May 2018: Aira

Jason opened the meeting by saying that there was a BlindSquare announcement that many airports will be BlindSquare enabled; they went live today.

Tonight’s meeting is about AIRA, which is newly launching in Canada. Our guests are Greg and Kevin from AIRA.

Len Baker Vice President for Strategic Partnerships and Innovation, spoke on behalf of CNIB. CNIB wants to unleash the power of technology. We want to make sure accessibility is built in to products off the shelf, and to remove cost as a barrier to getting technology into the hands of blind and visually impaired people who need it. This can work first through government eg; the ADP program, then through industry and infrastructure. AIRA, BlindSquare and KeyToAccess are three partnerships that CNIB is involved with to better the lives of its clients. Len’s role in CNIB is to help foster these kinds of partnerships with all kinds of organizations.

Kevin began by explaining that AIRA stands for artificial intelligence remote assistant. You download an ap, then dial up a live agent who can see through your phone camera, or through glasses. The glasses have a camera mounted on the side. Either way, you’ll live stream video to trained agents. These agents provide instant access to information. They’re not meant to replace basic skills, but they can check labels, navigating a new environment, assembling furniture etc. From a navigation point of view, the agent won’t tell you what to do, just give you information.

Greg took over. If you have the ap, you’ll find that all CNIB locations have been AIRA enabled for two days as a trial. The ap will tell you that you’re in an AIRA access location. This means that, whether you have an account or not, you can use the service for free in that location.

The agents are heavily screened. We get thousands of applicants, and are very strict in the hiring process. The agents are trained to think like a pair of eyes, not like a brain. Their job is to tell you what they see, not what they think, or what you should do.

Greg then did a demo. He opened the ap. He immediately got a notification saying that he could call for free, because he’s in a “free access” location, i.e. the CNIB. AIRA has been partnering with many organizations and businesses to do this, airports for example. He tapped on the “call AIRA for free” button. Greg asked the agent for a general description. The agent described the room, wall colour, tables, items on the tables, individuals along the edges of the table, artwork on the wall. Greg asked for more detail about what was on the table. The agent replied, “A 1l Sprite bottle, grapes, cheese and crackers.”

Greg then asked the agent to describe what she could see in his profile. She said what they look for are things like whether you use a guide dog or a cane, what level of vision you have, how much detail you prefer in description, and how you prefer to be given directions, clockface verses cardinal directions etc. Greg explained that, when you sign up, you complete a five-minute questionnaire about your preferences, that goes into your profile.

The agents are distributed throughout the U.S. They need to prove that they have a secure, quiet location to work from, and get thorough background checks. The background check includes a criminal background check.

When you sign up, you get a pair of glasses. They connect wirelessly. You can then choose to use the glasses or your phone camera. Navigation tasks or anything you need to have your hands free for, are good choices for using the glasses.

Some users wear their phone on a lanyard, or place it in a pocket with the camera exposed. Many users prefer the phone camera at all times. The phone camera is sharper, and better for reading; the glasses are better for panning.

An agent can invoke a holding period if you’re call is cut off before your task is complete, so that you’ll get the same agent next time. Often, agents will take a photo of something so that they can enlarge it and see it more clearly, or transcribe it into an email and send it to you labelled. Students use it to have blackboard notes transcribed.

When you call in, the agent gets a dashboard. They see your camera image, a Google location map of where you are, and a Google Maps search box, so they can look for something for you. The agents’ ability to multitask is truly impressive. They might be navigating an airport or describing an art installation.

IOS10 or later is what’s required. AIRA has a partnership with ATT, which has global connections. When you sign up in Canada, you get a small My-Fi box that handles all your data, because this takes a lot of bandwidth. You can use Wi-Fi too. It doesn’t use your data if you’re using the glasses, but it does if you’re using your phone camera. The charge on the My-Fi lasts about six hours, and the charge on the glasses lasts about two hours. For $89.00 U.S. you get 100 minutes per month, the glasses, and the My-Fi. This converts to $113. The calls aren’t recorded, but you can arrange to record a call if you want to. Australia and Canada are the latest new additions, but the UK and Ireland are coming. You can still use it in other countries if you use your phone camera. It’s not clear yet whether AIRA is available in parts of Canada that aren’t covered by Rogers.

An agent can remote into your computer to help you through processes that aren’t accessible to a screen reader. Some users use it for fashion sites, matching etc. At the end of each call you can rate the agent and leave comments. The community is still small enough to be pretty tight, so any bad behavior on the part of an agent would become known pretty quickly.

$329 is unlimited minutes. You can up your plan if you know there’s a month you’ll be needed it a lot. The minimum commitment is one month. Renewal will be automatic, so canceling requires you to take action.

When creating your profile, you can include photos of people important to you, which can help you find them in a crowd. You can ask an agent to favourite pictures, which means they’re kept in your profile. This might be useful for taking a picture of your luggage, to make it easier to find at an airport. You require a phone to use the ap. You can’t use it with just the glasses and My-Fi.

If you sign up today, you should have your glasses within approximately five days. As soon as you sign up however, your account is active, and you can use the service through your phone. The cost is explained by the fact that you’re getting live time with a highly trained professional.

Agents will not speak while you’re crossing a street; this is a very strict policy, from a liability perspective. There’s a slightly gray area: if you’re crossing and missing the kerb they might say something. It’s an information tool, not a safety tool. The explorer agent relationship is emphasized; you can get as much information as you want.

An agent has the right to end a call if they’re not comfortable.

Hearing aids can connect if necessary, and a text communication option is coming. This could be useful not only for hearing impaired users, but for times when you’re in an environment where you can’t speak out loud, but need information. The audio is rooted through your phone, so you can use whatever headphones you choose, or your phone speaker.

AIRA is connected to the prioritizing protocol of ATT, so if you’re in a crowded environment, AIRA calls get prioritized just below emergency data transfer. Users must be 18 or older.

Greg explained that one of the challenges is trying to mediate the social impact of using AIRA, and having the public around you confused by what you’re doing. People will still offer to help, and you have to figure out how to balance that. It makes a different and new kind of social interaction. One solution is to just say you’re on the phone. There’s a sighted-person social cue, point to your ear to indicate that you’re on the phone, and people will go away.

When you sign up, you can gain access to the AIRA community. There’s a mailing list and a Facebook group.

AIRA has partnerships with Uber and Lift. The agent can summon the car for you and help you find the car, or contact the driver for you. Work is in progress to have French-speaking agents available in the future.

You can go right to the AIRA site. There’s a sign-up form. You can download the ap, then find the, become an explorer, button. This will take you to the sign-up process. It’s a choice of whether you want to sign up on the computer or the phone. There’s a referral program. If you refer someone, you each get a free month. Whatever plan you sign up for, is what you’ll get as your second free month.