By Lauren Monsen

For the blind and those with limited vision, the tasks of everyday life pose challenges, from navigating busy streets — even with a guide dog or cane — to shopping for groceries. A tech startup called Aira is trying to change that.

Aira (pronounced EYE-ra) combines smart glasses with cameras, artificial intelligence and live, human assistance to deliver real-time information to the visually impaired about their surroundings.

It’s “on a mission to provide instant access to information when and wherever users request it,” says engineer Suman Kanuganti, chief executive and co-founder of the San Diego–based firm.

Subscribers connect with a trained Aira agent, who not only helps them complete their journeys but also relays insights pulled from the internet and other sources.

“Aira is not intended to replace the white cane or a guide dog,” Kanuganti told the National Federation of the Blind at its 2017 convention, but to “enrich the person’s world with information not easily accessible through traditional assistive tools.”

Subscribers receive a pair of video-equipped glasses and instructions on how to link them to their smartphones. They then can tap a button on the glasses to speak with remote agents 24 hours a day.

Agents use the live video stream from subscribers’ devices — along with GPS, maps and information gleaned from the web — to help the visually impaired find their way through an airport or a college campus, read menus and mail, recognize faces in a crowd, take public transportation, summon a ride or even run marathons.

Customers can choose from four subscription plans at different prices and call upon a virtual assistant, Chloe (similar to iPhone’s Siri), when they don’t require the help of a live person.

Wegmans, a supermarket chain, now offers visually impaired customers free access to Aira’s services. Even without a subscription, shoppers can simply point the camera on their smartphones at store shelves to use the service.

Founded in 2014, Aira derived its name from artificial intelligence (AI) and the ancient Egyptian mythological symbol known as the Eye of Ra (RA).

Other innovations for the blind and visually impaired

For years, technology — from reading machines to computers that talk — has opened doors for the visually impaired. Smartphones and the internet propel some of the latest advances.

The Aware app speaks aloud the names of places that users are passing. Developed by Rasha Said, founder of Sensible Innovations, it also features a “More Info” button offering details on any place that captures a user’s interest.

There’s also an app to help the blind share in the experience of a solar eclipse. Physicist Henry “Trae” Winter’s team, at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, partnered with NASA to develop the Eclipse Soundscapes app. It offers assistive audio cues during and after an eclipse, and a “rumble map” that lets users hear and “feel” different aspects of the phenomenon.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in a recent year 1 million Americans were blind and 3.2 million were visually impaired. The World Health Organization says 253 million people globally are moderately to severely visually impaired, including 36 million blind.

Blindness and other disabilities keep many out of the workforce. The government estimates only 19 percent of Americans with disabilities were employed in 2017. Tech-enabled advances can help unleash their untapped potential.

Read more about how the Americans with Disabilities Act has improved lives since 1990.