ATU436 – Aira Part 2 with Greg Stilson

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Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.

Show Notes: Greg Stilson – Vice President of Product for Aira

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Youtube: aira visual assistance


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Greg Stilson:
Hi, this is Greg Stilson, I’m the vice president of product here at Aira and this is your Assistive Technology Update.

Josh Anderson:
Hello, and welcome to your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist individuals with disabilities and special needs. I’m your host, Josh Anderson, with the end data project at Easterseals Crossroads in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to episode 436 of Assistive Technology Update, it’s scheduled to be released on October 4th, 2019. On today’s show, we have part two of our interview with Greg Stilson from Aira, and we also have on Amy Fuchs from BridgingApps with an app worth mentioning.

Bella Smith:
Are you looking for more podcasts to listen to? Do you have questions about assistive technology? Are you really busy and only have a minute to listen to podcast? Well, guess what? You’re in luck, because we have a few other podcasts that you should really check out. The first one is Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions, or ATFAQ hosted by Brian Norton, and featuring myself, Bella Smith and a bunch of other guests. What we do is we sit around and take questions about assistive technology, either about accommodations, about different things that are out there or about different ways to use things. We get those questions from Twitter, online, on the phone, and in many other ways. We’re also trying to build a little bit of a community, and sometimes, believe it or not, we don’t have all the answers. So we reach out to you to answer some of those questions and help us along. You can check that out anywhere that you get your podcasts and wherever you find this podcast.

Bella Smith:
We also have Accessibility Minute. So, Accessibility Minute is hosted by Laura Metcalf, and if you’ve never heard her voice, it is smooth as silk and you should really listen to that podcast. She’s going to give you just a one minute blurb about some different kinds of assistive technology, wet your whistle a little bit and just let you know some of the new things that are out there so that you can go out and find out a little bit more about them yourself. So again, check out our other shows, Assistive Technology Frequently Asked Questions, and Accessibility Minute available wherever you get your podcasts.

Amy Fuchs:
This is Amy Fuchs with BridgingApps, and this is an app worth mentioning. This week’s featured app is called Heads Up. Heads up is an electronic version of Charades with a twist. The creators have taken advantage of our society’s current addiction to smartphones and created this fun, laughter inducing hours of entertainment game. Here’s how the game is played. The player that has to guess the word holds the phone on their forehead with the screen facing out. The players describing the word stand in front of them and either act out or describe the word on the card. The player holding the phone tips it backwards for incorrect answers and forward for correct answers. The objective of the game is to guess as many cards correctly as possible in one minute.

Amy Fuchs:
Something that makes this updated version of Charades so fun is that during each round, the phone records the players, as they act out, give hints or even sing to get their friend to correctly guess what’s on the card. After the round is over, players can view the video and can then save it or share it to social media. The free decks consists of a variety of categories, including a mystery category represented by a question mark, hashtag trending, acted out, animals gone wild, blockbuster movies and more.

Amy Fuchs:
There are also themed decks and party packs available for purchase with titles like Finish the Lyric, Millennials, Baseball, and even Favorite TV shows such as Friends and Seinfeld. This app can serve as a great icebreaker activity at social or work functions, especially for individuals who might be typically reluctant to introduce themselves to others or start conversations with people they just met. The appeal of being able to test, or show off, trivia knowledge could entice individuals with limited social skills, such as those with autism, to participate, possibly leading to social opportunities with new people.

Amy Fuchs:
For those with lower cognitive ability or for younger children, there is also a Heads Up Kids available for iOS devices that uses pictures as hints with categories, such as Animal Kingdom, Starts with Letter B, Who Am I? And more. Heads Up is available for 99 cents on iTunes and Google Play Store, and it’s compatible with both iOS and Android devices. For more information on this app and others like it, visit bridgingapps.org.

Josh Anderson:
Listeners, last time we actually ran out of time and our interview with Greg Stilson on talking about Aira and the agents that make Aira so special. So let’s go ahead and jump right back into that interview. Talking about the agents, tell me about a special agent you guys have, named Chloe?

Greg Stilson:
So Chloe’s interesting. Chloe is a couple of things. Chloe’s the external voice assistant that we have on the Horizon glasses that you can ask her pretty basic stuff. You can ask her to read things to you. She does have OCR incapability, we’re working on some other things as well. But being able to say, read this just very similar to like what you can do with seeing AI or KNFB reader, being able to read on the fly or to capture documents entirely. So being able to frame that document, she’ll guide you into how to hold the phone over the documents, make sure it’s centered, then she’ll snap a picture and read it to you.

Greg Stilson:
Where I think Aira’s a little different is those other services, if OCR doesn’t work, optical character recognition doesn’t work, you’re stuck at that point. At that point, all you need to do is tell Chloe to call an agent or double press that button on the phone, and now you can get a human being there who can also read that same content when maybe the contrast isn’t great or things like that. The AI is great, but it’s still not as good as a human at times.

Greg Stilson:
And so, Chloe is the artificial intelligence at the core, but what you see on the Horizon device is really not all that Chloe is. We call Chloe our under the hood AI, that’s there in the background. And where she really shows herself is in our agent dashboard. So all of our agents work on a computer program that we call the agent dashboard.

Greg Stilson:
And Chloe is what creates that autonomous information that appears to agents when they need it. So Chloe takes your GPS location and presents appropriate maps, appropriate menus, things like that, that the agent can immediately have at their fingertips. Because what we learned is that our agents are really special people, but they’re not perfect. And so we can help them all along by saying, okay, this person’s calling in from LaGuardia airport, and we can recognize that they’re at LaGuardia airport, let’s present that agent with the tool that they need to help that person navigate. So you’d see the LaGuardia indoor map up here that would help them navigate. Same thing, if we can specify that you’re calling in from a restaurant, we can present the right Google map link to the menu, if that’s available.

Greg Stilson:
So Chloe is this under the hood AI that’s predicting what you as the user would need. She’s still learning, and she’s going to be learning for a while, but especially with location-based things it’s really helpful.

Josh Anderson:
So she’s almost like the agent’s agent.

Greg Stilson:
Exactly. She’s like the agent’s helper.

Josh Anderson:
Nice. Very nice. Well, and we’ve been talking about Aira on the show quite a bit lately, just because we’ve had a lot of stories coming out about colleges, airports, universities, department stores and stuff offering free access to Aira while you’re in there in their buildings, on their campuses and stuff. Can you tell us a little bit about that Aira access program?

Greg Stilson:
Absolutely. So Aira access is a couple of things. So Aira access is that physical location like you’re talking about. So we’re in over 45 airports, I think almost 50 airports now, and growing pretty rapidly. I always joke that it seems like we sign on a new airport like every week, because they’re really excited about it. It’s a great story to tell for an airport, and it gives an incredible level of independence for their traveler. I always tell airport operations VPs or directors that, “Look, myself as a blind person, now I am a full patron of your airport facilities.” Meaning that if my flight’s canceled or whatever else, I can go to the restaurant or get a drink or whatever, just like anybody else. I can do the shopping there.

Greg Stilson:
So basically Aira access is the ability to provide the users or any visitor of that location, access to Aira for free, whether they have the glasses or don’t, or whether they’re a subscriber or they’re not. So if you’re just a free user, you download the app to your smartphone, we have Android and iOS, and you just type in your phone number and you can become a free user. What that allows you to do is walk into any of these Aira access locations. We’re in almost 10,000 Walgreens around the country, all the AT&T stores Aira access.

Greg Stilson:
So if you’re that person who’s going to go pick up your new iPhone 11 or whatever you’re pre-ordering, you can go into the AT&T store and you have free Aira access to show you where the line is, to help give you the layout of the store and things like that. As well as if there are any of those inaccessible kiosks or things like that, agents can help you navigate those touch screens as well. So, as I said, we’re in several universities, and really growing rapidly. And that’s what, I would say, the physical location is. Bank of America is another one.

Greg Stilson:
The physical locations are really simple. We throw a geofence around those locations. You have the app running, and when you walk into those locations, you’ll get a notification that says, “Hey, you’re in an Aira access zone provided by, business name, tap here to call an agent for free.” We also have another version of Aira access, which are called Aira access offers. And these are really cool because you don’t actually have to be in the location.

Greg Stilson:
So, one of the ones that I really like citing is our small business owner offer. And this is for any blind person who is a small business owner. So if they own their own business, our partners at Intuit QuickBooks are sponsoring free Aira usage for anybody, for really any tasks that is involved in running your small business. So let’s say it’s creating invoices, let’s say somebody sends you an inaccessible PDF that you can’t read, Intuit is really sponsoring anything related to your small business.

Greg Stilson:
And the way you activate that is you go into, there’s an Aira access offers section of the app, and you just find the Intuit small business offer, you activate it, and you say, “Call with this offer.” And then that call that you’re placing, the agent simply validates that you are in fact, doing something for your small business, and that call is free. It’s sponsored by Intuit and they have helped many, many, many, many hundreds of thousands of people do certain things that may be inaccessible for their small business.

Greg Stilson:
So that’s one, we also have a partnership with Vispero. So let’s say, and I know that this probably has happened to many [inaudible 00:11:56] users, but if your JAWS stopped speaking, for whatever reason, let’s say an app has crashed on your computer and you can’t get that JAWS to start talking, it may just be the fact that you have an error message that’s blocking and has blocked JAWS completely, you can call using the Vispero offer and have the agent read your screen, or look at your screen, and they can help you try to close things or maybe restart JAWS or restart the computer, or whatever you need to do. It’s not tech support, but if there’s something visual on the screen, they can at least help you understand that. So that also is sponsored by Vispero.

Josh Anderson:
Well, I can tell you, that has been a huge help. I’ve had consumers that have used that, who a lot of times, if I’m not there and JAWS are not running, I can’t remote in, it’s like there’s nothing I can really do to help, maybe we call tech support, but then, if they can’t quite see it, we’d FaceTime if we could, but that has been a great program and it’s been wonderful to be able to help folks. So let’s talk about the app a little bit more, because I know originally, you had to have the glasses, you had to have everything, but now the app, and is the app actually free?

Greg Stilson:
The app is free, and actually we are super excited to have announced in the middle of August that we are now offering anybody in our supported countries, access to Aira for free. And what this means is you basically download the app from the app store or the Google play store, and you type in your phone number if you’re not a subscriber with the paid plan, you type in your phone number and you immediately have access to working with our agents for what we call, short task usage. And so what this means is things that you’re not trying to navigate in the airport, but maybe you need visual validation of something, or you need, let’s say that you are at the airport, but you’re not sure if you’re quite where TSA is.

Greg Stilson:
Basically, we quantify these tasks as things that take less than five minutes. And right now there’s no restriction on how many you can do in a day. If the tasks are short in nature, and you’re looking to just… One of the things that I told you, I have a three year old. I go to this gas station quite frequently to go pick her up milk when I find out that she’s running low and we haven’t actually done a real grocery order. So I’ll go there and I’ll work with an agent just to simply validate, “Hey, is this the whole milk? And what’s the expiration date.” It’s literally a 30 second task. But for me, that provides a tremendous value because I don’t have to find a shopper’s assistant to walk in and be able to do it. I know where the cooler is, but I just need that quick visual information.

Greg Stilson:
And so I always tell people there’s so much that you can do within five minutes. Just yesterday, I had to buy a new dishwasher for my home. Dishwasher got delivered, but I had to label those buttons on the front to understand what they were, that took less than five minutes. But I was able to document what those buttons were so that I don’t have to ask somebody again what it is. And then the one that I’m the most excited about is the, I call it the final frustrating 50 feet. And that’s a term that I think Mike May and others have used, it’s when GPS says, “Hey, you’ve arrived at your destination,” And you’re in the middle of a parking lot at that point.

Greg Stilson:
So how do you find the door? And yes, you can use alternative techniques to do that, we all know that those exist, but efficiency does have value. And so Aira agents can help you find that door within five minutes. It’s a great tool to solve that frustrating 50 feet. So, anybody, you download the app, you punch in your phone number and you can immediately use Aira for free for any short tasks that you need to. And I think it’s a phenomenal tool to have in your toolbox. You can still try those OCR apps, the object recognition apps, all that stuff, but it’s always there for you. And I always tell people, there’s no reason why it’s not on everybody’s phone now, because it costs nothing.

Josh Anderson:
Oh, yeah. And like you said, just for those small tasks and little things that you need, like that last 50 feet, I think that’s a great example. And then you guys also have a special program for veterans. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Greg Stilson:
Yeah. So there is special pricing for the VA, which allows a veteran to basically purchase the Horizon glasses through the VA, and then the user, because we do have that subscription plan, the user, and forgive me, not being a sales person, I don’t remember the price exactly, but I know that there’s a very reduced price for veterans who get the glasses purchased through the VA. You pay a much smaller price, if I remember correctly.

Josh Anderson:
Greg, you talked about some of your personal experiences and stuff, but can you tell me a few more people that maybe Aira has helped and how that helped them out?

Greg Stilson:
Yeah. And I think part of it is my myself being partial to other blind parents. I hear so many cool stories about, just the way that Aira is being integrated into parenting. One of the stories that I’ve heard is, and I personally have used it this way is, I’m a braille reader, but I can’t always find the books that I want to read to my daughter in braille. And so I’ve used Aira in the past. We use resources like National Braille Press and Seedlings, and all that stuff, but unfortunately not all the books are there.

Greg Stilson:
And so what we’ve done is purchased the books and then I’ve actually had Aira. And my daughter’s three, so she’s not reading war and peace or nothing like that. But I’ve had Aira read the text on the pages and then I’ll braille it out on a label paper and they’ll help me align the labels so that it’s not covering the photos, and that kind of stuff, so that I can read that book to my daughter later on. And it’s a tool that really, I would either have to send that book off to get brailled somewhere, or I would need a sighted person to be sitting next to me to do that.

Greg Stilson:
I mean, there’s a lot of really cool things. One that’s off the top of my head is somebody got a new set top box for their TV, and somehow the inputs got all screwed up. And so they turn on their TV and nothing was working, lo and behold, somehow the input had gotten messed up and they couldn’t figure out exactly what input the set top box needed, to be honest, they called the agent, the agent was able to help them cycle through the inputs, tell them exactly which input the set top box was on, and then got their TV back up and running.

Greg Stilson:
So I always tell people that Aira can be used from the ordinary to the extraordinary. My wife uses it frequently to simply read cooking instructions that’s on the back of some package of food. Some folks have used it to build furniture. We had one lady who built an Ikea piece of furniture. I think she’s kind of crazy to do that, but they did it, and she was able to do it independently. So I commend her there. So, it’s anything that you need it for?

Josh Anderson:
And I feel like you were reading my mind. I was about to ask, just to be funny, if anyone had ever used it to try to build Ikea furniture, and there you go, somebody of course did, that’s awesome. And I can just think of so many different ways it can help. And you mentioned reading the recipe on the back of the box. With OCR, you get almost too much information, it’s going to read every single thing off and you don’t really need that. So that’s nice to have that person that can just read you exactly what you need to know, and so you can get on with your day without having to hear every little ingredient and every little thing read back to you waiting for the right information.

Greg Stilson:
It’s really fun, my wife and I, when we go to restaurants. Because normally, you ask the waiter to read the menu, or you look it up online, but unfortunately the online menus are often out of date, right?

Josh Anderson:
Oh, yeah.

Greg Stilson:
So, being able to have Aira… One of the cool things that, and I haven’t mentioned, one of the really nice features that we have with the service is agents can take photos from the camera and they can take photos strictly for themselves. So one of the things that they’ll do is if you’re looking at a menu, rather than you holding your phone up the entire time, while they read that, what they’ll do is just snap a photo of that menu. And then they can zoom in and clarify it on their own screen and read it to you. But that picture taking actually goes far beyond, one of the most common tasks that we get every single day is just people asking agents to take photos for them.

Greg Stilson:
Because now today, with everything being on social media and things like that, I remember one new explorer that signed up, and she signed up for the free account, but she was posting on Facebook that she was so happy because she was able to take her first selfie. And you think about it like, especially when you post things on the internet and you post things on your Facebook feed, or your Instagram, or whatever you’re doing, you want to make sure it looks good. And so agents can take those photos for you. And then what they can actually do is label them accessibly. So they can put a label that’s invisible that visually, you won’t see, but the screen reader will read it.

Greg Stilson:
And so when you touch, what they’ll do then is share that photo with you, with your app on your phone. And you can choose to share that photo, either save it to your camera roll on your phone, or share it on Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever else. But what’s cool about that is when you touch that photo on your smartphone, it’ll actually read the description of what the agent wrote in there. For example, I take a lot of pictures of my daughter, it’ll say, ” [Laila 00:21:56] jumping on the trampoline,” or something like that. And what’s cool about that is that as you’re sifting through all of your photos on your phone, the ones the agents took that you know are good, are going to be labeled as well, which is really powerful.

Josh Anderson:
No, it definitely is. So, Aira always seems to be innovating coming out with new tech, new programs and stuff like that, what’s on the horizon? What’s next? What are you working on now? Are you allowed to tell me?

Greg Stilson:
I can tell you some things. So some of the things that have been public, we announced that we are… So Bose is a partner of ours, the audio company, Bose, and we are partnering with them to research. And we’re not even to the point of building right now, but we are researching the next generation wearable device for Aira, and the use case. Because our use case is really unique. And where Bose is really interested in that, is that they’re pursuing this audio AR, the audio augmented reality. And then they’ve really put themselves into this space with their Bose frames, glasses, which, if you haven’t tried them are truly incredible devices. They provide really high quality audio while basically projecting the audio from speakers in a pair of glasses. Where that’s powerful for a blind person is a key to your ears, open to your surroundings so that you can hear everything.

Greg Stilson:
So we approached them and said, “Look, we’re trying to build the next generation camera device that will connect a blind person to an agent.” But this value of being able to provide that agent experience or that agent audio as part of that surrounding world is valuable to our users, because our users have to keep their ears open when they’re navigating. And so they got super excited about that, and we’ve partnered together to do a lot of research, and what is this next generation, Holy grail device looking like? Because we’re getting real close to it, especially with 5G rolling around and all that kind of stuff, we are getting close to being able to provide a much more all in one form factor where everything is self-contained. And so that’s what a lot of my work has been on, is leading that research alongside our partners at Bose.

Greg Stilson:
And then we’re doing a lot of work with, how can we improve the agent’s side, Chloe? So how can we make Chloe smarter for the agents? Because, yes, we have that Chloe that’s on the horizon device right now, but really, where our users tell us that they see the most value is when the agents almost know what they need before they tell them. And so that’s really where, with artificial intelligence, and being able to pinpoint a person’s location and things like that, we can really get those smart hints that we provide agents even smarter. And so there’s a lot of effort that’s going on in that side to be basically, hopefully know what you’re looking to do before you even tell us.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. If our listeners want to find out more about Aira, how would they do that?

Greg Stilson:
Absolutely. Like I said, check us out on YouTube because you can learn so much just from these videos, just type in Aira visual interpretation, or Aira visual assistance on YouTube. But otherwise, you can go to our webpage at www.aira, A-I-R-A, .io. You can even sign up on the website. There’s a field there where you just simply type in your phone number right on the website and you hit submit. And what’s cool about that is you’ll receive a text message right with the download link embedded in the text message. You can tap on the text message, so you don’t have to go explore the app store or any of that kind of stuff, and hit the download button and away you go. So definitely go to aira.io. We didn’t get a .com, we got a .io. But check it out, and you can also email us info@aira.io or support@aira.io.

Josh Anderson:
Excellent. We’ll put all those links into the show notes. Greg, thank you so much for coming on the show today and telling us all the great stuff that Aira does and all the new stuff that they’ve got going now.

Greg Stilson:
Well, thanks for having me on Josh, and we really appreciate everybody’s feedback and the way that people are using it, keep it up.

Josh Anderson:
Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a question for someone we should interview on assistive technology update? If you do, call our listener line at 317-721-7124. Shoot us a note on Twitter at end data project, or check us out on Facebook. Are you looking for a transcript or show notes? Head on over to our website at www.eastersealstech.com. Assistive Technology Update is a proud member of the accessibility channel. For more shows like this, plus so much more, head over to accessibilitychannel.com. The views expressed by our guests are not necessarily that of this host or the end data project. This has been your Assistive Technology Update, I’m Josh Anderson with the end data project at Easterseals, crossroads in Indianapolis, Indiana. Thank you so much for listening, and we’ll see you next time.