AIRA Enhancing Independence Through Human Interaction

Our community of blinded veterans continues to grow. The population of older veterans who are more at risk to develop vision issues is living longer. In addition, with improved battlefield medicine we see greater numbers of survivors of injuries, many of them vision-related.
These men and women are returning home from the most recent conflicts and are attempting to enter the mainstream of society and take their rightful place within that mainstream.

One organization believes that the answer lies at the intersection of technology and human interaction. We believe that this opinion may be absolutely correct. Aira, a San Diego-based technology and services innovator, has created a solution that further enhances independence for our already independent blind and low-vision community.
The concept underlying the solution is simple: When given equal access to visual information comparable to that of a sighted person, the blind or low-vision person can operate more independently and with even greater confidence. Such a visual assistant should think like a set of eyes rather than as a brain. Blind or low-vision persons are perfectly capable of making decisions and need access only to missing visual information in order to make informed decisions. They should not necessarily have to rely on prescriptive directions from a third party on what to do with such information.

Have you wished for an on-demand sighted assistant to guide you while shopping, cooking, or just walking around the neighborhood? Many of us reside with family members or have nearby friends and other individuals to aid in these tasks—but not all of the time. Even after completing training from a Blind Rehabilitation Center and becoming equipped with portable Optical Character Recognition solutions, money readers, and the countless applications on iPhones, we as visually impaired veterans may still overlook or completely miss part of an address or the “Entrance Only” sign for the door of an office building.

The solution outcome has been Aira’s services platform, which incorporates Smart glasses, broadband services, and an agent network, into a fully integrated solution that provides immediate access to information about surroundings or elements within those surroundings. Users wear a pair of Smart glasses with an embedded video camera, an audio headset, and a GPS tracker. They are supplied with broadband network services which enable remotely located agents to view the users’ surroundings, get a precise location on those users, and then provide information that is relevant and helps them decide what actions to take.

Although technology is the key, it is the Certified Agents that provide the all-important human interaction many veterans prefer. Aira agents are trained on how to find and provide information through a proprietary agent dashboard based on location, time of day, obstacles to travel, nearby venues, and other important elements for the user to factor into a decision.

Access to the agents is a simple process. An Aira user presses a button on the glasses or the application on the Smart Phone to initiate a session with an agent. The response is immediate. A user can interact with an agent that is randomly contacted, or he/she can specify one with whom there is already a relationship. While the service is not yet available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the goal is for this to occur by end of the year. Agents are available currently from 4:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

Additionally, agents remotely serve the role of visual assistant, able to read labels, menus, instructions, or other items that may be important to the user at any given time. Most importantly, agents and users create relationships over time and establish confidence in one another.

It matters not if you prefer the white cane or a guide dog, this will certainly not change while using AIRA. In fact, the company’s founders claim that they will never suggest that their services become a replacement for a service animal or family member serving as a visual assistant. Despite this, we are finding any number of activities that Aira enables that are simply not otherwise possible. Here are a couple of them to consider:

  • Paul, as a totally blind veteran, used the service to shop in a big box retailer. The agent helps him navigate the aisles and then locate items on the shelf. It even reads labels via the glasses. Additionally, the agent is able to identify special deals through the store’s website and makes Paul aware of them.
  • An anonymous veteran of whom we are aware used the service to assemble a piece of furniture. With the agent identifying parts from 500 miles away and relaying directions found online, the blinded veteran user performed the assembly work. This dynamic team of three, two individuals plus the Internet, was able to achieve a task that simply would not be possible otherwise.
  • Other users arranged an Uber ride from their house to Walmart. The agent notified the individual when the driver approached the house. The agent also informed the individual of the Uber driver’s location. Once the agent received the individual’s shopping list, they quickly picked up all items on the list. The agent even described items on sale or nearby alternative items based on the individual’s preference. completion, the agent hailed an Uber ride back home, alerting and guiding the individual to the car.

There are many uses for the Aira service and virtually no limit as to what the agent and user can accomplish together. In the words of noted speaker and 9/11 survivor Michael Hingson, he himself blind, this is a game changer.
At present, Aira services are modestly priced to ensure broad access by the blinded veteran community. They are not yet available as a prosthetic device through VA Blind Rehabilitation Service, efforts between AIRA and the VA’s Prosthetics and Blind Rehabilitation Services are negotiating the particulars. We must remember AIRA is a subscription-based service. Currently two sites started evaluating AIRA. Once adopted, blinded veterans will be able to request information about Aira.

Personally, I am looking forwards to adopting AIRA to assisting in achieving several personal goals. First and foremost, AIRA will enable me to understand and engage with various activities involving my daughter. I am looking forwards to hearing play by play when she is on the soccer pitch or at a swim meet. I am now looking forwards to running down to the store and grabbing a few items for dinner or just perusing aisles independently. Finally, AIRA will allow me to break barriers when reading research articles littered with graphs, tables, and charts. OCR fails to recognize or often destroys these graphical depictions of data, forcing me to miss crucial points. I do not expect every agent to interpret these items perfectly, but it beats the complete inability to handle such information.

This article was crafted by Amy of AIRA, Paul Mimms, and Timothy Hornik.