by Michael Hingson
From the Editor: Michael Hingson is a man who can boast of many accomplishments and who has made significant contributions in advancing the cause of blind people while keeping his Federation philosophy and active participation front and center. There aren’t many blind people who are electrical engineers, but Michael is one. There aren’t many people who are financial experts capable of making their living in the heart of New York’s financial district, but Michael is one. There aren’t many blind Californians who understand the techniques espoused by the National Federation of the Blind to lead active and independent lives and who are open to the positive changes that new technologies may bring, but Michael is one. Here is what he has to say about a new service being offered to the blind which harnesses the power of technology, joins it with the humanity of a highly-trained professional to relate what he or she sees, and merges these in meeting the infrequent but difficult challenges that blind people face when the blindness techniques we use aren’t quite enough. Here is what he says about Aira [pronounced I-rah]:
It isn’t often that any of us can be involved with the birth of a technology that will significantly change our lives. Helping in that birth is an even rarer occasion. I had such an opportunity in 1976 when our president at the time, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, asked me to accept a job with the Federation to coordinate the day-to-day operation of a joint project between the National Federation of the Blind and Ray Kurzweil and his company, Kurzweil Computer Products Inc. to test and to bring the Kurzweil Reading Machine to market. Out of our joint project, blind people throughout the world gained access to a technology that brought the personal reading of print into our lives.
I never thought I would have a chance to help steer another great advance that offered as much potential for change as the Kurzweil Reading Machine. However, in early 2015 I received an email from Mr. Lawrence Bock asking me to join the technical advisory board of a start-up company, Aira Tech Corp. Through conversations with Mr. Bock and the company’s founder, Suman Kanuganti, I learned that Aira had developed a system that could provide blind people always-on information anywhere at any time. Far-fetched? Perhaps, but as I delved into the company’s operation and saw its product in action, I realized that indeed the claims of its founders could be true.
Here is how Aira works. The user puts on what is called a “wearable device,” which in this case is a pair of glasses that contain a high definition digital camera, miniaturized sensors, and the ability to connect to the internet using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections. The system also uses an app which resides on an iPhone or Android smartphone.
When the user wishes to use Aira, he or she activates the app, which in turn establishes a Wi-Fi connection with the wearable device. Once this connection is established, the user can press a button within the app to contact an Aira agent. As soon as the agent comes online, they see images transmitted by the glasses. The agent also sees geographical information and information about the user’s surroundings on their special software dashboard. The user has two-way voice contact with the agent through the smartphone and can request whatever information they require. The agent, through their dashboard, can access the internet, use the user’s visual surroundings, and incorporate other tools to provide answers to the user’s needs.
The information requested by users can be anything from asking for help with finding something in a store to requiring assistance while traveling through an airport to seeking assistance in assembling a product he or she has purchased. Literally agents can help with any task by providing visual descriptions and information wherever eyesight is needed to create access for blind people.
I became involved as an advisor with Aira because I saw the potential of the product and also to ensure that the technology, when brought to blind customers, would be provided in the most effective way possible. The most significant concern I had about Aira was how the agents presented information to customers. Given all my years in the NFB and from all my experiences with assistive technology, I know that good products and services work best when their feature sets consider what we who are blind want and need. Aira can either be a contributor to our independence and self-determination or it can be a barrier. If the agents, for example, are trained not only to provide information but to interpret that same information, then the product would be little more than the kind of service we presently get from untrained sighted people. For example, if I were using Aira to get information about a street intersection and the agent told me that it was now “safe to cross the street,” then the agent would be drawing a conclusion that I should be making for myself based on my mobility skills. If, on the other hand, the agent said that the light had turned green and that they did not see any cars traveling across my path, then the agent would be giving me information I could use to determine on my own when to cross. This example is a simple one, but the point is that the agent should be charged only with providing information and leaving all decisions up to me, the user. One of my main tasks has been to help set the philosophical tone for how the agents operate. To date fifteen agents have joined the Aira staff. Its hours of operation are from 7 AM Eastern time to 7 PM Pacific time seven days a week. Over the course of this year Aira expects to offer 24/7 service.
Aira has had a visible presence at the National Federation of the Blind national convention for the past two years and will be in Orlando again this year signing up users and showing any interested attendee how the product works. Aira is also gaining visibility with other organizations and agencies. Recently, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Aira Tech Corp was chosen by PC Magazine as the best new startup company at the show.
The one drawback to Aira for many blind people is the same one that faced Ray Kurzweil in the 1970s, although not to the same degree. There is a cost to using Aira. At present, there are two pricing plans. Users can have unlimited access to Aira for a price of $199 per month. A lesser price of $129 per month will give users eight hours of access, and Aira anticipates a lower price plan in the next month. Aira is exploring ways to lessen the cost challenge by securing insurance coverage as well as looking for government agency subsidies for some of the Aira services. Aira is also working on rolling its free autonomous functionality through its artificial intelligence engine which is constantly learning. The National Federation of the Blind has partnered with Aira not only to help make the product the best it can be, but also to help find ways to make it available to all blind people.
Aira is only at the beginning of its existence. I am certain that over time the cost of the product will drop significantly. The cost aside, Aira offers any blind person the most full and complete access to whatever information he or she might need. I personally have used Aira to move through airports, malls, and shops. While on a speaking trip I used Aira to explore a three-story guest house provided to me by an event sponsor. An Aira agent assisted me in assembling a laundry cart I purchased and received in the mail. I assembled the cart independently, with assistance from Aira after I discovered that the instructions were only pictures with no text at all. I know of others who have used it to read the contents of computer screens and kiosks. At least one person has used Aira while bowling and when experiencing Disneyland, just to name a few; Aira’s uses are only as limited as our imaginations.
You can learn more about Aira by visiting www.aira.io. On Aira’s website is a link to a page you can visit to become an Aira Explorer and begin exploring the world around you in a way never available before. I truly believe Aira is the next revolution in technology that will help us further take our place as blind first-class citizens. I also believe that Aira will grow to provide services outside the specific needs of blind people, but Aira’s core purpose and philosophy will always start with the needs of the blind.