Staff, students and visitors to Perkins School for the Blind will now have access to a new level of accessibility thanks to an exciting collaboration between the school and tech-company Aira.
Starting immediately, anyone with an Aira subscription will be able to use the service at no additional cost while on Perkins’ 38-acre campus. Aira (pronounced “eye-rah”) provides instant, on-demand access to a network of trained sighted assistants via smart glasses or a mobile app.
Perkins President and CEO Dave Power announced the collaboration, the first of its kind in the nation, at a press conference on Tuesday. He was joined by Aira CEO Suman Kanuganti, who called the day “a historic moment” for the blind and visually impaired community.
“As a human, everyone has an equal right to access information,” Kanuganti said. “With Aira, all people will have equal access to information anywhere and anytime.”
Aira’s assistants, called Aira Agents, are able to view the world from the user’s point of view through the smart glasses or smartphone camera. They use augmented reality to instantly help users with a variety of tasks – from navigating in unfamiliar areas to identifying an Uber ride.
Perkins Library Director Kim Charlson calls an Aira Agent when she wants to take a photograph or sort through a stack of mail. Although she navigates independently with her guide dog, Dolly, when snow or ice obscures a pathway, Charlson calls Aira to confirm her location.
“To succeed in life, every blind person assembles their own set of tools to navigate the world,” she said. “The Aira assistant allows me to be independent and safe by describing exactly where I’m walking so I don’t veer off course.”
Charlson was one of several Perkins staff to pilot Aira last year, offering critical user feedback to Kanuganti’s team. On Tuesday, Power emphasized the importance of user testing and user-centered design in developing effective devices and services. He ticked off a list of recent projects including driverless car testing and a mobile app developed by Perkins.
“Connecting innovators and users is a natural extension of Perkins’ mission,” he said. “We’re using user-centered design as a way to drive these collaborations so the end results are great innovation and useful products.”
At the press event, news outlets from Watertown and Boston gathered around as Assistive Technology Specialist Cory Kadlik demonstrated Aira’s capabilities. After donning his smart glasses, Kadlik put his phone on speaker so the audience could listen in on his conversation with Amy, an Aira Agent.
For the next several minutes, Amy served as a remote set of eyes for Kadlik, describing the size and shape of the room, the number of occupants and the contents of the refreshment table. After pulling up a photo of Power for reference, Amy told Kadlik where to go to shake the president’s hand.
“It looks like he’s straight ahead, wearing a dark suit and a red tie,” she said. “He’s actually standing up, it looks like, to shake your hand.”
“Awesome,” said Kadlik, before signing off. “Amy, I appreciate your help, we will talk soon.”
Assistive Technology Specialist Cory Kadlik prepares to demonstrate Aira's capabilities. Photo Credit: Brian Smith.