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Breaking Ground 99 - Aira: A Visual Interpreter for the Blind

by James Brown, Transportation Program Supervisor for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, and Partners in Policymaking 2009-10 Graduate
picture of article author James Brown standing in front of a closet door with his black assistant dog, Vantis. James is very professionally dressed in a gray business suit, and he is pulling a blue suitcase on wheels. His other hand holds his dog’s harness.
James Brown

Being a blind person can certainly come with a unique set of challenges. Technology is often seen as the use of science to solve a specific problem. That’s why, when I was headed to Lake Tahoe for my annual, week-long cross-country ski trip in January of 2018, I was excited to try out some recently-acquired new technology called Aira. Knowing there would be a brief layover in Phoenix, I knew I would have the perfect testing ground to evaluate this hot, new, adaptive technology all my blind friends had been raving about for months.

Successful traveling while visually impaired is all about preparation, so I first had to ask myself a few basic questions. How much time would I have to get to my connecting flight to Reno? Would there be enough time for me to take my guide dog, Vantis, to the airport relief area and grab some lunch before boarding? These are all crucial questions to ask, since I prefer to travel through airports without any assistance.

Doing some Internet research before traveling, I figured that Vantis and I had approximately 40 minutes between landing and boarding our second leg of the trip. It seemed reasonable to travel from gate to gate if lunch and the dog relief areas weren’t too far out of the way to make the connection. As we touched down in Phoenix, I put on the Google Glasses Aira provided, placed one AirPod in my left ear, made sure the Google Glass was connected via Bluetooth to the Aira app on my iPhone, and prepared to exit the plane. Finding the “call an agent” button on the Aira app was easy, so I double tapped it and waited for someone to pick up on the other end.

A gentleman answered the video call promptly and said, “Hello, James, my name is Mark. How can I help you?” I told Mark that I was in the Phoenix airport and had to board my connecting flight in 40 minutes. He quickly responded, telling me he was pulling up the map of the airport. Meanwhile, I pulled out my backpack and carry-on from the overhead bin and began to exit the plane.

On the way out, I picked up some information from the flight attendant by asking her which gate we were at, and also explained my objectives to Mark. He told me that the dog relief area in the airport was a good distance away, but there were moving sidewalks and it shouldn’t take long at all. Plus, it wasn’t the opposite direction from my connecting flight. That was an important piece of information.

Mark then told me he was viewing my GPS location on the airport map on one screen and watching the view from my Google Glass on the other screen. His first instructions were to turn right coming out of the jetway. Then I was to walk about 100 yards to arrive at the first of four moving sidewalks.

Vantis swiftly led me on and off the four moving sidewalks. Mark told me to turn right, walk about 50 feet, and the dog relief door would be on the left. While my puppy did his business, I noticed my iPhone was quickly going to die if I continued to use GPS while streaming video at the same time. Guess I shouldn’t have streamed all those episodes of Stranger Things on the plane!

That was when I told Mark that I was going to have to let him go, but if he could tell me first if there was a place to eat nearby, and then give me directions to my gate. He told me that if I could hear a crowd of people at 10:00, that was a Wendy’s. Also, if we went back the way we came from the plane, got on two moving sidewalks and took a right, we’d almost be at our gate.

From there, the rest of the trip was a piece of cake. I was at my gate with a Wendy’s bag in hand and six minutes to spare before boarding. My only disappointment on the trip was the casino telling me I couldn’t play blackjack with Aira because they were afraid someone may be counting cards on the other end of the video, but I guess you can’t win them all!

Since then, Aira has changed my life in too many ways to enumerate in one Breaking Ground article. Without a doubt, the greatest challenge to being blind is the lack of access to the written word. Aira allows me to have a reader with me at all times. It has smashed that barrier. When I am trying to finish a task at work on the computer that has 10 steps, and there is that one step that I cannot complete on my own because of lack of accessibility, I no longer have to wait for someone to come and help me out. An Aira agent can remotely control my computer and have me on my way in no time at all. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for blind people and this new emerging piece of technology.

For more information about Aira, visit aira.io.