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This Technology Is Empowering Blind Individuals to Live More Independently

Anthony Maestri, Coordinator, CTA Foundation, Consumer Technology Association (CTA)

Technology is continuing to grant greater independence for blind and low vision individuals. Aira has developed a platform that connects a blind user to a virtual sighted agent through smart glasses.

We had a chance to speak with Suman Kanuganti, CEO and cofounder of Aira, about what inspired him to start the company, how the technology works and what is next for the company.   

Tell us about your background. Why did you start Aira?

After immigrating to the United States over 15 years ago from my native India (where my father was a government health science worker and my mother a science teacher), I developed a passion for startups, problem-solving and creating innovative products that have a socioeconomic impact on peoples' lives.

This interest only intensified while I completed my master’s degree in Computer Engineering at the University of Missouri-Columbia and my MBA in Entrepreneurship/Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of California-San Diego Rady School of Management. I then further cultivated my passion for innovation while working in technology and leadership positions at such companies as Intuit and Qualcomm, where I developed inspiration for the five patents in mobile technology that I hold today, three which are currently in use in the Aira platform.

However, the true spark for Aira came in 2014 when my business partner, Yuja Chang, and I struck up a friendship with a blind communications professional named Matt Brock. Discussing the challenges of blindness with Matt one day, the three of us soon began talking about how Google Glass technology could be used to help blind and low-vision individuals become more mobile and independent. In the process, Matt also told me one thing that has stuck with me: The greatest challenge for blind people in functioning in daily life is not their vision loss, but getting immediate access to information that sighted people often take for granted. Those conversations soon resulted in me working with Yuja in developing a viable prototype that combined Google smart glasses with an interactive platform and personalized assistance from remote human Agents to help navigate and assist the blind.

This concept, in just two years, has evolved into what Aira is known as today in the industry, an unprecedented technology and service that provides the blind and low vision with instant access to information and assistance - when and where they want it, similar to the level that sighted people enjoy. Thus, Aira is fulfilling its goal of helping to remove remaining barriers for the 285 million people globally with vision loss (including the more than 22 million in the U.S.) expanding the possibilities of these individuals to live with greater independence, mobility, self-esteem and productivity. As CEO of Aira, I wake up every morning excited about Aira’s potential and what we are already doing, and what this means on a personal level to our growing number of Aira users.

How does technology like Aira improve the lives of individuals who are low vision?

Most importantly, at its heart, Aira is about information. It is about developing and integrating transformative technology that eliminates the gap that blind people face in accessing information in the physical and digital world, and that inhibit their ability to make informed choices.  Aira is also about decreasing the time it takes for a person to get that information.  In accomplishing this, we follow a simple yet powerful philosophy: “Think like a pair of eyes, not like a brain,” meaning that in our human-to-human connection with users, we serve as the eyes, but the blind person receiving the information decides what to do with it.

Often called a ¨game changer¨ by our users because of its dramatic impact on enhancing their quality of life, Aira is the first to provide the low vision with immediate access to information and assistance - on their terms, whenever and wherever they want it.  This gives them greater independence and opportunities in a host of daily activities, ranging from exploring new neighborhoods and restaurants in the city, to performing on the job, at home or in the classroom and literally traveling the globe.

It is also important to note that Aira is not intended to replace the white cane, guide dog or other assistive tools used by the vision loss community. Instead, Aira complements and augments these tools by integrating them into the service (in addition to the training in Orientation & Mobility techniques our agents receive), further enriching the user’s world with information not often possible through traditional assistive tools alone.

Tell us how the technology behind Aira works and what a first time user can expect.

Aira’s intelligent platform - powered by the latest developments in smart glasses, augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI), IoT, mobile networks and other technology  -  provides users with on-demand, instant access to our trained, remote human agents for assistance. Through Aira’s partnership with AT&T (which grants us priority in broadband network traffic), our users, just by tapping their Aira smart phone app, are connected within five seconds to our network of agents located throughout the U.S.  Connection enables agents to receive (via our platform’s AR capabilities) a live, augmented view of the user’s surroundings from the vantage point of the miniature camera mounted on the smart glasses worn by the user. This allows agents to provide customers with an immediate and accurate auditory narrative of the user’s environment.

Via the technology described above, our customers (whom we call Explorers have grown from hundreds to thousands of subscribers rapidly over the last year and represent a wide range of ages and backgrounds) are receiving immediate information and assistance in daily life including navigation of city streets, college campuses and the nation’s busiest airports, grocery and mall shopping, recognizing faces in a crowd, ordering from restaurant menus, reading and sorting mail, troubleshooting and assembling home and office equipment, classroom interaction and researching homework assignments, running marathons and jogging, reading bedtime stories to their children, experiencing museums, Disneyland and sporting events, catching planes, public transportation and summoning an Uber, and travel to foreign and domestic cities.

Aira’s uniqueness in making a difference is perhaps best summed up by Aira user, Michael Hingson – a blind bestselling New York Times author, 9/11 survivor, international speaker and Aira Director of Strategic Sales – when he says ¨Until Aira, there is not one product that ties all the existing information technologies together that we as blind persons need to help us move toward full integration into society.¨

What is next for Aira? 

Enhancing the capabilities and efficiency of our expanding technology and user services is currently a priority.  For instance, last summer we were awarded a $225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation – funds that we are using to enhance the technology of our AI-driven platform. This includes recently launching our first autonomous agent called Chloe (named for one of the main characters in the hit TV series, ¨24¨). Thus, now our users, just by saying, “Hey Chloe” (e.g. “Hey Chloe, get me an Uber to Hyatt Regency, San Diego”) receive immediate assistance from Chloe on a number of common, routine information requests, thereby freeing up Aira’s professionally trained human agents for more complex and involved user assistance.

In another major milestone, Memphis International Airport signed on with us last month as Aira’s first official airport partner, which allows our blind and low vision users free access to Aira services when they travel through the Memphis airport. We will be signing similar partnerships with other airports in the U.S. as well as globally in the near future in our effort to expand and encourage efficient, hassle-free airline travel for those with visual impairment.

The use of our technology is virtually unlimited and also has application outside the blind community. For example, as Aira grows, the company anticipates expanding application of its platform to serve the elderly, and those with autism and dementia.  Needless to say, Aira is excited for the future.

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