How Technology Is Giving Sight To The Blind

Technological revolutions are aiding the visually impaired and empowering them to lead comfortable lives

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Technological innovation has changed how we go about our daily lives. It has helped us revolutionize the way we produce and acquire food. No more catching trains to distant destinations. We can now just hop in a car and take on the long journey on our own terms. From having to write letters and send them by post, we can now communicate with each other from the other side of the globe through the touch of a button. All these technological revolutions are brilliant, except for the blind. However, all that is beginning to change. The visually disabled are catching up to the rest of us, and TechKnow of Al Jazeera brought us up to date on this technological revolution in their latest episode.

Most of us take for granted a simple activity such as crossing the street. For the visually impaired, however, this is a daunting and often life-threatening task. All that changed with the introduction of Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS).

According to APS Guide, APS are integrated devices that communicate much-needed information about the WALK and DON’T WALK intervals at traffic intersections. In the mid-1970’s, APS systems were mass-marketed for the first time on US soil. The system at that time was based on a Japanese system that emitted sound from an overhead speaker during the WALK interval. In the mid-1990’s, integrated systems based on European and Australian systems were made available in the US. In these new systems, APS was integrated into the pedestrian pushbutton. These new systems also included vibrotactile WALK indication in addition to the audible indications, as well as a pushbutton locator tone to help the visually impaired find it. Tactile arrow points were also included so as to indicate the direction of travel on the crosswalk, and the volume of the APS automatically adjusted itself so that it could be heard over the noise of the traffic.

Currently, there are four different types of APS in use within the US: the pushbutton-integrated system, as described in the preceding paragraph and now the required type for all new installations of APS in the US; the pedhead-mounted system, which was installed between 1960 and 2000 in the US and entails a very loud speaker mounted on top of pedestrian signal heads (based on the Japanese APS system); the receiver-based system, which transmits messages via infrared or LED technology from the pedestrian signal to a personal receiver held by the individual; and vibrotactile-only systems, which has an arrow on the pushbutton housing or a pushbutton that vibrates during the WALK interval (vibrotactile-only systems do not, however, conform to the requirements of The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices of 2009). But APS is not the only technology that is helping the blind to see.

A symbol at a pedestrian crossing indicating the use of APS
Featured image credit: Jirat TeparaksaShutterstock

In 2014, Suman Kanuganti and Yuja Chang befriended blind communications professional Matt Brock, and together they started brainstorming how Google Glass technology could be used to help the blind and visually impaired become more mobile and independent. This planted the seed for what was to become Aira (pr. EYE-rah), a revolutionary tech company that develops transformative remote assistive technology that, according to their website, connects the blind user with a network of agents via smart glasses and a reality dashboard that allows agents to see what the blind person sees in real time. The name of the company is derived from the emerging field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the ancient Egyptian mythological being and symbol known as the Eye of Ra (RA).

Google Glass, the product that inspired the founders of Aira
Google Glass, the technology that inspired the founders of AiraFeatured image credit: Shutterstock

Aira agents communicate in real time with users and help them navigate whatever tasks they are undertaking. In the latest TechKnow episode, US Paralympic athletic champion Lex Gillette, who holds the long jump world record, navigates a grocery store with the help of Erin Carter, the manager of agent assistant operations at Aira. Recently, on a trip to Las Vegas, Gillette called on Aira and an agent helped him navigate around the strip, with Gillette recalling the experience as empowering. Carter says being an agent means assisting the blind and giving them more independence and freedom.

Aira provides various plans that users can subscribe to. The Basic plan costs $89 per month and provides the user with 100 minutes to be used to communicate with an agent. The Plus plan costs $129 per month and provides the user with 200 minutes. The Pro plan costs $199 per month and the user gets 400 minutes. The Premium plan costs $329 per month, a huge sum of money, but the user is provided with unlimited minutes. All plans also include glasses, data that is provided via AT&T Mifi, insurance for the hardware, a training session, as well as a six-hour window of access to agents.

According to recent statistics released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in October of 2017, an estimated 253 million individuals live with impaired vision. Of these 253 million people, 36 million are blind. Of the 36 million blind individuals, 81 percent are aged 50 years and above. Un-operated cataracts remain the leading cause of blindness, accounting for 35 percent of all cases, followed by uncorrected refractive errors at 21 percent and glaucoma at eight percent.

Fortunately, the WHO says that 80 percent of all vision impairment can be prevented or cured, and the prevalence of vision impairment worldwide has decreased since early estimates 1990s.