Several months ago, I was attending a small assistive technology conference in Washington, DC. After having played with a variety of different technologies, I was talking to one of my mentors about what table I should go check out next. Without hesitation, they told me to go visit the Aira table, telling me it was one of the coolest technologies they had seen all morning- and they are not easily impressed. So I went over to see what Aira was all about, and the rest is history. Here is my review of Aira, from someone with low vision that uses a blindness cane.
What is Aira?
Aira is a company that helps to make the world easier to navigate for people with vision impairments, including blindness and low vision. Using a pair of smart glasses with a camera attached, or a smartphone camera, Aira agents are able to see what a person with vision impairment sees in real-time, and then talk to them through the app so they can help the person with whatever the task is at hand. Aira agents receive background checks and go through rigorous training on how to help people with vision impairment, so it’s not like random people are helping with sensitive tasks. And don’t worry about wasting phone data, as Aira glasses come with a portable wifi hotspot that can be used at no cost with the glasses.
All plans include the glasses, insurance for hardware, data (via the AT&T MiFi device), training session, and access to agents from 7 am to 1 am Eastern time. Users are charged per month for a plan that gives them a certain amount of minutes that rollover every month:
- 100 minutes for $89
- 200 minutes for $129
- 400 minutes for $199
- Unlimited minutes for $329
When choosing a plan, I recommend thinking about how often you have access to a sighted guide. People who usually live or travel with someone may benefit from a plan with less minutes compared to someone who lives or travels alone.
Free site access
Many different places including airports, conferences, and buildings offer free Aira site access, so that users can use their phone or Aira smart glasses at no cost to them, and without counting against their minutes. So even if you don’t want to subscribe to Aira, you can still download the app onto your phone and receive the benefit of a sighted guide at select places and events.
Back to school program
The Aira Back to School program is available for college students so they can use Aira at no charge. After applying for the program online, users can receive free service for nine months and use Aira for whatever they need it for. I became a part of this program back in February and was approved fairly quickly, in less than two days. As of July 1st, the sign up link is now live.
Aira is very easy to use and requires the following technology skills for best results:
- Basic use of a smartphone- ability to open an app, make a phone call
- Ability to point camera
- Use physical button controls, such as volume buttons
- Knowing how to enable settings in phone such as Bluetooth
The Aira app interface is very simple, with a large button in the center and the built-in screen reader reads directions and information as needed. When the button is pushed, an Aira agent is called, and the glasses are connected. If glasses are not available, users can choose to use the phone camera option by swiping right. I found that I didn’t have to configure any additional settings from the app to use Aira.
Setting up Aira
When I first started setting up Aira, I participated in an hour-long phone training on how to use the device, and configured my preferences. I was asked what my vision was like, if I considered myself to be blind or to have low vision, if I use a cane or guide dog, and how I prefer to receive instructions on orientation and mobility. The entire training was very simple, especially since I had completed a version of it at the conference I went to, and I was up and using Aira pretty quickly.
How I wear Aira glasses
Since I have low vision, I benefit greatly from wearing my prescription glasses and cannot take them off. Because of this, I put the Aira smart glasses on top of my already existing pair of prescription glasses and use the app that way. It does not feel heavy on my face, and I can still see and move around just like I normally would. Sure, I look a little strange wearing two pairs of glasses, but if it helps, then it helps!
What the calls are like
When I press the button to be connected to an Aira agent, I am connected to an agent within a minute. I am then greeted by name and can explain what I need help with.
For one call, I needed help with figuring out how to work my hotel shower. The agent had me move around the shower so they could take pictures and zoom in. From there, they gave me instructions on how to turn on the shower and adjust the temperature.
For another call, I had to find a building on campus, and the agent pulled up a map and gave me directions until I got to the building safely.
The agents are very helpful and make sure that tasks don’t become unnecessarily stressful and complicated.
Why I prefer to use Aira
There are many reasons that I choose to use Aira more often than other assistance apps. One of the main reasons is because Aira agents receive training on how to help people with vision impairments. I don’t have to worry about someone putting me in danger because of improper training. I also appreciate being able to talk back and forth with the agents to get more information as needed, and receiving feedback on how I can make an image easier to see so they can help me more. I’m yet to find another app that delivers service quite as well as Aira does.
What I have used it for
Some examples of how I used have Aira include:
- Going to the airport
- Navigating conferences
- Going around Disney World
- Finding buildings on campus
- Looking for my brother in a crowd
- Calling a ridesharing service
- Reading a menu at a restaurant
- Using Aira at the airport
- Attending conferences with low vision
- Navigating campus
- Going to restaurants with vision impairment
How others have reacted
A lot of people in the assistive technology field often talk about smart glasses for people with vision impairments. However, they find that many glasses are too heavy, confusing to use, or cause eyestrain. In one of these conversations, someone told me how they wished there was a pair of glasses that was lightweight and that had a built in sighted guide, and they got really excited when I pulled the Aira glasses out of my purse and we immediately started playing with them. I also like to show off these glasses as a way of explaining why I study assistive technology- there is all sorts of cool stuff out there!
Aira glasses have helped me in so many ways with living independently in college and traveling across the US. I cannot recommend them enough for students going off to college or people who live alone and could benefit from a sighted guide.