Here is a great article written by Jonathan Mosen about Aira:
A review of Aira. What it is, how it works, and the ways it has changed my life
A review of Aira. What it is, how it works, and the ways it has changed my life
Recently, I was pleased to attend the CSUN assistive technology conference. I’ve had the privilege of going to 10 of these before, but it has been a few
years since I was there last.
When you’re involved with an industry, you tend to watch developments so closely that changes usually seem incremental. But occasionally, something new
comes along that is so game changing, it stops you in your tracks. For me, San Diego-based Aira is one such technology. I am late to this party. Aira has
been rolling out for some time in the United States. And indeed, we covered Aira in an edition of
The Blind Side Podcast
last year. But since mentioning my Aira experience to people via outlet such as my Internet radio show,
The Mosen Explosion,
I’ve learned that not everyone yet fully understands what the service is or how it works. For those not familiar with Aira, or who would like to read
someone else’s impressions of it, read on.
What is Aira
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. At present, Aira is a smart phone app, available for iOS and Android. 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.
You can acquire the visual information using your smart phone’s camera, or, when you become a subscriber to the Aira service (Aira calls its customers
“explorers”) you receive a pair of smart glasses. These are included as part of your subscription, so there’s no hardware cost upfront.
The service is available officially in the United States at present, where Aira has an arrangement with ATT. Aira explorers receive an ATT 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. If you have a cellular
plan equipped with the personal hotspot feature, you are free to pair your Aira glasses with your phone using that method. For those with large data plans,
this may be attractive because there is one less device to keep track of, carry, and charge. The downside, other than the data consumption, is that a video
connection to Aira for a long time may cause significant battery drain on your smart phone.
When you’re at home, work, or anywhere that Wi-Fi is available that doesn’t require web-based authentication, you can pair your Aira glasses to that network.
As far as I have been able to ascertain, 5 GHZ Wi-Fi isn’t supported at present.
Because of the need for high quality video, the glasses pair via Wi-Fi, and not Bluetooth. The glasses are associated with your Aira account. This is useful
if, like in Bonnie’s and my house, you’re sharing your minutes as a couple. More on that later.
The upshot of all of this is that for 18 hours of every day, professional, well-trained sighted assistance is just 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 these big conferences 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 these 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 “site 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 at the moment, 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 coming into contact with 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
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 Aira is very clear that they are only available now in the United States and
I think 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. Since this is a fairly glowing review of the service, I want
to be clear that I am paying the same as everyone else. This is not a paid advertisement. And I’m aware of the limitations of using the service here when
it’s not officially supported. For example, Aira is currently unavailable between 1 AM and 7 AM Eastern time. At this time of year, that equates to 5 PM
to 11 PM New Zealand time. That’s a time when we have had a need for the service, but I signed up knowing what I was getting into, so that’s an observation
rather than a complaint. Even for Aira’s existing customer base, I’m sure many hope that this downtime will soon be a thing of the past. I’m one of those
totally blind people without light perception who has non-24 sleep/wake disorder. I’m fortunate that because most of my deliverables can be delivered at
any time, I just let my circadian rhythm do its thing. That means I’m sometimes very productive at 2, 3 or 4 AM. I’m sure there are many Aira users in
the United States in a similar position, who’d value having access to Aira at that time.
I’ll also be providing feedback on any technical or cultural issues relating to the use of the service here, should they arise. The most obvious cultural
issue 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.
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.
The ability to use the service as a guest is fairly new, and one of the problems I had was that I couldn’t sign up with the email address I had associated
with my guest account, because the system flagged it as already in use. It would be nice to have a feature within the app that allowed you to upgrade to
a paid account while signed in as a guest. Hopefully that will come in time. The only way around it for now is either to sign up with a different email
address or complete the process over the phone.
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 induction 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. You may ask the agent
to initiate the entire process for you, or you could use the app of your ride sharing service of choice 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.
Recently, Aira introduced the ability to 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, although there was a technical issue which prevented her from
logging in. This was resolved in a few hours after contacting Aira.
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
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
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.
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?
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:
list of 4 items
- 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 or upgrade 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.
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.
Looking to the future
Most blind people become blind later in life. And most of those people don’t have smart phones. This group is often forgotten, so it’s encouraging to see
that Aira has been giving them considerable thought. The coming generation of seniors will be more assertive and tech savvy. They will have had experience
of technology in the workplace, and they are 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 now. Yet I think many seniors would
love to have access to Aira. If they can have an agent assist them to read the newspaper in the morning, describe pictures of the grandchildren or go through
their mail, that’s something many would gladly pay for.
The market for Aira’s services is going to increase significantly with the introduction of their new Horizon technology. Currently, to use Aira, you need
at least two things – a smart phone, and the glasses, both of which need to be charged. If you want to use it without eating into your data plan, you’ll
need to carry the ATT MiFi device around with you. That also needs to be charged separately. That’s three things in total that need to be charged.
Within the next few months, Aira is promising to simplify their offering significantly. They’ve taken a Samsung Android device, which includes a physical
home button, and developed their own firmware for it. This device is not designed to be used as a cell phone. Rather than requiring a MiFi, the data SIM
will be in this device. The new Horizon glasses, which are much more fashionable and elegant looking, are tethered to this device with an unobtrusive-looking
cable. The field of view is much improved, as is the video quality. That means less need to keep turning one’s head at the instruction of the Aira agent.
With the glasses getting their power from the Horizon device, battery life is massively improved.
This all means that someone who doesn’t have a smart phone will fire up the Horizon device, double tap the button, and talk to an agent. Smart phone users
will retain the option to control their Aira experience via the app they’re used to.
This configuration also reduces latency and any potential for video degradation. There will no longer be a wireless hop that the video needs to take between
the glasses and the device transmitting the video to an Aira agent.
Clearly, considerable thought and capital investment has gone into the next generation of the service. This demonstrates that Aira is continuing to innovate
and thinking about broadening its base.
Over time, artificial intelligence will become smarter, and will be able to do more of the things that human agents are doing for Aira explorers now. It’s
therefore sensible forward planning that Aira has begun work on their own artificial intelligence engine they are calling Chloe. Initially, Chloe will
offer optical character recognition, and perform functions relating to the operation and configuration of the Horizon device. I imagine that over time,
Chloe will become more capable. That will increase efficiency for the explorer and reduce overheads for the company.
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
- 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.
Bonnie and I are presently using the Plus plan, at $129 USD a month, which equates to $179 NZD. When the novelty wears off a little, it will be interesting
to see if we need the 200 minutes.
So, if you would like to give Aira a try, I’d appreciate it if you’d sign up using our referral link. The referral program means that the person being
referred, and the person who did the referring, each gets a free month. 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.
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