From Candlelight Strolls To Building Ikea Furniture, New Tech Helps Guide People With Vision Loss

Dec 21, 2017

Credit Marty Watts / Aira

It’s a Saturday night in at the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth. Hundreds of people are here to experience some vintage Christmas charm at the annual Candlelight Stroll.

Gene Lavoie, dressed in her puffy white coat, is eager to join them. But first, she puts on a pair of futuristic looking glasses.

Lavoie is visually impaired. She has some sight, but not enough to get around on her own. She’s hoping the new glasses she just put on will help that.

***This story has lots of sound -- we highly recommend listening.***

Credit Marty Watts / Aira

They’re made by a company called Aira. They don’t actually have any lenses– just a small camera that sits on the corner of one frame. That camera connects via the internet to an Aira agent sitting at a desk somewhere else.

Another Aira employee, here in New Hampshire, helps Lavoie get set up. He hands her a pair of headphones and tells her to listen for the agent.

As the person wearing the glasses moves through the world, the agent describes to them whatever they see through the camera.

Credit Marty Watts / Aira

The devices are not meant to replace things like white canes and guide-dogs. But the company says they can add another layer of detail.

Tonight in Portsmouth, twelve people who are blind or visually impaired are here to see how well it really works. It's part of an event organized by the company and Future In Sight, a New Hampshire based nonprofit that advocates for people who are blind or visually impaired.

Once everyone is wearing glasses and is connected with their own agent, they head out into the Candlelight Stroll.

The annual scene in Portsmouth includes historic homes, horse-drawn carriage rides, bonfires, lots of Christmas trees, and even an ice-skating rink.

It was up to the Aira agents, many of them sitting in San Diego, to convey all that.

Here’s a little of what it sounded like to be wearing these glasses.

Aira says it trains its agents to act like eyes: describing without over-interpreting.

Ryan Bresnahan is an agent who has been with the company since the product first launched in February.

“Honestly, when I first started it was super nerve-wracking. I mean there’s a lot of pressure on you. You need to relay all the information that you can as quickly and reliably as you can.”

He says his training included working with a blindfold.

Bresnahan says often his calls are simple: reading a menu at a restaurant or getting through the airport.

But he says some calls can be much more involved. He’s helped someone put together a cabinet from Ikea. Once he even helped a construction worker with visual impairments pour concrete.

“We worked on building a sidewalk for a good two, two-and-a-half hours. That was just an amazing call.”

Bresnahan was one of the agents on call during the Candlelight Stroll in Portsmouth.

Back at Strawbery Banke, Michelle Clock offers a positive review of the glasses. She’s struggled with vision loss ever since she suffered a brain injury about 30 years ago.

“I feel more independent and safer, and I don’t feel lost. I’m not worried about if I have to run and get something or if they go one way and I want to go another, I can meet up with them, because I have someone with me who is going to help me get back to my group – which is so cool. That is just so cool.”

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

Clock says she’s thinking about getting a pair of these glasses to use when she goes to her daughter’s ski meets.

It seems like everyone in the group is imagining how they might use the glasses: to have the vistas described to them during an upcoming road trip, or just to go out for a lunchbreak at work without asking for help.

Still, no one says they are definitely going to go out and buy a pair tomorrow. A big reason is the cost. Aira works on a  subscription model, where the cheapest plan is $89 a month.

Tonight, as the group sips on hot cider and poses for a picture with an old-timey Santa Claus, the fact that this technology is possible seems to be enough for some holiday cheer.