by Suman Kanuganti
From the Editor: Aira is a partner of the National Federation of the Blind. It harnesses the power of technology to meet the needs of blind people, and those needs are defined by blind people. Suman Kanuganti is the president of Aira and is well-known to Federationists. Here is what he said to the convention on the morning of July 11:
Good morning, NFB! I’m Suman Kanuganti, founder and president of Aira, and it’s my pleasure to celebrate my fifth National Convention with all of you. It's no hype to acknowledge the sheer number of friends that I have made at this annual convention. And it’s also no hype to recognize the knowledge that I have gained from each of you—knowledge that shapes the heart and soul of what Aira is today.
NFB has been a partner, investor, and advisor to Aira since the beginning. Aira’s operating philosophy is in alignment with the National Federation of the Blind views on blindness. The shared understanding of the capacity of blind people is reflected in Aira’s fundamental operating model. Aira is designed to be an information tool that enables explorers to make their own decisions on their own terms. Simply put, Let Freedom Ring, #OnMyTerms.
Any of you can access the full partnership statement established between our two organizations at Aira.io/NFB
So, before I dig deeper, I want to thank President Riccobono; the national leaders of the Federation; the members of the NFB Advisory Group, led by Gary Wunder; and all of you for helping to create an enduring relationship grounded in mutual trust and respect that acknowledges the value of the consumer voice.
In partnership with all of you every year, we hope to do our part to make the convention fun, a place to learn, and a place to live! So Aira comes to you this year as The Elite Sponsor of the 2019 NFB Convention here in Las Vegas. Our teams always strive to generate lots of convention fun. For example, last year we held a concert with Apl De Ap of the Black Eyed Peas. This year, two days ago, we hosted an experience show with multiple partners: Zappos, Lyft, Vispero and Bose. Those who made it to the show on Tuesday–what do you think? [applause and cheers]
We have a number of Aira staff present for the entire week, and they are ready to engage with each of you this year. Mike Randall, why don’t you please stand. I want to briefly introduce Mike Randall, Aira’s new CEO; Randall will be managing the continued growth of Aira, while I work together with him to enhance Aira’s vision further.
Over the years we have made it crystal clear that Aira is not a safety device; it is not a replacement for the white cane or dog or blindness skills. Aira has evolved. Our agents have evolved. Our systems have evolved. Our policies have evolved. Yes, this evolution aligns with the fundamental principles that inform the Federation’s home-grown philosophy of self-determination.
Here is one example: There is a change that’s coming this fall on how explorers may interact with Aira agents when crossing the street. That’s right—you will witness how Aira’s policies on street-crossing are evolving, at the request and in favor of explorers. This new policy, though, will be flexible and available as an option.
Technology is a beautiful thing. Aira provides “visual interpretation” services, delivered by our well-trained agents, who enrich your experiences. Technology is moving faster than humans can adopt it. Historically, if you consider advancements in technological automation, these always begin with human efforts. Humans were moving items on an assembly line before robots could do that job. Humans interpreted maps before the navigation routes were automated. Humans labeled images before a computer could recognize a coffee mug or an apple. And, by way of recent example, humans drove cars before autonomous vehicles were made practical.
It’s humans that ultimately drive the innovation and algorithms for computers. We must be in the forefront of technology—not an afterthought. We can easily create an app to recognize objects based on those items already labeled, but without the human component of the human/AI equation, the opportunity to gain insights from the blind user community is lost. Often, we as humans understand technology in its simplest terms—Aira is, for example, a remote pair of professional eyes. However, there are at least 3 major technology components of Aira’s ecosystem.
The agent dashboard, often forgotten and the most powerful piece of software that allows our agents to teleport themselves into the world of our explorers. This dashboard includes everything from the camera, GPS, maps, satellite views, rideshare, etc. All of this offers an agent the ability to immerse him or herself into the explorer’s environment.
A second part of the Aira ecosystem is our Horizon Glasses, which give the Aira agent a 120-degree view of the explorer’s world and a hands-free experience for peak efficiency.
Finally, Chloe, our continuously learning AI agent that you should soon anticipate will undertake increasing levels of autonomous service.
In terms of a business model, Aira relies on free access zones that are sponsored by public and private partners. Over the last twelve months, Aira has grown to providing over 25,000 Aira access locations including brands such as Walgreens, Wegmans, AT&T, and Target. Then there is digital access such as Intuit and Vispero. We strive to bridge equal access for the blind community across the entire planet.
Our employment and educational programs are a crucial part of our access partner strategy. At last year’s convention, I announced the availability of Aira’s employment program. More than four hundred explorers took advantage of free Aira to perform tasks relating to their career enhancement. In analyzing observations from this program, I want to offer some insights from which the industry can benefit:
The top three use cases in the employment program, included 31 percent accessing printed and other visual information; 25 percent accessing and manipulating digital information; and 13 percent used Aira for navigation purposes.
A second insight gleaned from our study was that 80 percent of the tasks would have been accomplished only by relying on friends and family.
Major outcomes that I am excited to share include that 196 explorers (or 52 percent) of those surveyed for our study started new jobs or enhanced their careers. Even more encouraging, seventy-seven respondents were previously unemployed, beginning in jobs as diverse as salesforce administrator, school counselor, and licensed massage therapist, to name a few.
Based on these insights, here’s my first exciting announcement for this year’s convention. Previously the job-seeker program was limited to subscribing explorers. I hereby announce that we are now making this program available free to everybody.
All you need to do is download the Aira app, sign up as a free guest user, and begin using Aira to find work that you want starting now.
And now for a quick update on our Education Back-to-School Program made possible by our partners at AT&T. To date, over three hundred students across more than one hundred campuses have participated in this program. Of those enrolled, over 92 percent of these students have successfully graduated from college. In this context, over 30 percent of our student usage is related to supporting them to integrate and participate in social and recreational activity, a figure that resonates with me.
And this leads me to my second major announcement for this year. If you are a National NFB Scholarship finalist, make some noise. [the thirty finalists sound off] This year all thirty of you accomplished scholars will be given the opportunity to automatically be enrolled in our Back-To-School program, which gives you free access to Aira services for the next academic year.
Founders, business owners, and entrepreneurs in the room, make some noise. [cheers] As a result of the Self-Employment Program, sponsored by our partners at Intuit, 332 new small businesses were registered, and over fifty new businesses were created. I’d like to thank Ted Drake, Intuit’s chief accessibility officer, for his support. As an entrepreneur myself, this news truly gets me excited, and Aira will continue to promote new economic engines through this program.
Our newest partnership that I am excited about is Bose. How many of you tried Aira with Bose Frames? Bose is a leader in designing form factors for the best audio AR. Aira drives innovation in designing audio AR experiences. It’s a perfect partnership and many of you asked what does that entail? I am happy to announce that Bose has become an investor in Aira, and they are helping us bringing their world-class audio to next-generation Aira form factors. Visit our booth, meet our Bose partners, and experience Aira with Bose Frames.
I want to share a few more facts and figures with you, which reflect the vibrancy of Aira. These facts and figures reflect your interest and activities. So here’s some confidential information—which won’t be confidential anymore. In the last year the total time spent between explorers and Aira agents has tripled, hitting 3.5 million minutes, or 58,000 hours across half a million tasks averaging more than 1,000 calls per day. Aira answered 99.6 percent of all in-coming calls.
Beyond these global numbers, Aira supported, for example, formatting and layout of over 1,000 presentations. Aira also handled 2,000 PDF-related tasks such as digital signatures and exporting them. As part of our partnership with Vispero, over 4,000 JAWS-related inquiries were addressed.
Our agents either requested or tracked in excess of 15,000 rideshare rides. You may be surprised to know that our agents have described more than 1,400 titles during this last year, including Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. We’ve used our Aira Live feature to create community in this context—hosting virtual description parties among explorers who share common interests.
Transportation is key, as it encourages mobility, and it leads to increased economic opportunities. We have grown to provide Aira access at more than forty domestic and international airports in the last year. Explorers touched more than 100 different airports at least once in the last twelve months.
We also entered into an exciting partnership with Boston’s MBTA. They introduced our pilot where Aira is enabling access at all 138 commuter rail stations, 145 subway stations, and all eight thousand bus stops in the greater Boston area.
We have diligently worked to bring Aira to as many as we can through free Aira access both physical and digital, and through low-priced introductory offerings; but this is simply not enough. Our business model has evolved and shaping in many ways at scale. Our mission has always been to bring Aira to explorers for low-cost or no-cost. This leads me to my biggest announcement in the history of Aira. I been waiting for this moment for a long time.
So, starting this fall, we will, for the first time, irrespective of the plan that an explorer is on, be offering to all a free tier of service that will allow “some” daily use of Aira for any task. We will be rolling this out in phases. The first phase will be for all active explorers and guests, whether you are on a paid plan or using Aira access for free in countries where Aira currently operates. The details on limits of daily use will be disclosed during the rollout, but I can tell you that to be included in the earliest stages of the daily free use of Aira service, I encourage each of you to establish an account with Aira and start putting it to use today. What better place than to do it at this convention which is a free Aira access zone. Free daily service does not mean reduced quality; it means more access to more explorers and more guests. Visit our booth, and our staff will get you set up with an account, you will be up and running in seconds, and you will be part of this significant service expansion.
I hope that everyone here sees the energy and effort that goes into building the Aira platform. I hope you see how we bring your preferences and practices where Aira goes. I hope that you also see our commitment to breaking down barriers of information access in every facet of life. I hope you also see the results from the few insights I’ve shared today. You are all a part of the Aira revolution. It’s a revolution for equal access to information.
In closing, all the explorers and guests in the room (everybody who has had an experience with an Aira agent), I want all of you to please stand. Ladies and gentlemen, you are all part of Aira shaping the future of information access, and we will not stop until the idea of inaccessibility becomes a thing of the past. Together, let Aira enable freedom to ring. Thank you all.