Greg Stilson landed at Gate C9 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Wednesday morning and he couldn’t see well enough to get around. But his “remote eyes” saw everything and successfully guided him through the crowded terminal, even helping him order breakfast.
Stilson, who is visually impaired, wore smart glasses, lightweight spectacles fitted with a camera that fed high-definition photos and videos to an off-site agent. The agent watched the livestream and in real time over the phone gave Stilson a description of what was in the camera’s field of vision to guide him on his way.
Simple, seamless and self-reliant, Stilson said.
“It puts independence into the hands of users,” said Stilson. He tried the glasses last year as a regular traveler and was so won over that he recently joined the two-year-old Aira company based in San Diego as its product development manager. “It reduces anxiety.”
MSP became the second airport in the nation to offer the service to travelers at no cost when it debuted Wednesday.
“This is one way to ensure MSP is one of the world’s most accessible airports,” said Brian Ryks, CEO of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which operates the airport.
The app, which Aira Vice President Kevin Phelan calls “OnStar for the blind,” is essentially “eyes on demand,” and allows blind or visually impaired travelers to have the same experience as a traveler who can see on their own.
Assistive technologies like Aira are becoming a new trend in the travel and tech industries. Pronounced Eye-rah, Aira was named winner of the first-ever New York Times “Actually Good Tech” award and lauded by USA Today as one of the best new airport amenities of 2017.
More airports are expected to follow the lead of MSP and Memphis and offer Aira’s service free in 2018, Phelan said. For anybody using the service at MSP, the airport will cover the cost for minutes used, Ryks said. The MAC will pay $2 a minute and has budgeted $5,000 to cover costs.
Otherwise, Aira is a subscription service for which “explorers,” as customers are called, pay $89 a month. That gets them a pair of the sleek glasses and 100 minutes with a trained agent who can help them complete everyday tasks anytime, anywhere. In an airport, that might include reading a flight information board, finding luggage at the baggage claim and even reading a menu and offering suggestions at a restaurant. Stilson’s agent, Connie, helped him pick a fried egg sandwich off the menu.
Aira customers access the service by tapping an app that connects them to one of 5,000 agents across the country. Musicians, runners, professors and those who want to earn extra money have signed up to be agents. They work on an Uber-style model, meaning they log in when they want to work and get paid for the hours they put in.
Agents sitting in front of a computer screen get live images from the explorers’ cameras and can give as much or as little information as the explorer wants. The agents can provide everything from common instructions, such as “Walk straight for 500 feet,” down to the most minute details — such as that a man with a blue backpack just passed by or that a cart with fruit and juice just passed in front of them. Agents also have access to maps, transit schedules and internet sites to assist app users.
“Technology by itself is great, but the human element and judgment takes it to a whole new level,” Phelan said. “Not many menus are printed in Braille, so people who are blind have to rely on somebody they are with or the waitress. They can just call into an Aira agent who can read the menu and give recommendations. It’s like super powers for the blind.”
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768