After being introduced to Aira at an FCC assistive technology event a few years ago, I have been using the Aira visual assistance service to help me with various tasks as a college student/young professional with low vision. After using two different pairs of smart glasses to access the service, I now use the Aira app on my Android phone to access various free and paid Aira services so that I can have access to a human guide wherever I am. Here are my tips for using Aira, from the perspective of a blindness cane user with low vision.
WHAT ARE VISUAL ASSISTANCE APPS?
Visual assistance apps, sometimes called visual interpreting apps, are tools that connect users who are blind or visually impaired with people or technology that can help them to get information about something that they would not be able to see otherwise. While each app is different, almost all visual assistance apps require a user to upload an image or stream video from their device’s back camera so they can get visual information about their surroundings. Most of the popular visual assistance apps are free to download and use, though some apps like Aira charge users for a monthly plan.
What is Aira?
Aira is a free smartphone app for iOS and Android that connects blind and low vision users with professionally trained visual interpreters for visual assistance through a live video connection, though users also have the option to use a “chat” feature that allows them to receive information in a text-based format. When users first download Aira, they can input their own personal preferences, such as whether they use a blindness cane or guide dog, or how they prefer to receive directions. Aira is available in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand, and is currently only available in English. Users must be at least 18 years old to use Aira, though an Aira staff member has told me in the past that younger users can access the service if their parent or guardian fills out a form.
How much does Aira cost?
Aira has the following paid plans available for personal use as of 2021:
- $29 for 30 minutes per month
- $99 for 120 minutes per month
- $199 for 300 minutes per month
For the 120- and 300-minute plans, users can share their monthly minutes with another two people at no additional cost. As an example, I could share my monthly minutes with my roommate and both of us would be able to share a pool of 120 minutes, similar to data sharing on a cell phone plan.
Using Aira for free
In addition to paid plans, users can also have access to Aira for free in a variety of different settings, and users who have paid plans can take advantage of these free services without it counting against their monthly minutes. Users can find the most up-to-date free Aira access offers by selecting the “apply a free offer” option in the Aira app.
Examples of ways that users can access Aira for free include:
- Limited-time or ongoing promotions that provide free access to Aira agents. For example, there is an ongoing promotion for users accessing Intuit QuickBooks, and there have been other limited time offers for users doing tasks related to voting, taking care of pets, or shopping for gifts
- Tasks that involve certain products can allow users to access Aira agents for free as well, such as Vispero’s JAWS screen reader
- Locations or Aira access sites that allow users to call Aira agents at no cost to them at various locations such as airports, drug stores, grocery stores, and other places
In addition to the Aira offers, people who are receiving vocational rehabilitation services, services from their state department for vision loss, or the Veteran’s Administration may be eligible to receive Aira services for free or at a reduced cost. I recommend talking to a case manager or assistive technology specialist who works with your organization to find out more.
- Vocational Rehabilitation for College Students
- Services Provided By State Department/State Unit for Visual Impairment
- Aira access page
- Aira for veterans
Examples of how I use Aira
When I was in college, I was part of the Aira Back To School program that gave me free access to Aira to help support me in my college adventures that took place both on and off campus. Currently, I primarily use Aira services in Aira access sites or when I am outside of the home.
Some examples of how I have used Aira over the years include:
- Navigating the airport and finding my gate (or the car that is picking me up)
- Walking to class when there is a lot of construction
- Picking up items at the drug store or checking labels at the pharmacy
- Browsing the exhibit hall at large conferences
- Finding items in a large store
- Familiarizing myself with a hotel
- Reading a large amount of information on a board
- Interpreting low-resolution graphics on my class assignments
- Going for a walk to an unfamiliar place
- Airport Security and Low Vision
- Navigating Campus Construction: College O&M
- Ten Questions To Ask For Hotel Room Familiarization
- Should I Request a Human Guide At a Conference?
Places Aira is not allowed
While Aira can help in a lot of different places, there are some situations and places where Aira is not allowed to provide visual assistance, either due to Aira policies or United States federal law. Examples of places where Aira is not allowed include:
- Public bathrooms
- Crosswalks- while Aira can be on, it cannot provide information about when it is safe to cross the street
- Situations that are inappropriate or uncomfortable for the interpreter, as mentioned in the Terms of Service
How an Aira call works
Starting the call
After opening the Aira application on their phone, users can place a call directly from the Aira app by tapping the large call button. After waiting for about a minute, the call will begin, and the Aira agent will have access to the user’s preferences for guiding available on their screen, and the call can begin.
Choosing who can listen to the call
One the Aira agent begins the call, the user can tell the agent what they need help with, and mention whether they would like the call to be streamed on a public or private page so that other people can listen in. Aira calls are not streamed by default, but having a stream allows other users to listen to what the agent has to say, which can be helpful for people traveling in a group.
During the call, the Aira agent can see where the user is on a GPS map, or for supported areas a map of the building they are in. The agent can provide verbal directions to help the user find where they need to go, or call for a ridesharing service and help them find their car.
Reading or describing items
Aira agents can read text verbatim from a book, poster, website, or other printed media, and can also provide visual descriptions of images, charts, graphs, or other images for people who have difficulty seeing them. This is especially helpful for students doing homework.
If the user needs help with identifying items in their home or at a store, Aira agents can look at items through the phone camera and identify them, as well as read labels. If they are in a store, the Aira agent can also help users figure out where various aisles are, read menus, or locate other areas.
With the user’s consent, Aira agents can take photos during the call and have the photos be available after the call in the photos inbox, which is located in the app. Users can save photos to their phone directly from the inbox.
For users that are unable to speak or are in a quiet place, Aira agents can also help over text message within the Aira app if the user calls with the Messages option. Users can still have the agent talk to them during a call if they are using Messages, or they can request that the agent help them only through text
How long does an Aira call last?
Depends on the task- going through the airport would take longer than shopping for groceries or picking out clothes to wear. For the most part, my Aira calls last about 5-10 minutes, though I might call back the agent multiple times if I need additional assistance, i.e when I need help navigating to different locations.
- How Do People With Visual Impairments Guide Each Other?
- How To Be An Effective Human Guide For People With Vision Loss
Aira and audio description
One of my new favorite things that Aira has been doing is providing virtual audio description of various events, museums, and other locations that are broadcast through the Aira app or on YouTube. This has included events such as the royal wedding or the Super Bowl, and other places such as the San Diego Zoo, Presidential Pet Museum, and other interesting places. I highly recommend checking out the various tours linked on their YouTube channel!
Additional tips for using Aira with low vision
- When using Aira on public transportation or other locations where people do not consent to be recorded, it is recommended that users say “please stop recording” or opt-out of recording sessions as the session recordings are kept for at least 18 months in a database with broad usage rights. Users will still be able to talk with agents, though their session recording will not be saved for later
- Instead of carrying their phone, users can put their phone in a lanyard pocket so that they can move hands-free and the agent can still use the camera- I typically use bone-conducting headphones when using this system
- Aira is not a substitute for a blindness cane or other orientation and mobility skills
- Users can find out if a conference or event will have Aira access by contacting the accessibility coordinator for the venue