Startup Aira links blind to re­mote eye­sight

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - ERIC ADLER

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Blind for more than 30 years, Paul Mimms — who lost sight in his left eye as a 23-year-old serv­ing in Viet­nam and years later lost sight in his right to glau­coma — has long re­lied on help­ful tech­nolo­gies.

His “talk­ing” bath­room scale tells him his weight. “It’s not nice,” he joked.

A di­a­betic, Mimms, 72, has a talk­ing glu­cose me­ter to tell him his blood sugar. He has a low-tech white cane and a talk­ing lap­top com­puter.

“Alexa,” he said re­cently, start­ing a com­mand for Ama­zon’s voice-ac­ti­vated home as­sis­tant, “turn on ‘Good Morn­ing.’”

Im­me­di­ately, the shades and cur­tains in his north Kansas City home open. End ta­ble lights click off. The as­sis­tant helps him con­trol ev­ery­thing from his tele­vi­sion to his garage and front doors. A talk­ing price gun reads the bar codes on cans and bags of food, recit­ing nu­tri­tional in­for­ma­tion and recipes.

So Mimms was hardly shy when a rel­a­tively new startup com­pany asked him to try a new pair of smart glasses — in fact, his are Google Glass, the very kind that flopped with con­sumers in 2014 but now help him man­age even bet­ter.

“It’s em­pow­er­ing,” Mimms said. “That’s my fa­vorite word. It’s em­pow­er­ing.”

The glasses do not re­store or sharpen sight. In­stead, blind or vis­ually im­paired in­di­vid­u­als who are wear­ing the glasses use a phone app to con­nect to a per­son, known as an “agent,” lo­cated some­where in the United States. Through the cam­era in the glasses, the agent can see what the vis­ually im­paired user can­not. The agent and user com­mu­ni­cate through the phone and an ear­bud.

The San Diego-based com­pany, Aira (pro­nounced “Ira”), be­gan en­rolling cus­tomers in 2016. For prices rang­ing from $89 per month to $329 per month, Aira sub­scribers re­ceive both the glasses and a cer­tain num­ber of min­utes they can have with agents, rang­ing from 100 min­utes each month to an un­lim­ited num­ber.

“We’ve had users go hik­ing on trails, find­ing their pa­per in the morn­ing. You name it, we’ll do it,” said Amy Ber­nal, speak­ing from San Diego as Aira’s vice pres­i­dent for cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence.

One user of Aira’s tech­nol­ogy used the glasses in April to run the Bos­ton Marathon.

There are caveats, how­ever. “Ob­vi­ously, our agents are not go­ing to go into the re­stroom or any place where some­thing pri­vate hap­pens,” she said.

The Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind is more than en­thu­si­as­tic about the tech­nol­ogy. Last year, it an­nounced it was in­vest­ing in the busi­ness. Fed­er­a­tion Pres­i­dent Mark Ric­cobono joined Aira’s board of ad­vis­ers.

“We do like the tech­nol­ogy; we be­lieve that par­tic­u­larly as it con­tin­ues to ad­vance, it def­i­nitely is go­ing to have a place in the lives of blind peo­ple,” said Chris Danielsen, the fed­er­a­tion’s di­rec­tor of pub­lic af­fairs.

By “ad­vance,” Danielsen is re­fer­ring to the tech­nol­ogy’s use of so­cial me­dia sites and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. Be­sides con­nect­ing blind users to an agent, the app also links to users’ other tech­nolo­gies and so­cial me­dia sites, in­clud­ing pro­files, pho­to­graphs of con­tacts, GPS or Google Maps for di­rec­tions and Yelp re­views of busi­nesses.

The idea is that, even with­out an agent, blind users wear­ing the glasses would be able to tap into, say, the floor plan of an un­fa­mil­iar air­port or shop­ping mall or gro­cery store. The tech­nol­ogy would guide them to a des­ti­na­tion. A fu­ture ap­pli­ca­tion might be the use of one’s con­tact pho­to­graphs and fa­cial recog­ni­tion soft­ware to guide a blind user to a friend in a crowd.

“Of course, the agents can al­ready do this,” Danielsen said. “Aira has con­nec­tion to your con­tacts and your pic­tures. That may be also some­thing that ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence can do in the fu­ture.”

Mimms, who was tapped to test the tech­nol­ogy as an early user, has been us­ing the glasses for more pro­saic rea­sons, such as go­ing shop­ping.

At home re­cently, he used the glasses and an agent to read the cook­ing in­struc­tions on the back of a pack­age of chicken ten­ders. The glasses and agent also help with gen­eral mo­bil­ity.

“Get­ting from Point A to Point B is one of the most dif­fi­cult things we have to ac­com­plish,” Mimms said. In gen­eral, au­di­ble cell­phone in­struc­tions have been help­ing the vis­ually im­paired for years, pro­vid­ing di­rec­tions us­ing GPS co­or­di­nates and cell­phone map ap­pli­ca­tions.

Hav­ing the smart glasses and an agent, he said, is like hav­ing a guide who is able to point out land­marks.

“One thing you can do is iden­tify things along your path. You can dis­cover things,” said Mimms, who af­ter leav­ing the U.S. Navy earned his master’s de­gree in so­cial work from the Univer­sity of Kansas. Part of his ca­reer has been work­ing with blind vet­er­ans for the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs.

Mimms said it has long been a bother to go shop­ping and feel re­quired to ask for help from a cus­tomer ser­vice em­ployee.

“Some­times you go to the store, you get some kid who’s started two days ago that’s go­ing to be your help­mate. They don’t know where any­thing is, but that’s who they can spare be­cause they’re busy.”

Mimms said it’s im­por­tant to note that us­ing the glasses with a re­mote agent peer­ing through the lenses does not nec­es­sar­ily re­place a cane or guide dog.

“Ba­si­cally, it just greatly en­hances one’s self-re­liance or in­de­pen­dence to do a wide va­ri­ety of tasks.”

Kansas City Star/JILL TOYOSHIBA

Although Google Glass never be­came a hit with con­sumers, it has found a pur­pose in adap­tive tech­nol­ogy for the blind. When con­nected to an agent in a dif­fer­ent part of the coun­try who can “see” for him through the glasses, Paul Mimms of Kansas City, Mo., can bet­ter nav­i­gate the world.

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