Bonnie and me. We were imagining what the expressions might be on the faces of some of the royal family during some parts of the ceremony, and Emily was able to tell us all about it, providing far more audio description than even BBC Radio.
Now, Aira has a new tab in its app called Aira Live. At your request, an agent can make your Aira session live, allowing others to tune into the audio of the session via the Aira app. There are many use cases that come to mind for this.
Perhaps a group of blind people are attending a conference, or eating together at a restaurant, and would like a single agent to assist everyone.
Perhaps you’re part of a fun event that you’d just like to share with the community.
Aira live sessions can be open to all, or protected with a PIN, so only those you give the PIN to can tune in.
Bonnie and I used to use an external Bluetooth transmitter so we could both hear the same agent. After some testing, we found that the latency with Aira Live is pretty much the same as hearing the agent on the original call. So now, if we’re travelling and want to hear the same agent, whichever of us isn’t on the call with an agent will just use Aira Live to access a PIN-protected session. It’s super simple to set up, and there are no special gadgets to carry and charge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Before I travel, I call an Aira agent and ask them to help me take pictures from all angles of the suitcase I’m travelling with, assuming one isn’t on file already. At the airport, it’s such a difference getting to my gate with Aira. If I want to take a detour and get a bite to eat, I know I’m not holding up the person providing meet and assist, and potentially depriving someone else of much-needed assistance.
At the end of a trip, it’s great to leap off the plane and get competent assistance to locate my luggage.
The biggest challenge I have in this regard is that New Zealand airports are usually so helpful, they have a tough time accepting that I don’t need assistance. That must be handled with grace, as I certainly don’t want to burn bridges for those who don’t have Aira.
Aira has saved me oodles of time, by assisting me to get familiar with new things I’ve bought. From the Amazon Echo Buttons whose battery compartments I couldn’t for the life of me work out how to get open, (it turns out you need to use a screwdriver), to some of the home automation devices we’ve been buying lately, Aira gets me acquainted efficiently and quickly.
Recently, I needed to choose an audio interface for the radio component of Bonnie’s journalism course. When it arrived, I could have done what I used to do and figured out which sockets and knobs did what by trial and error, but really, what do I have to prove? And, as a small business owner, my time is valuable. So, I called Aira and not only did the agent acquaint me with all the features of the device, she wrote it all up for me in a cheat sheet which she sent me by email, and which I still refer to.
When I connected this audio interface to Bonnie’s laptop, it turned out it was displaying some of the horrible audio issues that are becoming far too common in Windows 10. Thanks to another Aira agent, I was able to resolve the issue because he patiently worked with me in the inaccessible interface to the audio interface’s control panel.
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?
The prices quoted here are for US customers. 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, upgrade or downgrade 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. This is why Aira Access, where organisations fund access to Aira, is such an exciting programme.
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.
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.
So, if you would like to give Aira a try, I’d appreciate it if you’d sign up using my referral link. The referral program means that when you sign up using my link, you get your first month of whatever plan you’ve chosen for free, and I receive a dollar amount credited to my account equivalent to a month’s cost of your plan. 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.