“Oh, you’re blind. I’m so sorry. It must be SOOOOO hard.”
I hear this sentiment on a fairly regular basis, and I’ve generally dismissed it with comments like “I’m used to it” or “it’s not so hard.” While I still believe that inaccessibility and societal perceptions are the biggest barriers to my life as a blind person, I can’t deny that sometimes I would really like to “borrow” someone’s eyes when self-sufficiency is impractical or unrealistic.
For as long as blind people have walked this earth, assistance has been provided (or not) by family, friends, hired helpers, or strangers. Whether it’s getting rides to appointments, reading mail, finding stuff that fell on the floor, or making sure our favourite dress shirt still looks good for that big presentation, sometimes having working eyes just makes life easier. From low-tech volunteer matching services to high-tech cell phone apps, there’s no shortage of ways for blind people to request the help of someone whose eyes function better than our own. Over the past few years, the tide has started to turn from a volunteer-based model – relying on the good will of sighted people – to viewing blind people as a consumer base who should be able to rely on – and pay for – a service whenever we wish to.
What is Aira?
According to their web site, Aira is “… transformative remote assistive technology that connects the blind with a network of certified agents via wearable smart glasses and an augmented reality dashboard that allows agents to see what the blind person sees in real time.” A blind person – “explorer” – uses their smart phone to connect with an Aira agent, who can provide visual information based on the view from the phone’s camera or smart glasses worn by the Explorer. Agents are trained to provide unbiased information – no editorializing here – on everything from the application of makeup to the items on a restaurant menu to the cycle of a stoplight. Depending on the equipment setup of the Explorer, agents can also take photos, remote in to computers and cell phones, and provide technical assistance. The possibilities are numerous.
I decided to sign up for Aira while preparing for The Intrepid Journey 2018. My hope was to receive the glasses – the Austria glasses were shipping to new subscribers at the time – before I left. Unfortunately, this didn’t work out for me, so my use of Aira on my trip was limited by my cell phone’s camera range, battery power, and generous data constraints. Even before leaving for the airport, I tried out Aira to differentiate my passport from Ben’s, to help organize the receipts in my wallet (all of which were useless), and provide visual information about my regular route to work that had construction magically spring up overnight. While I was traveling, agents helped me navigate the complicated neighborhood where I was staying in Butte, set up my new bluetooth keyboard when the one I packed crashed and burned, and guided me through the state Capitol in Helena. My Austria glasses arrived at my house three days after I got back, and I’ve found them incredibly useful for tasks that require the use of both hands – like sorting socks or organizing my closet. But the phone is just as useful when I just need someone to quickly tell me what my Instant Pot screen says after I hear a beep that heralds the end of the world. The agents have always been professional and approachable, providing useful information that I wouldn’t necessarily even think to ask. Even with technical issues – some of which have since been resolved – I like the ability to contact someone who can provide useful, unbiased visual information on my terms, and I have no problem paying for the service, even as I realize that their pricing points can be out of the reach of many of their customer base.
While the user experience has been slick and professional, where Aira often falls short is their customer support. After waiting nearly a month for the glasses, I had to call them multiple times to get a status update on where they were in the shipping process. When the glasses finally arrived, the Hot Spot that came with them (which would provide a data connection so my phone wouldn’t have to) wasn’t enabled with international access. That was finally resolved with a long call to tech support that could have been avoided if the unit would have already been enabled with international data.
As an Android user, I am limited in my use of Aira. Iphone users have lots of useful features – like the ability to text message an agent when they cannot talk – but the Android app does not have this capability. My app will frequently freeze when an agent tries to take a picture (I work around this by using the glasses), and I am not alone; to date, nothing has been done about this, despite multiple calls to tech support. And I pay exactly the same price as an Iphone user, with maybe a third of the functionality. Because I wasn’t using the minutes allotted to me in my pricing plan, I agreed to share them with a couple of friends; the on-boarding process for one of my friends – which is free – was charged to my purchased minutes. I had to make three calls over 3-4 days to get the minutes credited back to me. And now that credited minutes don’t expire, I shouldn’t have to call and get them re-instated at the renewal of my billing cycle… except that I did, and a part of me is expecting to have to do the same in January if I don’t use my credited minutes during the holidays.
Some people have said that Aira is a new company experiencing aggressive, rapid growth, and they should be forgiven for these issues because the service itself is so valuable. I disagree. The service is useful, the agents are professional and well-trained, but – while growth is painful – it’s clear that the customer support model is broken. Phone tag should not be the status quo for technical issues or billing concerns, and that’s what I see regularly in online spaces.
Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion – and dare I say controversy – about Aira’s business practices. While the customer service has been a frequent concern cited in social media spaces, it’s definitely not the only one. From appointing the CEO of Foundation Fighting Blindness – an organization that silenced concerns about their #HowISeeIt campaign – to their advisory board – to inconsistent messaging about pricing plans and roll-over minutes, to personal stories about attempts at customer retention that veer into blame territory, there’s plenty to be concerned about. I’ve read stories from explorers who talk about how they literally cannot live independently without the service; how much of that is the company marketing, and how far has the consumer base bought into it?
I think Aira has a lot of things going for it. But I think it has some very serious issues that it needs to address directly with its customer base. I’ve recommended the service as a useful tool to several friends, and I still think it’s true. However, the back-end issues have coloured my perception of the company and the service itself. And while I have lived without the service before – and can do so again – I’m not currently willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Hopefully, Aira will be able to listen to and appropriately address the loudly-voiced legitimate concerns of their customer base, who pay premium rates for a premium service with a few premium flaws.