Granite Geek: Augmented reality app aids sight-impaired at Manchester airport

  • Stephanie Hurd of Future In Sight demonstrates the Aira system at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport last week. The company’s remote assistant, connected through a smartphone app, is looking at the departure board through a camera on her glasses. David Brooks / Monitor Staff

  • Stephanie Hurd of Future In Sight demonstrates the Aira system. She is wearing glasses with a camera that can connect wirelessly to the company app, allowing a remote assistant to see where she is going and hep direct her. This  can also be done through a camera on a smartphone, for free.  David Brooks—Monitor Staff

Monitor staff
Published: 7/1/2019 5:01:24 PM

Augmented reality, in which technology shows us extra information as we make our way through the world, might be a cool concept but so far it’s kind of a dud, since the biggest impact has been “Pokemon Go.”

Is finding invisible monsters in the street with a smartphone camera the best that augmented reality can do? Not if the augmentation is audio rather than video.

I learned this last week by following around Stephanie Hurd, community relations coordinator for Future In Sight, a statewide nonprofit for the visually impaired. She was demonstrating a service called Aira that has just started at Manchester airport. The company has geo-tagged the airport so that anybody can turn on Aira there for free without using up data minutes.

Wearing glasses with an installed wide-angle-lens camera – think Google Glass as designed by Clark Kent – Hurd walked confidently through the ambulatory chaos of an airport lobby despite being blind and alone.

“The sign is about 20 to 30 feet in front of you,” said a voice from the smartphone connected to the glasses, directing her toward the displays of departures and arrivals. A moment later, Hurd was pointing her face in the direction she was told so the person at the other end of the connection could snap a photo of the display and tell her such vital information as which gate her flight was leaving from and whether it was on time.

“There’s a flight to Atlanta, on time,” the voice told her.

“Let’s go to Atlanta!” Hurd joked.

Aira is a professional version of a service that exists in free, peer-to-peer form, but which sighted people like me didn’t even know about. The idea is pretty simple: make a Skype-like connection with somebody over your smartphone so they can look through the camera and act as your eyes, telling you what they see. There are also versions using what is loosely called artificial intelligence to give advice, but people are still much better at this task.

From my point of view, this is the promise of augmented reality come true, expanding any limits on our natural senses to make life easier and better.

“Until my 30s, I used to travel on my own but as my (sight) got worse, I couldn’t. Once you lose that ability, it’s very isolating,” said Hurd. “Just finding the restroom without dragging everybody with you – that’s very important.”

Aira (the name comes from Artificial Intelligence and Remote Assistance) started in 2015 in San Diego with venture capital, has now gone through A- and B-series funding rounds. Last summer, it launched a 24/7 service.

It hires people to work from home as assistants to clients, said Marty Watts, director of sales. The hope is that the quality and dependability of trained assistants, who do things like keep track of your preferences about how much direction you want or need, will make it worthwhile to buy a service when free variations exist.

The company also has those glasses, which connect through Bluetooth to your phone and to a wireless earbud, allowing hands-free use that doesn’t bother the people around you.

“Hands-free is important. When you’re carrying a cane and a bag, you don’t want to have to hold your phone, too,” said Hurd.

Aira has targeted airports as a good place to introduce the service to future customers. Under the arrangement, you can use Aira for free inside the airport by downloading the app. Paid versions, which will continue to work when you leave the airport, start at $29 a month.

Manchester is one of scores of airports that has turned on Aira, which costs it about $5,000 a year to cover cellphone minutes, said Director Ted Kitchens.

Finding your flight status on a display board is one of those boring life events which is a real challenge for the blind. Normally, Hurd would have someone to help her: Bethene Wuelper, her assistant from Future In Sight, which was long-known as the New Hampshire Association for the Blind.

Wuelper drove Hurd to the airport and was available to help, but didn’t seem to mind that her role might be supplanted by technology.

Aira is not, of course, a complete replacement for being able to see. You need a good cell signal, to start with. There are also occasional complications, including airport security: Watts said that it differs from airport to airport as to whether TSA will let you use your Aira as you go through the checkpoints.

But in days where stories of technology’s dark side are all around us, it’s nice to be reminded that technology can be a real help.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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