IAP 2018-E1: Aira: Hands-free Assistance for People with Vision Loss
In this episode: Jeremy and Mark talk about the Aira service that uses wearable glasses technology and remote assistance to help people with vision disabilities with, well, almost anything.
The Interactive Accessibility Podcast (IAP) is an entertaining approach to accessibility. We enjoy sharing our discussions on accessibility and how it relates to technology, real-life issues, information, businesses, and people with disabilities.
Links of Interest
The Aira website Check out the video on their home page.
Announcer: Welcome to the IAP, the "Interactive Accessibility Podcast," bringing you the people, technology, and ideas helping to make your world accessible to everyone.
Mark Miller: Hey, welcome to the IAP. I am your host, Mark Miller, thanking you for helping us keep it accessible. Do us a favor. If you're enjoying the IAP, share it. Tell someone about it. Hey, even link to it from your accessible website.
I am here with my co-host today, Jeremy, and we have a fun topic. Now, Jeremy shared with me this, Aira, it's A-I-R-A.
Jeremy Curry: Aira.
Mark: Aira? Is that how they say it? Aira?
Jeremy: They want to make it difficult to be able to spoke it and spelled by screenreader users.
Mark: That's the first problem they have. Why don't you describe this, Jeremy? You said you actually have some friends that are beta testing this?
Jeremy: Yeah, I think they're beta testing it. I've seen them using it on Facebook. I've heard some of their stories on Facebook. They said it's awesome, and it's a device that would go on a Google Glass or some type of wearable. It communicates to your smartphone.
Then, what happens is, if you're walking around, and you're blind or you're low-vision, and maybe you run into something or you're not sure or you can't read something, you tap away on your smartphone. It dials into a call center somewhere. Maybe those people work from home, maybe they work in a call center, but it goes to some call center somewhere.
A person picks up. They can see your location, and not only can they see the location, but visually, they can see everything around you. For example, if you're walking around, and maybe there's a delivery truck on the sidewalk, and you're wondering, "Hey, how do I get around this thing, and what is in front of me?"
You can call in, and the person who is sighted on the other end can say, "Hey, now look to your left. Look to your right. Oh, here's how you can get around this truck." Obstacles like that, or suppose that you don't know how to get to the local subway station. They can see where you are on Google Maps in real time, and they have access to all that information.
They can just say, "OK, well, you need to go up here, turn left, turn right," and they can stay on the line with you until you actually get there. Even if you're trying to find a restaurant, "Hey, it's six feet off at two o'clock, uh, to wherever you're wanting to go."
It's pretty cool, because you basically have sighted assistance 24 hours a day, seven days a week whenever you need it, just in case you need that little extra help that often comes in handy.
Mark: This is pretty much like OnStar for people who are blind.
Jeremy: Yeah, that's a great analogy.
Mark: I'll tell you the analogy even goes further because everything that you described is true about it, but one thing that stuck out to me when I was checking this out is that they keep a profile on the user. They know preferences and all sorts of things like that. When the person at the call center...
I don't know what they call them, but like the assistant, the person that's guiding the individual who's blind, sees something of interest, like in the video example, this person saw a seafood restaurant in the person's profile, they liked seafood, so they mentioned, "Hey, there's a seafood restaurant right on your left." They called up the menu and actually gave the person some suggestions for lunch.
Jeremy: Yeah, and they actually said, "R-, right on your left." No, I'm just teasing you.
Jeremy: I thought that was pretty cool. In my case, they'd have to read off every single restaurant as I live by it. Be like, "There's McDonald's, there's Burger King, there's Taco Bell, there's seafood."
Mark: Because your preference is food. [laughs]
Mark: That's funny. "My preference is food."
Mark: "Can you just let me know when any food shows up?" That's funny.
Jeremy: It's awesome to have that extra independence, and it's using essentially mainstream technology with their own app and their own call center. Like I said, I've got several friends using this. I haven't talked to them directly, but I've read stories on Facebook about how awesome it is.
You don't have to stop and ask anybody a question. Sometimes, that's necessary to figure out, maybe there's a bus coming along, you're not sure what bus that thing is. Maybe there's something of interest that's on a piece of paper, or there's an inaccessible... [laughs]
I was taking the train recently. All of that stuff is only visual. I couldn't find a way to have it read out, so I could just call up and say, "Hey, what is this thing say? Is, is the train running on time, or is it late?" Whatever it happens to be.
Mark: The other thing that I found interesting was that she started announcing things, like, "Hey, I just saw a flyer for..."
I think it was Comic-Con in the video. The video's actually interesting to watch. I'm looking at this 53-year-old blind dude that looks like he's a business executive in the video. I'm like, "This guy's not showing up to Comic-Con!" The actor's like, "Oh, Comic-Con. That should be interesting."
Jeremy: Maybe it was in his user profile. Maybe he likes to dress up as Batman.
Mark: Maybe he is right. Batman.
Jeremy: Actually, I'd be more interested in the service at Comic-Con. "Turn to the left. Hey, can you describe to me what is happening?"
Mark: What do you see? It's a six-foot two male pink Pokemon.
Mark: Standing next to Batman. Back to the original point. The thing that it makes me as a...what do you call this? Sades, person with scythe.
Realized that there's all sort of stuff that I probably noticed or have the benefit of seeing or can glance at to remember for later and all these things that you might not catch if you're navigating the streets in the way that people who are blind need to with guide dogs and canes.
Now, in this case, this type of technology, but this type of technology has that added extra benefit of like, "Hey. You may not be able to perceive that but over here is this and I just saw that."
What a great way to offer that richer experience for somebody who normally would just be very I think -- and you tell me if this is accurate -- but just narrowly focused on getting through the environment to wherever they're trying to go.
Jeremy: Yeah. That happens with me quite often. We'll be walking down the street and my wife, since she [laughs] consciously knows my profile, she goes, "Hey. There's this on the street. There's this store over here." I always miss those things.
There are GPS devices that will tell you that stuff as you walk by but as just for me, it's different to hear somebody say, "Hey. This is over here," like you're walking with a friend, or your significant other or whoever.
This is here. This is here, especially when it's tailored to you because a GPS, you can tell different categories, like you said, food or things like that but maybe don't want to hear everything. Just specific pieces of information that you want to know as you're going around.
Mark: Yeah. That's part of what our brains do with hearing and sight is that they filter out the non-relevant information. When somebody is listing things auditorily to you, it's hard to filter that out. You got to wait to that list.
If you have somebody that knows you, and in your case, you have your wife with you probably quite often, I would imagine. That covers it quite a bit and I noticed that. I remember when you and I were going through the aquarium in Chicago.
I thought, "How nice," because your wife would see something that she knew more close enough to or whatever the case was and she would say, "Hey, Jeremy. You've got to see this. Come here." It was a friendly experience. It's not like, "On your left, there is a crab."
Mark: It's like, "Hey. You got to come see this. This is cool. You'll really like this. I know you'll really like this." Just in the way as if I were facing the other way, my wife would go, "Hey, Mark. Come here and check this out," and then help orient you like, "It's right here. You'll see if you get right here. Look at that."
You guys have that normal, fun exchange about what you're looking at. Without her around or without...hopefully, I'm at least somewhat of a close substitute for that if you and I are walking but if you're by yourself, how nice.
Jeremy: You just can't hold my hand and you're not getting my Bud Light to see.
Mark: [laughs] I'm not allowed to hold your hand? Come on, Jeremy. I thought we were friends.
Mark: I'm not going to take your Bud Light. I'm a microbrew guy.
Mark: You can share it with Darren. Darren likes to drink Bud Light.
Jeremy: Darren walking under the influence, or WUI.
Mark: How mean would that be for me to take your beer?
Jeremy: You're probably pretty mean. Considering I don't drink hardly ever, I'm sure I wouldn't even care. [laughs]
Mark: Yeah. I don't drink a lot either, so there we go. Bud Light won't be a problem.
Jeremy: I'm sorry.
Mark: I was sitting. Here's the story and not drinking story. Completely off topic. I was sitting with a sided guy and a blinded guy once. Starting up to sound like a joke but it's not. Both of them, both of whom...
Jeremy: Were you in a bar? [laughs]
Mark: We were in a bar. Yes. We were in a bar. We're in a dueling piano bar in Orlando which is very cool if you haven't done that in and of itself. I'm the one person not drinking. These two guys are having a grand old time responsibly. I wasn't drinking. I just didn't feel like it.
Who knocks over the glass of water all over the place [laughs] so that the waitress has to come over and clean it up?
Mark: If you ever want a blind guy to make fun of you that is the way to do it.
Mark: He's like, "I'm drinking, and I'm blind, and I didn't knock over the cup." Like, "Yeah, I'm just an idiot, I don't have an excuse." [laughs]
Jeremy: Maybe you could ask, say, "Hey, can I borrow your Aira device so I can find the waitress, so I can look around. I can't see."
Mark: [laughs] That's right. To be fair, he did try to exit through a window later on.
Jeremy: Did he make it out?
Mark: Yeah. He was right behind me and he was headed towards...there was a big picture window, and he was headed towards...I think his vision's probably somewhere in the neighborhood of yours, so he was kind of headed towards the light, right?
Mark: So, he was headed right towards this big picture window, and I'm like, "Take a left. Take a left." He's like, "Oh, just headed towards the light."
Mark: Also the person, through technology, that navigated us to the bar. Where there's a will, there's a way. Yeah, this Aira device, maybe I need it.
Jeremy: Maybe you do. Like, where's the glass of water in relation to my hand?
Mark: That's right. I just need a friend, Jeremy, sometimes while I'm walking.
Jeremy: [laughs] Do you have any of those?
Mark: Yeah. I do. I'll call you. You can be my Aira operator.
Jeremy: OK. [laughs] There's a blob coming up to your left.
Mark: It's fuzzy, and big.
Mark: Anyways, I wanted to bring something else about this. We almost had another topic for this, and that was Be My Eyes, which we might jump into later on because they are winning awards and stuff.
This is an app that's very similar to crowdsourced version of this, where on your iPhone, or whatever...One of the examples I can remember from it is if you're trying to go through and maybe you're a blind person who is at home alone, and you're trying to make lunch. You want your Campbell's tomato soup that you loved when you were a kid.
Something I don't realize, that you've got all these soup cans, how do you know which one is the tomato soup? If you can't read the labels, there's nothing distinct. They're not accessible. It's like money. It's like a dollar bill. It's not accessible. You can't tell.
Jeremy: Yeah. You can't smell it. It's all contained in the...
Mark: Yeah, it's all contained. In situations like that this is just an iPhone, and maybe now out on Android app, where you can hit a, "I need help," sort of thing. Then anybody, like I could volunteer to do it, anybody on the other end can pick it up.
You can show something with the camera and they'll say, "Hey, yeah, that's the tomato soup. Go ahead and grab that and use that."
There's no paid operators like there are with Aira. It's more of a crowdsourced thing, but this Aira seems like the next level to all that.
Jeremy: Yeah. It seems very cool. I can only imagine, as you and I have talked before on this podcast, as wearables become more prominent, that it'll probably just continue to grow.
In fact, if you're looking for the Aira website, I saw one of their career postings is for an artificial intelligence engineer, which you can only imagine what they are trying to do.
If you could be able to, not replace those agents, but keep those calls to a minimum, just by looking at, "Here's a stop sign if you look around to the left," or here's a stop light. There's all sorts of things it could read.
Mark: That's right. It makes me think of Uber, right? Uber was this crowdsourced cab driver solution, but really, where Uber's heading -- as we've talked about before in previous podcasts, the one on the autonomous cars -- but that's where Uber is headed.
They're like, "This is great. Now, how can we get rid of the driver?"
Mark: You know what I mean? That's where this is going as well, just like you said.
Jeremy: The machines take over, just like in Terminator 2, and Terminator 1, and 3, and 4, and 5, and 6.
Mark: Well, you have those Terminator glasses, so I imagine you coming back from the future to save us from all this stuff takes place.
Jeremy: That is true. These do look like the Schwarzenegger glasses, don't they?
Mark: Yeah. Well, that one day you were on video you had them up over your eyes, up over your regular glasses, so it was like Terminator on the top, business on the bottom.
Jeremy: [laughs] "Come with me if you want to live."
Mark: [laughs] Anyways, I think we've done this subject justice, and then some. What do you think?
Jeremy: I think so too. Check out the website. It's at www.aira.com, right?
Mark: I think it is aira.io.
Jeremy: Oh, .io, thank you.
Mark: Yes. We'll put that in the show notes as well. Check it out, it's really cool technology. It's definitely something that you and I should keep our eyes on. No pun intended.
It's groundbreaking. They're just out with this right now. I would imagine that there's some interesting directions that they're going to go in.
Mark: All right. Well thanks, Jeremy.
Jeremy: Thanks for having me again.
Mark: You're welcome. This is Mark Miller, thanking Jeremy, and reminding you to keep it accessible.
Announcer: The IAP, Interactive Accessibility Podcast, is brought to you by Interactive Accessibility, the accessibility experts. You can find their Access Matters blog at interactiveaccessibility.com/blog.