Freedom: Aira and Information
By Jessica Hodges
It was a cold and snowy day, and I was out of time. I’d overslept, and today was an important day. Usually, my protocol on Saturday mornings is to pull the covers over my head, keep my door locked, put on some soft music, or a good book, and shun all human contact for as long as possible. Today though was a day I needed to face the world. Today was the day some really amazing poets were coming to my city, and I wouldn’t miss it for anything. One problem, I’ve got no idea how to get to where they’re going to be reading their stuff, and I’ve overslept, so I don’t have time to do my usual routine of getting lost for hours on end. More importantly, I don’t have the energy to do that. Ordinarily when this happens, I’d take a Lyft, or an Uber, but I just had to buy some expensive textbooks, so that’s not an option this month. Luckily, I just got a new tool that cuts my travel time in half, Aira.
Aira is a pair of smart glasses, a portable WIFI hotspot, an iPhone app, and a pair of eyes. You wear the smart glasses, connect them to the hotspot, use the app to place a video call, and get connected to a trained cited agent. They market themselves as a service that gives instant access to information you otherwise might not have, stressing the fact that they are not a replacement for skills, just another tool. The price may be the stumbling block for some, eighty-nine dollars for 100 minutes, with prices and tears going up from there. This price includes the video data, the service, and the equipment. Fortunately, they have a back to school program, giving college students who applied free service on one of the highest tears. Otherwise, as a college student, I could only dream of being an Aira explorer, a person who utilizes any of their plans.
For me, such a service is a life saver. Despite taking a year of training at well renowned Blind, Incorporated, my travel skills are less than desirable. When I started college, I knew I’d get lost and wander in circles. To be on time, I left at seven for nine-forty-five classes, for the first three months. Getting lost takes energy and time, and I’m already an incredibly busy, low energy person. Walking around a space doesn’t automatically get it into my head, it just feels like walking. Everything’s disconnected, and I don’t get the big picture, so just walking and exploring doesn’t really work for me. Aira allows me to learn how to get to where I need, write it down, and then actually know what I’m doing so I can get there independently.
Today will be the first time using Aira for going somewhere I’ve never been before. I’m slightly nervous, but more excited. When I’m ready, I power up the equipment, and step outside my apartment building. The agent I get is professional, and on top of things. As soon as I tell them where I need to go, and that I need to use transit to get there, they begin directing me to the bus station, a station I didn’t even know was near my house. The glasses not only let them see what’s around me, but allow them to track me via GPS, so they begin giving me turn by turn directions, and pointing out interesting things and obstacles in my path. The agent went silent when I was about to cross a street, but they would also give me the color of the traffic light, which is useful to me. I have a condition called auditory processing disorder, which means that my brain doesn’t process what I hear properly. This can get in the way of traffic judgements, and lining up at intersections. Aira can help with both, while ultimately leaving the judgement to me as to what I do with the information they give me. The agent cannot, and should not say, it is safe to cross a street, and I wouldn’t want them to. But they can give me the information I need to make, in many cases, a safer, and quicker, crossing. It’s a big relief not to stand at the corner for five minutes, missing surges.
The agent’s directions are clear and timely. While maps can handle turn by turn directions, they aren’t always accurate, and don’t always fully realize where you are. The Aira agent can pinpoint my location on the map, and look at where the stop is in relation to me, so they don’t necessarily have to follow the maps directions if they’re incorrect. This happened when I was almost to the stop. The map was telling us to turn left and go a few blocks away, but on the map, the agent could see that the stop was right across the street, on the left-hand side. This decreased the time it would have taken to get there.
In a few minutes, I’m standing at the stop, and waiting for the bus, with no walking in circles, and no getting lost. I almost started crying. The feeling of actually competently getting somewhere, without looking like an idiot, was an incredibly powerful thing. In my life, I’ve never traveled anywhere without being shown, involving someone else I know, or taking hours, so to be able to, for the first time, just get up and go somewhere without planning three hours for getting lost, made me feel incredibly free, and just a little more normal. Though there is no normal, to watch others do something and not be able to do it yourself is a very isolating feeling. It gave me hope for myself, and my future. Getting my emotions together, (a street corner is no place for an epiphany,) I begin thinking about the next steps of this trip.
To get to where I’m going, I’ll need to take three busses, because the writers are coming to a cafe in an outer suburb. I hang up the call when I’m on each bus leg to conserve battery and minutes, but I’m lucky. The person I’d gotten the first time had just started their shift, so each time I called back, they were able to retake my call. This made the process extra smooth. On each piece of the journey, I am given smooth, quick, accurate directions based on map directions, and where it looks like I am on the map. I get there in an hour and a half, which is what the GPS predicted. That’s something that I’ve never been able to do the first time going anywhere.
When I get there, the agent offers to read the menu, and I accept. Once this is done, I hang up the call, and have the time of my life. The poetry was amazing, and it was a Saturday well spent. The trip home was equally easy, and I got home in time to get a decent amount of hiding in.
Since then, besides many, many travel instances, I’ve used Aira for several things including building powerpoints, setting up water fountains, troubleshooting problems with a visual printer screen, figuring out how to use a grandfather clock, inaccessible computer software, and inaccessible PDF’s. It really is a tool in my life. Most of the things I use Aira for have required basic skills. When traveling, I needed to know how to get bus information to point them to the most efficient root. I also needed to know how to use a cane, as no one can see everything in front of you except you. When using the computer, I needed to know how to type, how to do limited things with the mouse, and some odd commands. This confirms the fact that Aira is not a skills replacement. Many people I know are afraid that blind people will lean too far on the service and not use the skills they have, or not bother to get skills. However, I disagree with this. Not everyone is the same. No one thinks, feels, or lives life in exactly the same way. So for each person, Aira is a different thing. Because of this, blanket statements like that really don’t apply. For example, when I talk to some about my travel, I sometimes get told that I simply need more training, and everything will be fine, or that I’m lazy and need to try harder. When this is said, it doesn’t have any context, because they don’t know my life, or my head. So of course, that’s what they’re going to say, because that’s what their experiences have lead them to believe. I usually let them go on their way, and continue doing what I need to in order to get where I’m going. Aira, for me, acts as a bridge to fill in the skills I don’t have, not for lack of trying. Another person I know likes to use it in order to shop for clothes. In my case, could I ask various people like I usually do, and ping pong from person to person until I get where I’m going? Absolutely. Is it efficient? No. For the clothes shopper, could they flag down a personal shopper, and ask for colors and sizes? Yes. But they prefer to do it on their own, because they feel they have more control over the situation, and don’t take up anybody’s time. No one can judge another’s skills, or lack thereof, simply because they use a service. If it helps someone accomplish something, and makes life easier, it is not anyone’s business but the user. Besides that, many tools can be leaned on. I know a blind person who freely admitted to me that they use the cane as an attention getter in order to get people to help them. And even without tools, there are plenty of people in the world who are happy to overhelp, and if people let them, that has nothing to do with skills. To top it off, as stated, most of what Aira can help with has a basis in skills. It is a complimentary tool, that is only as powerful, or competent, as the person using it. It won’t magically give someone cane skills, or cooking skills, or anything else. The only thing it gives you, as their tagline says, is information. What a user does with it is completely relative.
I am grateful to Aira for giving me power over my own life, and for having the option for students. The price is a major factor, and a barrier for many. Aira is actively seeking ways to lower the prices, including developing sophisticated AI, and I look forward to what they can do in the future. I hope that this article has given you some context for what this service is, and how it can be used. For me, it overturns my entire life in the best of ways. Whether you already have Aira, are looking into using it, or are perfectly content without it, I hope you have the very happiest of exploring!
By Jessica Hodges, Blind Abilities staff writer.
You can contact Jessica via email.
Thank you for listening!
You can follow us on Twitter @BlindAbilities
On the web at www.BlindAbilities.com
Send us an email
Get the Free Blind Abilities App on the App Store.