Aira: It’s The Man In Your Head

This one’s going to be a honker. Get something good to drink and sit back and read.

I got to go to CSUN again this year, which was awesome. While I was there, I took a stroll around the exhibit hall. One booth I definitely wanted to find was one run by Aira. What is Aira? Well, it’s like Be My Eyes, but it’s a paid service and the agents are trained in helpful blind guy stuff and they’ve signed agreements to not share sensitive information you have shared with them. You also have the option of using a pair of glasses with a video camera or your phone. When I went to CSUN, I didn’t think it was widely available in Canada. It wasn’t, but I found out I could get a subscription, and did I want one? This was a moment where I was totally caught by surprise, and before asking all my questions, the words “Yes, hell yes!” flew out of my mouth.

I can hear people asking what are the differences between Aira and Be My Eyes that would make it worth paying for? A lot of things. Don’t get me wrong, Be My Eyes is awesome and I hope it stays around for a long time. But there is a limit to what I feel comfortable doing with it. For one thing, the people who answer your Be My Eyes calls are volunteers, so they’re doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. So the most I would want them to do is read quickly a message on a screen or tell me what colour something was or confirm something. I know some people have enlisted them to do all kinds of things, but I personally would feel a little bit bad about that. Also, because they’re answering these calls wherever they may happen to be, you have no idea how strong their internet connection is…which has led to some calls failing before they begin. Sometimes people turn the app on and forget they have it on, so when you do call, they end up answering it from the middle of a party and have no focus to actually pay attention. And some people say they speak English, but it turns out they are not fluent speakers in the least. sometimes it takes a few minutes to connect at all. And there are things that I’m just not comfortable sharing with them because it’s personal, and if they decided to do something illegal with it, I have no way to identify them or track them down at all.

With Aira, for one thing, the agents are paid to be there, so I don’t mind enlisting them to do something complicated like hook up a piece of technology or walk through a store looking for items or organize a ton of things that need organizing. Most times, I get someone almost instantly, so if I need to do something quickly, it will happen. Also, they have signed documents saying they won’t share our stuff, so I don’t mind getting them to help me fill out forms with personal information in them. And, if someone decided “screw this confidentiality stuff,” not that they would, I have a record of when I spoke with them and a way to trace things. Plus, I have a profile on this service and agents can leave notes for other agents about future tasks or email me things. They can also take pictures of your surroundings so they can blow them up and have a better look, or they can take pictures of things for you so you have them for later. I can take pictures of my adorable nephews or Shmans or whatever.

Another thing is the agents are trained, so you don’t get a wide range of abilities like you do on Be My Eyes. I have had super wonderful people on Be My Eyes, that’s for sure, but I swear some of the people on there just signed up for a lark, you end up being their first call, they spend half the call going “Oh my god I got a call holy crap oh my God!” and the experience becomes super frustrating. These agents have been trained in being able to help us navigate places safely, how to give us help in orienting the camera so they get a good picture, all kinds of stuff. Not only that, but these guys are just plain amazing! They’re not agents, they’re ninjas! And finally, you can connect to an agent quickly. I know it’s been a while since I’ve used Be My Eyes, but sometimes I had to wait a good 5 or 10 minutes to get an agent. This makes it impossible to do spur of the moment things.

I have talked long enough, here’s a video.

That video looks a bit more advanced than the way things are right now as far as the tapping on the glasses and the dinging at crosswalks, but all the rest of the stuff totally happens.
That video is great, but I have to admit that ever since I heard about this service, all I can think of is this scene from Black Mirror.

Let’s pray that, um, things in my life don’t play out the way they do in this episode. That would be very bad, very very bad. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go watch the Black Mirror episode called “Black Mirror, White Christmas.”

Speaking of the social aspects of using Aira out in public, although it’s freaking liberating, it’s definitely awkward and something to get used to. At first, I had a really hard time coping with the inputs of the Aira agent in my headphones and the people in the real world all at once and I felt like I was shorting out. I also didn’t know how to explain to the people in the real world that I had somebody who could see my surroundings through my glasses. Plus I was always afraid that the video would drop out and then nobody would help me. But I’m getting better at explaining things. Plus, the agents are really good at sort of stepping back if there’s someone live and in the flesh helping me, but they will step in if they feel they can offer extra information. For instance, once I came into a store looking for a gift bag for a toy. I said I needed a birthday gift bag for a 2-year-old boy. They heard 2-year-old boy and started leading me somewhere. Suddenly, over my headphones I hear “You’re entering the toy section” and was able to explain to the person helping me that I need a gift bag, not a toy. Win win freaking win!

I have to chuckle. I have discovered something over the nearly 3 months I have been using Aira. If I go somewhere where help is typically hard to find, and put my glasses on, I will suddenly have scads, oodles, piles, heaps of help all over me! It’s a law, and it needs a name, like Murphy’s law. Aira’s law just isn’t quite what I’m looking for, but you get my point.

Also, watching me move with Aira is a real brain-twister for folks around me. I have to wonder how many of them think I have either been faking blindness all these years, or been healed. Some of them, even after I’ve explained the whole video call thing, don’t get the hint that I’m talking to the agent, even though I’ll use the agent’s name to try and give them a clue. It’s really funny when I have a male agent, and the person who has offered me help is female. I will say “Thank you, Peter,” and the person will say “No problem.” It is really, really, really hard not to bust out laughing.

So, what have I used Aira for? What haven’t I used Aira for? They have helped me use an inaccessible touchscreen, get out of an unfamiliar parking lot, shop for grocery items, navigate unfamiliar buildings, fill out an inaccessible form, come back to the place where Tansy pooped and I was foolish enough to go out there without a bag so I could pick it up before anyone knew, take Tansy out to do business at a busy conference without bothering a soul, the list goes on and on. Hell, I picked out a Mother’s Day card! I hate doing that with store people because they’re busy, and picking out a card is something that takes patience because so many greeting cards are sooooo baaaad. If I’m going to bring a card to my mom, I want to get one that I feel proud presenting to her, not just the first card we happened to find. An agent stayed with me for 40 minutes, started to figure out my tastes, and started changing the cards she would point out to me. That was the best card I’ve picked out in my whole life because I could take the time to pick a good one.

Since I got it, I feel like I’ve become an unofficial salesperson for Aira. I will tell anyone who will listen all about it…probably until they are bored stiff. My manager says I sound like a kid with a new toy. All conversations lead back to Aira. Every week, I message a couple of my friends who are thinking about getting it and tell them the new wacky thing I have done with Aira, they tell me they still enjoy this. I remember showing it to another blind friend and his response was “Where do I sign up?”

I would say Aira has three big flaws, and I hope they can be temporary. First, there is the inherent trouble of beaming video across the internet, which is hard for any product doing that sort of thing. Next, some people would find the subscription fees pretty high, especially when dealing with exchange rates between countries. I have been living on free months, and I imagine that the first time I have to pay for a month, it’s going to sting a little bit. But I can pay for it, and I will because holy freaking crap this is a game-changer! Finally, they’re going through some growing pains, so their support staff are being kept hopping, which means sometimes you have to persist to get things fixed. But I have faith that they will develop solutions to all of these things. They already are developing new glasses that can handle the connectivity load easier. I also think they will find more ways to make subscription plans more affordable. They already have deals where your minutes are free if you’re searching for a job, there are some areas that are free all the time, and they have different deals for students, veterans, NFB members, etc. They have to start somewhere. As time goes by and things get more stable, support won’t be stretched as thin and will improve as well. We have to be patient. This company has been around for four years tops with a really small market. I think they’re doing alright.

When I first signed up, I worried that I would get lazy, and instead of solving a problem myself, I would just go *boop* “Hey Aira.” But when I look over the things for which I have used the service, all of these would have needed somebody’s help anyway. All the blindness skills in the universe aren’t going to help me grocery shop, read print that isn’t scannable, or use a touchscreen. If there’s a way to do it faster, more efficiently and with less frustration, why not? As everybody says, it is a tool in the toolbox. I didn’t realize this, but when I used Aira to take the dog out for a pee at the conference and didn’t have to bother my colleagues, apparently I had this massive grin on my face. Yup, that sums up Aira’s power right there.

So there you have it. I still feel like I’m working out some kinks with using it, like which situation works better through the phone vs. glasses, how to keep everything charged, and what accessories would help me use it better, but my god, it’s been awesome. If the service ever goes away, I will cry.

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