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Virtual guides offer the visually impaired new sight in the City of Mesa

Posted at 5:22 PM, Oct 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-12 20:22:13-04

MESA, AZ — On Friday, the City of Mesa is taking a revolutionary step to make sure those who are blind or visually impaired, visiting or living in the area, can navigate their surroundings or complete daily tasks safer and easier than ever before.

“I love to travel, love to visit new locations, and do a lot of travel just for my work,” said Jenine Stanley.

Stanley says that’s not always as simple as it sounds, at least not for her and for understandable reasons.

“I have been visually impaired my whole life, and totally blind for about the past 30 years or so,” said Stanley.

She says those like her in the blind community tend to be reliant on others for a variety of critical tasks at times. From directions to and from a particular location to reading mail, depending on what is needed can make all the difference on when help can arrive.

“We do a lot of relying on other people for information and that information comes when they are able to give it to us which isn’t always when we want it,” said Stanley with a chuckle.

A new app partnering with the City of Mesa is changing that. It’s called Aira. It pairs blind and low visibility users with a virtual guide and through the person's camera phone, they become their eyes.

“Just because somebody has a problem with their vision doesn’t mean that they don’t need independence, and to be able to explore their city and their world, just the way you and I would,” said Alison Brooks with Visit Mesa.

Brooks says on Friday, anyone visiting or living in Mesa can use the service for free.

“What it does is it connects them with a trained professional that works as their visual interpreter as they explore the world,” said Brooks.

“Everything from reading pregnancy tests, to reading physical mail, to reading signage, to navigating the city, cooking, is this Diet Pepsi or Diet Coke, is this shampoo or conditioner,” said Aira CEO Troy Otillio.

He says by connecting with a human agent and receiving real-time assistance, users, which they call explorers, can find their way around shops, buildings, hotels and navigate daily tasks faster and easier.

For users, access to Aira can have a major impact. According to research from the company, the team has heard from people for whom the technology has enabled them to do everything from simply taking a walk in their neighborhood by themselves for the first time to hiking in the wilderness to running marathons.

Only around 53% of blind or low-vision students make it from freshman to sophomore year of college; data from the past year of 100 students using Aira shows that the technology brings that up to 92%. Aira similarly helps ease access to the mainstream workplace for visually impaired people. Currently, around 70% of low-vision people are not employed full-time; Aira’s mission is to lower that figure down to 7%.

“Together you can accomplish tasks that otherwise would be more challenging, you might wait for someone else to help you with or you might not do it at all,” said Otillio.