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This technology helps guide the blind and visually impaired

Smartphones are helping the blind to tasks most of us take for granted.

Picking a bushel of bananas at the grocery store or throwing your trash in the nearest bin are banal tasks for most people. But for Candice Jordan, who is visually impaired, the ability to do these tasks independently has brought tears to her eyes.

Jordan is one of 200 blind or visually impaired people who is testing Aira, an app that connects users to visual interpreting services.

"I guess I would describe it as magical," Jordan said. "Now, I can walk into a mall and instead of having to find a security guard, or find a kiosk desk, I can walk into the mall, click on Aira and say, 'Hi, what stores are in my vicinity, what stores do you see?'"

A visual interpreter agent helps guide the blind and visually impaired remotely using a digital platform designed by Aira.
Source: Aira
A visual interpreter agent helps guide the blind and visually impaired remotely using a digital platform designed by Aira.

Here's how Aira works: The visually impaired user opens the app or presses a button on their glasses, which calls one of 15 trained agents. With the help of a special dashboard, an agent can see the users' surroundings either through smart glasses or a phone camera. The agent can then verbally walk the user through what's around them and answer questions.

The users have an hourlong information session with agents when they adopt Aira. These sessions help personalize instructions (does the user prefer "slightly to the right" or "2 o'clock") and preferences (instead of reading a whole menu verbatim, the agent will know if Jordan loves seafood or is allergic to peanuts.)

Aira can also order from Amazon, give reviews from Yelp and hail Ubers.

Jordan said Aira's agents have given her the freedom to do things she could never do with a cane alone, or even with her guide dog, Austria. Jordan recently traveled to Washington, D.C., where she said she was able to move beyond getting from point A to point B and enjoy Aira's description of the trees, sights and sounds of the area.

Aira also allowed Jordan to do much simpler tasks and enjoy small conveniences and serendipitous moments that she hasn't had since she lost her vision at age 21.

Instead of putting all her trash in her backpack on her recent trip, the agent mentioned a trash can in Jordan's field of vision, something that would have been needlessly time consuming to find with a cane. When walking through New York City's Penn Station, Aira was able to guide her through a crowd that Austria would have shied from.

And instead of sending a courier or store associate to get her bananas, she can now pick herself the ripest bunch.

"I didn't even know that basil came in a tube now, until the agent described everything on the shelf," Jordan said.

The real-time streaming conversation with the agents is something that couldn't have existed five years ago, but works now thanks to advances in wearable technology and wireless bandwidth, said Aira CEO Suman Kanuganti. The company has done about 2,000 sessions with blind people, and is already working on a Siri-like artificial intelligence to help supplement the service as it scales.

Eventually, artificial intelligence and computer vision will be able to use indoor navigation technology to map out a users' most common routes, and even automatically guide users to the curb when they hail a car, Kanuganti said.

With advisors such as Google's John Lee, Aira is backed by venture capital firms like Lux Capital and Arch Venture Partners, and individuals like Benchmark's Scott Belsky. It is also exploring the possibility of getting Aira covered by insurance.

The company is in the process of raising more funding. Kanuganti said Aira may expand some day to help other groups like the elderly or those with autism.

Kanuganti said he's inspired to keep pushing Aira forward thanks to visually impaired friends who inspired the company, including serial entrepreneur Larry Bock, who invested in Aira before he died this year.

"Fundamentally approaching day-to-day stuff that we take for granted an applying that information is not something that companies are doing. That's where our investors get excited," Kanuganti said.