Boston Business Journal: MBTA offers free app to guide visually impaired riders

MBTA offers free app to guide visually impaired riders

Friday, May 3, 2019

By Lucia Maffei

Technology Reporter, Boston Business Journal

The MBTA is launching a six-month pilot program to help riders who are blind or have low vision navigate stops, trains and stairs of the Greater Boston public transit system.

Called AccessAI, the program is based on technology developed by California-based Aira—a company (pronounced “eye-rah”) that has already partnered with local officials and private companies for projects involving the visually impaired community in Massachusetts.

The Aira technology works through an app that connects the smartphone camera of a person with low vision to a human “Aira agent.” When users need help, they call agents via phone; agents combine the images they’re receiving in real-time through the phone with tools such as Google Maps to provide directions.

That way, people with low vision who travel alone are not forced to rely on strangers, as Sassy Outwater-Wright, executive director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, explained.

“We get to initiate the call and we get to finish the call,” Outwater-Wright said during a launch event at the Government Center MBTA station. “The information is in our hands. I get to decide when I want to access something.”

Outwater-Wright, who has been using Aira for the past two years, is one of the 128,020 people in Massachusetts who have experienced “vision difficulty,” as reported by The American Foundation for the Blind. According to 2016 data, 50,069 individuals with vision difficulty in the state are between 35 and 64 years old, but the total figure includes 1,254 children under the age of five and 34,326 seniors who are 75 or older.

During the pilot with Aira, MBTA riders who are blind or have low-vision will be able to access the service for free at bus, subway and commuter rail stops, as well as on the ferry system. The cost of an Aira subscription ranges from $30 to $200 a month, according to Aira CEO Suman Kanuganti.

In 2018, the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown became the first campus in the U.S. to offer anyone with an Aira subscription access to the company’s network of sighted assistants via smart glasses or a mobile app.

A few months later, Aira partnered with Boston officials to provide free access to its smartphone app during the weekend of the Boston Marathon. The company is also collaborating with Framingham-based Bose to use the Bose Frames glasses, which have built-in speakers, to connect low vision users with "Aira agents."

Kanuganti explained that Aira is active in Massachusetts because of what he called the “Boston-first brand,” which he associated with people being more open to new ideas and taking risks.

“Silicon Valley is great, and we do have partnerships there as well,” Kanuganti told the Boston Business Journal. “But when we try to do transportation, I can’t think of any other better target than MBTA… When Boston is adopting, the rest of the country is adopting.”

Aira has a team of four people based in Boston, part of a total headcount of 60 people, according to Kanuganti.