By Max Reyes May 1, 2019
Blind since childhood, Sassy Outwater-Wright commutes every day on the MBTA, navigating a maze of turns, street crossings, tunnels, and train cars between her home in Salem and office in Brookline.
She uses a mix of low-tech and high-tech aids, from guide dogs to smartphones capable of reading text on the screen out loud, and has been trying out a relatively new tool that she says is like having her own set of eyes.
The tool is a mobile app called Aira that allows operators in remote locations to use the camera in the smartphones of visually impaired people to guide them in real time through public spaces such as train stations. And on Wednesday, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority announced it would make the app free to commuters for a six-month test.
“I need all of that information, and I need it in a few seconds. . . . This technology is able to help someone see with me,” said Outwater-Wright, director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
The Aira app doesn’t work like a guide dog that takes users on a step-by-step walk to their destination, but rather provides live descriptions of their surroundings, such as which direction the inbound side of a station is, or how crowded a vehicle is. Outwater-Wright said it allows her to receive and process visual information on her own terms, so she doesn’t have to, for example, guess where exactly a train will stop when it pulls into a T station.
Laura Brelsford, the MBTA assistant general manager for system-wide accessibility, said the agency was impressed with what it saw of Aira, but wanted to make sure the app was a good fit before committing to it, hence the six-month pilot.
“It wasn’t something that we wanted to jump right into until we really had seen how this would work on our system and if it would make a difference for our customers,” she said.
The T plans to promote the service to its approximately 3,000 blind and low-vision riders and collect data that can be used to evaluate the technology’s performance, Brelsford said, before deciding whether to continue supporting it. That includes reviewing possible funding options, such as private grants.
The app also works with special glasses produced by the company that come equipped with cameras.
The app’s operators — referred to as “agents”— are screened to determine if they can provide a sufficient level of description, and then undergo weeks of training that includes test runs with more experienced users.
Aira is also free for users at Boston Logan International Airport, Worcester Regional Airport, Bank of America branches and ATMs in Boston, and several other locations in Massachusetts. Access to Aira is usually subscription based, with monthly plans for individuals ranging in price from $99 to $224 and corporate plans offered to larger institutions.
Aira has previously provided free access to veterans in a partnership with the US Department of Veteran Affairs, and the company has also collaborated with approximately 30 airports nationwide to make the service available for free at those locations.
Spectators at the 2018 Boston Marathon had the opportunity to try out the app at no cost.
ira executives emphasize their app and its operators are not meant to act as guides for users, but rather provide them with data that would otherwise be inaccessible, such as details from a subway map.
“It is not a replacement for a guide dog,” said Kevin Phelan, Aira vice president of sales and marketing. Phelan spearheaded the company’s partnership with the T.
“This is access to information and this is another tool in your tool kit.”
Kim Charlson, executive director of the Perkins Library at the Perkins School for the Blind, said she would not use the technology as a substitute for other tools she already relies on.
“I would never go out without my dog and say, ‘Oh I have Aira, they’ll take care of me,’ ” said Charlson, who is blind. “That’s not their job.”
Outwater-Wright said one of the most important features of Aira is the level of control over the information it provides that she can access.
“This allows me to have my choice,” she said.