The Aira app connects visually impaired people with live agents who can see the environment through the phone's camera, and report visual information to assist in tasks such as grocery shopping. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)
Paul Schroeder strode through the aisles at Wegmans in Columbia, tapping a walking cane in front of him and reaching for the iPhone in his shirt pocket.
The 55-year-old Silver Spring resident, who has been completely blind since infancy, was shopping for cherries, cereal and some frozen dinners, and had just discovered the store was selling sugar melons, a type of cantaloupe. He typically shops with his wife, who is sighted, or, when alone, asks store employees to help. But that’s not always ideal.
“What that takes away is that sort of serendipitous fun of just kind of wandering and browsing and looking,” Schroeder said.
Wegmans offers Schroeder another option, free access to a new mobile app that helps visually impaired people live more independently. Aira, the brainchild of San Diego-based tech entrepreneurs, uses smartphones or smart glasses to connect people using the app to trained agents, who can see what the blind or low-vision person cannot. Agents offer round-the-clock assistance using live camera streams, GPS, maps and web-based information.
Agents guide Aira users through shopping, traveling, cooking, reading mail or documents or countless other activities or tasks. Aira sells the service as a subscription with plans ranging from 100 minutes for $89 a month to unlimited for $329 a month.
Wegmans, which has eight stores in Maryland, is the first U.S. grocer to offer free access to Aira.
Any customer, with or without a monthly subscription to Aira, can access the service for free in all 97 Wegmans stores in six states, said Linda Lovejoy, a spokeswoman for the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocer.
Wegmans installed induction hearing loops, designed to deliver speech clearly to hearing aids or implants in noisy environments, in 17 stores last year, including the one at Hunt Valley Towne Center, after testing the technology at two stores near its headquarters in Rochester, N.Y. Besides checkout lanes, loops are available at the pharmacy and customer service department.
The access complements other services Wegmans offers customers with disabilities, Lovejoy said. The chain installed hearing loops in stores three years ago, enabling people using hearing aids to hear more clearly at the store pharmacy and at checkout.
“Anytime you provide more access for people who have disabilities, they realize it and they want to go use that place, whether it’s a park or a mall or a grocery store,” Lovejoy said. “It creates more access for people to enjoy their lives. … This opens another tool for those who are blind or low vision to have a great experience in our stores.”
Schroeder and other Aira “explorers,” as subscribing customers are called, describe the app as life-changing. Schroeder has called on Aira agents to read menus at restaurants, help with computer problems, read labels on canned food in his pantry, find exhibits at conferences, direct him to a precise building or just describe the shops he passes walking down a block.
Schroeder, who used to work for the American Foundation for the Blind, recently became employed by Aira, where he develops programs and policies to make the app more accessible.
Aira was launched about three years ago by Suman Kanuganti, an entrepreneur looking into augmented reality applications that could help a friend who was losing vision. He teamed with tech entrepreneur Larry Bock, and they launched Aira in 2017. It has grown from 200 beta testers to thousands of users in the United States, Australia and Canada.
The service has nearly 60 access partners like Wegmans, including universities, airports, municipalities, tourist destinations and individual employers. In Maryland, the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind is also a partner. Aira is in talks with Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to offer access there.
In such partnerships, the business or organization agrees to pay for Aira services within a certain geographic area. The company employs several hundred agents in all 50 states. Agents start at $15 an hour and work in scheduled shifts from their homes.
“We’re about building an accessible world,” said Amy Bernal, Aira’s vice president of customer experience. “Our goal would be that we work to make every place accessible for everyone, providing that instant access to visual information.”
The app does compete with other service, including the free Be My Eyes, which connects users via video calls with volunteers.
Ronza Othman, an attorney at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Woodlawn who has had limited vision since birth, has been using Aira for about two years. The Baltimore resident recently has relied on it more after losing some of the useful vision she’d had for much of her life.
“Aira in general has absolutely changed my life and has made it much easier for me to interact with the world and independently access things that people who are not blind can access with ease and take for granted, like shopping,” Othman said.
Aira doesn’t replace in-person assistance, she has found, but “it does make the shopping much easier and expands the options for me when I need to be able to get things like a gallon of milk or a head of lettuce,” she said.
Before Aira, she said, “routine things people who did not have disabilities would not think twice about would be a tremendous challenge.”
Besides helping her buy groceries, Aira agents read mail or documents, find the proper size clothing at stores and navigate airports. Agents have guided her to airport departure gates and to empty seats at the gates. In the past she would have asked someone around her.
“The problem is you don’t always know if people are willing to help or can help you appropriately,” she said. “You’re interrupting people in their lives. … This way, I can get assistance without being disruptive to other people.”
For grocery shopping, Wegmans has become an attractive option because, she said, “Wegmans has invested in my using Aira at their business.”
During Schroeder’s trip to Wegmans, he used the VoiceOver accessibility tool on his iPhone to open the Aira app and was connected with agent Joanne McIntyre. He has gotten to know McIntyre, who lives in Bangor, Maine, through the app.
Starting in the produce department, McIntyre described the cherries’ color and packaging.
“Take two steps to your right,” she said, leading Schroeder next to bananas and helping him choose a bunch that were not overripe. She then directed him to the cereal aisle, describing a multi-grain variety with oats and honey. “There’s whole grain that’s right in front of you. If you reach your left hand out.”
In frozen foods, Schroeder used his phone camera to capture an image of frozen lasagna. McIntyre could study it more closely that way and read ingredients. The agent said she has worked for Aira for more than a year.
“My friends ask me what I do and what kind of calls I take, and I say, ‘I don’t know, what did you do today? Think of everything you did today and I could have have helped somebody with that,’ ” she said. “We do a lot of mail. We do a lot of travel — trains, buses, airports. I do a lot of grocery shopping.”
Schroeder said the partnership between users and agents is one of his favorite aspects of Aira.