iAccessibility.net: Seeing On Your Own Schedule – My Experiences as an Aira Back to School Recipient

Seeing On Your Own Schedule – My Experiences as an Aira Back to School Recipient

By Lauren Bishop | May 29th, 2019

When Aira originally gained popularity among the blind community, I glossed over the posts in my Facebook news feed and emails concerning the product. I had been living on my own for a while, I was cooking my own meals and I had good travel skills. If I needed to read the instructions for a box of food, or adjust my thermostat, I could just call Bee My Eyes, a free service that connects blind people in need of visual information to a wide network of volunteers twenty-four hours a day. It was free and it worked. I did not start to pay attention to Aira until a close friend of mine got the Back To School scholarship. She is a competent and very independent blind person. When she thought she could benefit from it, I wondered how it would benefit me.

Fast forward a few months to the 2018 convention of the National Federation of the Blind, a site access location for Aira. During the convention, I could take Aira for a test drive at no cost to me. I fondly remember arriving to my hotel room, and noticing that it was much too hot for my liking, I decided to give Aira the old college try. After setting up a free account, I called an agent for the first time. After answering a few questions about myself, and listening to the disclaimer that Aira sessions would be terminated if I was not using my mobility tool outside my living arrangement and that agents could not tell me if a situation was safe, I completed my first task. The agent helped me set my thermostat. That first call got me hooked. The agent I interacted with was focussed on me. She was happy and energetic. At that point in time, she was focussed on me and only me. She knew how to help me orient my phone so she could see the thermostat clearly, and best of all, in a matter of seconds, my room began to cool off and I was comfortable. Although the volunteers at Bee My Eyes want to help, they lack the professional training that Aira provides to their staff, and since the volunteers are not being paid, they are not on call like Aira staff. They may be in the middle of something when they pick up your call.

In August of 2018, I applied and was accepted to the Back To School program, where I received 200 Aira minutes a month; as well as a pair of Horizon glasses. Although I did not think the glasses looked good, I put them on anyway, and discovered a whole new world.

Aira could do so much more than Be My Eyes. Agents engaged in several TeamViewer sessions, which enabled me to ensure that assignments with formatting requirements were presentable and enabled me to access inaccessible assignments and websites on my own terms. I no longer had to schedule readers and have a rigid agenda for completing assignments. My school life was on my own terms.

My use of Aira was not limited to academics. One of the most thrilling experiences with Aira was having an agent describe Disney’s fireworks display from the fourteenth floor observation deck of Disney’s Contemporary Resort. I can see fireworks, but they only look like colorful lights to me, and it has to be dark for me to see them. I have discovered that I can see the fireworks from that location; however, Aira’s description proved to me that I was missing a lot. I had no idea that Disney made all kinds of designs with their fireworks, and how vivid the colors were. The agent who described the fireworks was amazing! She was energetic throughout the show, and she maintained my attention the whole time. I knew what colors the fireworks were, that they were making stars and other designs in the sky, and that Cinderella’s castle was the focal point of the display. I practically had tears in my eyes throughout her description. Family and friends are always willing to describe things for me, but they want to enjoy the display and take pictures too. Aira’s descriptions are top-of-the-line.

I would encourage anyone to give Aira a try. Locations such as many major airports, Walgreens, and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) are only a few site access locations where anyone can try Aira for free. In addition, both the American Counsel of the Blind and National Federation of the Blind state and national conventions are site access locations, and Aira representatives are available so customers can ask questions, test drive the glasses, and sign up if they want to.

Conclusion

An important thing to remember about Aira is that it does not substitute solid travel, technology, and daily living skills. The product is simply available to provide visual information, but in all situations, the explorer drives the session. An agent will not tell you when it is safe to cross the street, nor will they complete your homework for you. They will help you navigate to a destination and tell you when the light is in your favor if they can see it, and they are happy to help you format a document, but you have to be the one to tell them what to click on, and where you want things to be positioned in a document. With Aira in your toolbox, you will no longer have to wait on someone to help you with the visual aspects of life, you can get assistance at the touch of a button.

FriendshipWorks: A Light Shines for the Visually Impaired with New Pilot Vision Program

A Light Shines for the Visually Impaired with New Pilot Vision Program

May 14, 2019 by Cara Stuka

This month, Sassy Outwater-Wright was able to commute on the MBTA while pioneering a remarkable six-month pilot program testing a combination of free technology and smart glasses.

Outwater-Wright is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI). MABVI has partnered with FriendshipWorks on our Elder Low Vision Initiative, providing guidance on how to connect low vision elders with programs and resources, and Outwater-Wright served as a panelist on the Low Vision Forums held by FriendshipWorks.

On May 1st, she was featured in the Boston Globe as she navigated MBTA trains, street crossings, construction, and other aspects of her daily commute from Salem to Brookline, with the help of a mobile app called Aira. This free app, acts as the eyes for a low vision or blind individual providing an extra measure of safety, mobility, and confidence when navigating stairs, street crossings, frequent construction impediments, and train platforms. Individuals may still have seeing eye dogs and white canes, but with the help of the Aira app, people who are blind or have low-vision, can tap on their phone, and be immediately connected with trained agents to guide them via a live stream camera on their commutes in what can often seem like a maze of obstacles. This service provides the individual with assistance on demand and acts as the eyes for the commuter according to Outwater-Wright.

As noted by Aira, because age-related vision loss affects nearly everyone, accessibility to the state’s transportation system is a priority. Important because in Massachusetts, there are more than 130,000 people statewide and 17,000 in Boston affected by low vision or blindness.

Recognizing the increase in people needing more assistance and mobility due to visual challenges, in 2016 FriendshipWorks worked with a team of Low Vision Specialists to create our Elder Low Vision Initiative that pairs low vision elders with trained volunteers to support them. Additionally, FriendshipWorks offers Elder Low Vision workshops to train elder care providers, and a Low Vision Resource Guide. For more information or to make a referral, please visit us at: www.fw4elders.org or call us at 617-482-1510.

Read more.

AASHTO: MBTA Testing Blind Rider Navigation System

MBTA Testing Blind Rider Navigation System

May 10, 2019

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority launched a free six-month technology pilot program on May 1 called “AccessAI” from Aria; a system that connects blind or low vision users with highly trained sighted agents via a smartphone video mobile application to provide live and on-demand visual information about a user’s surroundings.

Aira’s visual interpreter service will be available to riders for free throughout the MBTA’s subway, bus, ferry, and commuter rail systems during the six-month pilot, which runs through October 31 and comes at no cost to the MBTA.

Both MBTA and Aira added that users will be regularly polled on the mobile app’s effectiveness, with their responses and other data to be analyzed by upon completion of the pilot in order to chart the potential next steps for longer-term deployment of this service.

Used previously at places including the Perkins School for the Blind and Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, free access to Aira’s mobile app is also available at Massport’s Boston Logan International Airport and Worcester Regional Airport, the company noted.

The MBTA said customers interested in accessing this app within its system should visit the MBTA website and AccessAI.today to download it and sign up for training sessions offered by the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

“Technology is enhancing transit infrastructure,” noted Sassy Outwater-Wright, MABVI’s executive director, in a statement. “This pilot program gives us the opportunity to unite people, technology, and mobility in ways that have never been tried before. I want to see how far we can go with this.”

Read more.

Metro Magazine: MBTA program uses AI to deliver info to blind, low-vision users

MBTA program uses AI to deliver info to blind, low vision users

May 6, 2019 Metro Magazine

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) announced the launch of a pilot program that will use artificial intelligence to connect blind or low-vision users with sighted agents providing information via smartphone video technology.

The free six-month accessibility technology pilot called AccessAI features human artificial intelligence (human AI) technology from Aira, a California-based tech startup.

Aira connects blind or low-vision users with highly trained sighted agents who provide visual information about the user’s surrounding environment — live and on-demand through smartphone video technology. During the six-month pilot that began on May 1, the Aira smartphone app, powered by AT&T, will be free to users throughout the MBTA system at all bus stops, subway stations, Commuter Rail stations, and ferry routes.

“Technology is enhancing transit infrastructure. This pilot program gives us the opportunity to unite people, technology, and mobility in ways that have never been tried before. I want to see how far we can go with this,” said Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired Executive Director and Aira Explorer Sassy Outwater-Wright.

Aira’s visual interpreter service will be available to users for free throughout the MBTA’s subway, bus, ferry, and commuter rail systems during the six-month pilot through October 31, 2019. The MBTA will also educate the public about the availability of this service through targeted marketing to the MBTA’s Blind Access CharlieCard users and The RIDE’s blind or low vision users as well as through community engagement with local blind and low vision advocate groups. The pilot comes at no cost to the MBTA.

During the six-month pilot, users will be regularly surveyed on the app’s impacts with data that is gathered available to both the MBTA and Aira, and analyzed upon completion of the pilot. Next steps following the pilot will be determined after this data is gathered and analyzed following the pilot’s conclusion.

Used previously at places including the Perkins School for the Blind and Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI), free access to Aira is also available at Massport’s Boston Logan International Airport and Worcester Regional Airport. Additional Aira Access locations can be found here.

MBTA customers interested in accessing Aira while within the MBTA system can  visit the MBTA website and AccessAI.today for more information, downloading the Aira smartphone app, and signing up for training sessions offered by the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. More information can also be found by connecting with the T on Twitter @MBTA or Aira @airaio.

Read more

WCVB Channel 5: MBTA launches pilot connecting blind transit users with human AI technology

MBTA launches pilot connecting blind transit users with human AI technology

Friday, May 3 2019

WCVB’s Channel 5 featured demos by Aira explorers Matt McCubbin and Paul Schroeder

The MBTA launched a free, six-month accessibility technology pilot Friday called AccessAI using a company's human artificial intelligence technology.

"Aira allows users to connect to a highly trained agent for live visual information anywhere in the T system’s subway stations, bus stops, commuter rail stations, and ferry docks," MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said.

The MBTA said it will get the word out about the new service through targeted marketing to blind access CharlieCard holders, to the RIDE’s blind or low-vision users and through community engagement with local blind and low-vision advocate groups.

The pilot comes at no cost to the MBTA, the agency said.

Aira’s visual interpreter service will be available to users for free throughout the MBTA’s subway, bus, ferry and commuter rail systems during the six-month pilot from May 1 to Oct. 31.

During the six-month pilot, users will be regularly surveyed on the app’s impacts on their travel patterns with additional data that is gathered available to both the MBTA and Aira. The next steps following the pilot’s conclusion will be determined after this data is analyzed.

"Aira is passionate about transforming daily life for people who are blind or low vision, as better mobility leads to a better economy, which impacts everyone positively," said Aira co-founder and CEO Suman Kanuganti. "We are proud to be collaborating with the MBTA on this unprecedented public-private partnership. Together, we will increase accessibility on public transit for communities in Massachusetts and the world."

The technology has been used at other Massachusetts locations including the Perkins School for the Blind and the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Free access to Aira is also available at Massport’s Boston Logan Airport and Worcester Airport.

MBTA customers interested in accessing Aira while within the MBTA system are encouraged to visit the MBTA website.


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.

Press Release: MBTA Launches AccessAI Pilot Connecting Blind and Low Vision Users with Human Artificial Intelligence Technology

For Immediate Release:

May 3, 2019

MBTA Media Contact:

lisa.battiston@dot.state.ma.us

Aira Media Contact:

accessAI@kristinphelan.com

MBTA Launches AccessAI Pilot Connecting Blind and Low Vision Users with Human Artificial Intelligence Technology

Aira’s technology, services will be free to users throughout the MBTA bus, subway, Commuter Rail, and ferry system during the six-month pilot that began May 1.

BOSTON – Today the MBTA announced the launch of a free six-month accessibility technology pilot called “AccessAI” featuring Aira’s human artificial intelligence (human AI) technology at a kick-off event held at Government Center Station with General Manager Steve Poftak, Assistant General Manager of System-wide Accessibility Laura Brelsford, Aira Co-Founder and CEO Suman Kanuganti, and Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired Executive Director Sassy Outwater-Wright. Local officials including Representative Kay Khan, the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities, and Representative Josh Cutler, the House Vice-Chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities, as well as members of the blind of low vision community were also in attendance.

“Aira allows users to connect to a highly trained agent for live visual information anywhere in the T system’s subway stations, bus stops, Commuter Rail stations, and ferry docks. This service will be offered for free during this six-month pilot,” said MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak. “The T is always looking for creative ways to make our system as accessible as possible for everyone, and we look forward to hearing from our customers about their AccessAI experience.”

“Aira is passionate about transforming daily life for people who are blind or low vision, as better mobility leads to a better economy, which impacts everyone positively,” said Aira Co-Founder and CEO Suman Kanuganti. “We are proud to be collaborating with the MBTA on this unprecedented public private partnership. Together, we will increase accessibility on public transit, for communities in Massachusetts, and the world.”

“Technology is outpacing transit infrastructure. This pilot program gives us the opportunity to unite people, technology, and mobility in ways never been tried before. I want to see how far we can go with this,” said Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired Executive Director and Aira Explorer Sassy Outwater-Wright.

Aira connects blind or low vision users with highly trained sighted agents who provide visual information about the user’s surrounding environment—live and on-demand through smartphone video technology. During the six-month pilot that began on May 1, the Aira app will be free to users throughout the MBTA system at all bus stops, subway stations, Commuter Rail stations, and ferry routes.

The MBTA is committed to continuous accessibility improvements that allow customers to use the system as independently as possible. Aira’s visual interpreter service will be available to users for free throughout the MBTA’s subway, bus, ferry, and commuter rail systems during the six-month pilot from May 1 to October 31, 2019. The MBTA will also educate the public about the availability of this service through targeted marketing to Blind Access CharlieCard holders, to The RIDE’s blind or low vision users, and through community engagement with local blind and low vision advocate groups. This pilot comes at no cost to the MBTA.

During the six-month pilot, users will be regularly surveyed on the app’s impacts on their travel patterns with additional data that is gathered available to both the MBTA and Aira. Next steps following the pilot’s conclusion will be determined after this data is analyzed.

Used previously at places including the Perkins School for the Blind and Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI), free access to Aira is also available at Massport’s Boston Logan International Airport and Worcester Regional Airport. Additional Aira Access locations can be found here.

MBTA customers interested in accessing Aira while within the MBTA system are encouraged to visit the MBTA website and AccessAI.today for more information, download the Aira smartphone app, and sign up for training sessions offered by the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. More information can also be found by connecting with the T on Twitter @MBTA or Aira @airaio.

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Press Conference: Friday, May 3, 2019 at 11:45 am at Government Center MBTA Station

Join Us for a Press Conference and the First Official Ride with Aira free on the T!

Please join Aira Co-Founder and CEO Suman Kanuganti, Head of Artificial Intelligence, Anirudh Koul, Aira explorers and guests, and members of the local blind and low vision community for a press conference at Government Center MBTA Station.

Date: Friday, May 3, 2019

Time: 11:45 am (#ICommittToAccess photo at 12:15pm)

Where: Government Center MBTA Station Lobby

What: Aira Demo & Press Conference with MBTA General Manager, Steve Poftak, Assistant General Manager, Systemwide Accessibility, Laura Brelsford, elected officials and more.

Follow @AccessAIToday on Twitter for realtime updates and information about the event.

No RSVP required. Press invited.