When you're blind, it can be hard to do things on your own that sighted people take for granted. This includes picking your seat on an airplane, matching your socks, or finding a specific brand of cereal on a grocery store shelf stocked with dozens of selections.
An app service known as Aira offers blind and visually impaired users the opportunity to use their smartphones as a second set of eyes. Wegmans, which is headquartered in Rochester, N.Y., and operates nearly 100 stores in six states, is the first supermarket chain in the nation to offer the service in all of its locations.
Suman Kanuganti founded Aira in 2015 in San Diego, Calif. He was inspired to start the company after observing the challenges facing a blind friend and communications professional.
The name Aira, pronounced "EYE-rah," is derived from "Artificial Intelligence" and "Remote Assistance."
So, how does it work? Users download the app to their phone. When activated, it connects the user to a live operator who is able to use the smartphone camera to view the perspective of the client. Agents serving the user also have direct access to the host company's own app at their work station during their interaction with the client.
"It turns the front of the camera on and then the person can see what you see," explains Kevin Phelan, vice president of sales and marketing for Aira. "The agents also have this really great dashboard that has all sorts of information like the Wegmans app, which is fully integrated into their view."
Some subscription plans include a pair of smart glasses with a camera attached, from which the agent views the user's perspective.
Individual users pay a fee for a subscription Phelan likens to a cell phone family share plan. In the case of Wegmans, however, the company purchases its own minutes. By logging in to Wegmans' Aira account as a guest, customers may use the store's minutes instead of spending their own.
Gary Wagner, a blind Buffalo resident and Aira subscriber, had already tried the app once before he appeared at a Wegmans store in Amherst, New York, a suburb of Buffalo, to give a demonstration to WBFO Radio.
"The steps are really easy," he says. "Once you download the app to your smartphone and register, it's just a matter of tapping a button and being connected to an agent who will guide you through your environment."
Wagner stood with his wife at the customer service section of the supermarket as he activated the app. He made contact with April, the Aira operator who would help him find hot sauce and granola bars.
As Wagner held up his phone, April led him from the customer service desk, where the transaction began, to an aisle lined with several Mexican-style hot sauces. This was a bit of a challenge for both customer and agent. Gary was specifically interested in Frank's, a brand based on the Buffalo-style chicken wing sauce. That one was located one aisle over. After a brief moment of confusion, the problem was solved and the sauce was found.
Next, Wagner wanted to find granola bars. While searching in one aisle, a metal pole partially obscured the view of the specific flavor he was looking for. But after a few moments of April instructing him to adjust the position of the phone, she saw the right box and directed it into his hands. Then she led him to the checkout counter.
Wagner was impressed.
"I think as the agents become more experienced with assisting blind and visually-impaired people to shop at Wegmans, they'll develop techniques to make that process even easier," he says.
April's patience during the exchange was noticeable. Teaching agents like her to remain patient during moments of confusion is an important part of Aira training.
"The agents are really the lifeline of our business," Phelan says. "They go through a 30-day 'boot camp' " and get background checks. "We take great pride in that quality of service."
Their training includes orientation and mobility training, or helping the blind person to navigate safely through an environment like a busy shopping center. Wegmans consumer affairs manager Michele Mehaffy says the company introduced the technology to their stores to further its customer service mission.
"Every customer wants independence when they're shopping," Mehaffy says. "To provide something like this to our customers who are blind, who have low vision, it's a great added feature for us."
While some customers may eventually prefer to use Aira, Mehaffy says Wegmans will still offer live staff on site to assist blind or visually-impaired shoppers..
Wagner says he will next test out Aira at the airport during an upcoming trip to Washington, D.C. The service is now available in more than twenty airports nationwide including Boston, Houston, Atlanta and Seattle.
Phelan says in addition to airports and Wegmans, Aira is also available in many restaurants and college campuses, and is looking to expand.
Other companies offering access to Aira, according to Phelan, include Intuit, which sells financial, accounting and tax preparation software to small companies, accountants and individuals.
Phelan says the company is about to announce that a "major retailer" with more than 5,000 locations will soon be hosting Aira access. And, another major retailer will be announcing the launch of Aira service in October, he says.
The service is also available on more than 100 college campuses nationwide, including the University of California at San Diego, Ball State and Princeton.