Aira provides a remote personal assistant for blind people

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2017 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.
Also posted on: Accessibility

You have arrived at your hotel and go for a shower, in the bathroom are four bottles, all the same size and shape, you assume they are: shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and body lotion. How do you find out which one is which? If you have eyes, and still have your glasses on, your read the small print, you then lay out the bottles so you use the right one at the right time. But what would you do if your were blind or if you could not read the small print? I hit this problem recently (I cannot read small print without my glasses and I do not wear glasses in the shower), my solution was to ask my partner who still had her glasses on.

For a person who is blind, or has a significant vision impairment, this is a typical day-to-day problem, one of many gotchas that limit their independence.

Could technology help? With the advent of live streaming on mobile phones a solution is to call a friend and ask them which bottle is which. The limitation of this is the availability and ultimately patience of a friend or friends.

A better solution would be to have a large pool of volunteers who could be contacted. This is what Be My Eyes has set up. It is technology that will quickly connect the requester to a volunteer who is available, and the audio and video link enables the right bottle to be found. The service is free and is well used. It is ideal for simple gotchas but it is limited to problems that just need a video link.

The question then is could a paid for service provide more. Aira believes the answer is a resounding yes. It is a subscription service that is being launched in the US. The subscription provides extra hardware, insurance, and access to an agent paid for by the minute of connect time.

The extra hardware is a pair of glasses with a camera built in. This provides a better video stream than using a smart phone: firstly it’s hands free, secondly many vision impaired users have some residual sight so they can look at the bottle or whatever is of interest.

The agent is trained to help the user but more importantly is sitting in front of a workstation that can provide more information than just the video stream. GPS locates the person and the agent will see the location on a map. The user has subscribed to the service so they can give Aira access to more personal information: diaries, contacts, Uber accounts, social media pages, etc. Think of the agent as a remote personal assistant.

Finding the shampoo was just the last of a series of challenges on the journey from home to the hotel. On a typical journey these might happen:

  • Ready to leave home, a quick look in the mirror, Aira suggests that the bright pink tie does not go with the shirt.
  • The walk to the station is well known, and you require no assistance, until you hit a barrier around some roadworks. Aira guides you round a small blockage and you are on your way again.
  • On the platform you wait for the announcements but the tannoy is not very clear so Aira reads the board and you wait for the third train.
  • Aira also reminds you that the station where you have to change has been upgraded and now has a beacon system installed. You connect to the beacon system and it enables you to navigate around the complex interchange (including a temporary diversion) and also gives you information about train departures without needing Aira.
  • Arrive at the airport and you have organised an assistant to be waiting for you, but no one is there. Aira looks around and sees an assistant on the other side of the hall, you introduce yourself, the assistant is surprised as he was expecting a disabled person in a wheelchair. The assistant escorts you to the check in desk and leaves you.
  • The check in clerk is very good and clearly directs you towards security, with the help of security and customs officials you arrive at the departure hall and have a good hour before your flight. Aira directs you towards Starbucks, with the help of an on-line map of the airport, and mentions that there is a clothes shop on the way and helps choose a better tie for you.
  • The flight is over and you arrive at the luggage carousel. You have an electronic tag on the bag so you know when it is in range on the carousel but it still difficult to pick it out, Aira can find it easily because it has a bright pink sticker on it, and can tell you when it is in front of you.
  • Your flight was delayed so Aira contacted Uber to reschedule your car and also to tell the driver what you are wearing so they can immediately find you on arrival.
  • You eventually arrive at the hotel and the porter takes your luggage and directs you to check-in. No need to wait for someone to escort you to your room Aira can direct you and when you are in the room give a brief description of the layout, where the bathroom is and which bottle is the shampoo.

All of this is technically possible and Aira is trialling the system now. The big question is will people being willing to pay for it and can they afford it? The extra independence Aira provides is very valuable and people will be attracted by it. However, it would be easy to use it a lot and rack up the charges. It will only be really attractive if you can minimise the usage and that will require deep integration with other services. Aira hands over to Uber and needs to hand over to beacons in stations, walking directions on Google or Apple maps, human assistants in airports. Aira would then become a personal assistant ensuring all the bits fit together and providing specific assistants when required.

Aira could also increase its benefit by collecting experience of places visited and how accessible they are. Based on this suggestions could be made of alternative routes or venues.

It is also possible that employers will provide Aira as a part of ‘reasonable adjustment’ and governments may contribute as a benefit in kind for people with disabilities.

Aira has been developed to assist people with vision impairments but it will be attractive to a variety of other groups:

  • Anyone going on a new journey will find the occasional helping hand useful especially if it is in a different country. Travelling in China can be a challenge to most people because the signs are indecipherable.
  • People on the autistic spectrum sometimes find new places, like airports, overwhelming and a friendly Aria voice could quickly provide the necessary help.
  • People with hearing loss who use sign language would appreciate an instantaneous translation of a conversation into sign language.
  • I believe that Aira will prove to be a cost-effective assistant for people with a variety of disabilities and even those with none. I look forward to seeing Aira grow in the US and subsequently across the world.