Aira is pronounced “Eye Ra.” According to the company, the ancient Egyptian symbol known as the eye of the god Ra (or eye of Re) was the feminine counterpart of the sun god, Ra. It was a life-giving symbol, a powerful protector of the pharaoh and his subjects, as well as “healing and the power to perceive and interpret both the seen and unseen in the universe.” The phonetic spelling of “eye,” AI, of course is the familiar acronym for artificial intelligence. After more than a year of trials, in April 2017, Aira officially launched its service, providing blind and visually impaired persons the experience of “seeing,” perceiving their surroundings with the aid of special camera-equipped glasses and live agents.
Aira uses Google Glass technology. The blind user dons a sleek pair of dark glasses equipped with a camera and a transmitter to feed a live stream to remote agents connected with a single tap on the app. One of the 100 or so agents will see the live stream on their computer monitors. Their screens also show GPS maps, in addition to online information the agent can call up from the Internet, such as Yelp reviews. The agent then describes in real time what the blind wearer is “seeing,” doing so in great detail. These “visual interpreters” help users accomplish a variety of both everyday and special tasks, “from navigating busy streets to recognizing faces and literally traveling the world,” according to the La Jolla-based company. Among the everyday tasks an agent can do is reading the menu of a restaurant at a fast-food court, explain the instructions for assembling a new piece of furniture, and recite the words in a picture book so a blind parent can read a story aloud to his or her children. Aira customers can then use the same service to go on a nature walk or explore new neighborhoods… or even new countries. In such cases, sighted people use their eyes not only to see, but also to interpret their surroundings, creating a unique experience. What makes Aira stand out is that the agent does this perceiving and conveys all that to the user to not only see, but immerse him- or herself in the entire sensory experience. A recent article in the Washington Post described the astonished reactions of blind triplets using Aira on a college campus for the first time.
The service is available by monthly subscription at four levels, according to the number of minutes purchased, which can be from 100 to 400, as well as a premium unlimited subscription. Included is the rental and insurance for the hardware needed. Aira’s technology and service may not enable the blind person to actually see, but it does the next best thing by enabling the user to enjoy the sensory experience most of us take for granted.