Blind for more than 30 years, Paul Mimms — who lost sight in his left eye as a 23-year-old serving in Vietnam and years later lost sight in his right to glaucoma — has long relied on helpful technologies.
His “talking” bathroom scale tells him his weight. “It’s not nice,” he joked.
A diabetic, Mimms, 72, has a talking glucose meter to tell him his blood sugar. He has a low-tech white cane and a talking laptop computer.
“Alexa,” he said recently, starting a command for Amazon’s voice-activated home assistant, “turn on ‘Good Morning.’ ”
Immediately, the shades and curtains in his Kansas City, North, home open. End table lights click off. The assistant helps him control everything from his television to his garage and front doors. A talking price gun reads the bar codes on cans and bags of food, reciting nutritional information, even recipes.
So Mimms was hardly shy when a relatively new startup company asked him to try a new pair of smart glasses — in fact, his are Google Glass, the very kind that flopped with consumers in 2014 but now help him manage even better.
“It’s empowering,” Mimms said. “That’s my favorite word. It’s empowering.”
The glasses do not restore or sharpen sight. Instead, blind or visually impaired individuals who are wearing the glasses use a phone app to connect to a live person, known as an “agent,” located somewhere in the United States. Through the camera in the glasses, the agent can see what the visually impaired user cannot. The agent and user communicate through the phone and an earbud.
The San Diego-based company, Aira (pronounced “Ira”), began enrolling customers in 2016. For prices ranging from $89 per month to $329 per month, Aira subscribers receive both the glasses and a certain number of minutes they can have with agents, ranging from 100 minutes each month to an unlimited number.
“We’ve had users go hiking on trails, finding their paper in the morning. You name it, we’ll do it,” said Amy Bernal, speaking from San Diego as Aira’s vice president for customer experience.
One user of Aira’s technology used the glasses in April to run the Boston Marathon.
There are caveats, however. “Obviously, our agents are not going to go into the restroom or any place where something private happens,” she said.
The National Federation of the Blind is more than enthusiastic about the technology. Last year, it announced it was investing in the business. Federation president Mark Riccobono joined Aira’s board of advisers.
“We do like the technology; we believe that particularly as it continues to advance, it definitely is going to have a place in the lives of blind people,” said Chris Danielsen, the federation’s director of public affairs.
By “advance,” Danielsen is referring to the technology’s use of social media sites and artificial intelligence. Besides connecting blind users to an agent, the app also links to users’ other technologies and social media sites, including profiles, photographs of contacts, GPS or Google Maps for directions and Yelp reviews of businesses.
The idea is that, even without an agent, blind users wearing the glasses would be able to tap into, say, the floor plan of an unfamiliar airport or shopping mall or grocery store. The technology would guide them to a destination. A future application might be the use of one’s contact photographs and facial recognition software to guide a blind user to a friend in a crowd.
“Of course, the agents can already do this,” Danielsen said. “Aira has connection to your contacts and your pictures. That may be also something that artificial intelligence can do in the future.”
Mimms, who was tapped to test the technology as an early user, has been using the glasses for more prosaic reasons, such as going shopping.
At home this week, he used the glasses and an agent to read the cooking instructions on the back of a package of chicken tenders. The glasses and agent also help with general mobility.
“Getting from point A to point B is one of the most difficult things we have to accomplish,” Mimms said. In general, audible cellphone instructions have been helping the visually impaired for years, providing directions using GPS coordinates and cellphone map applications.
Having the smart glasses and an agent, he said, is like having a guide who is able to point out landmarks.
“One thing you can do is identify things along your path. You can discover things,” said Mimms, who after leaving the U.S. Navy earned his master’s degree in social work from the University of Kansas. Part of his career has been working with blind veterans for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Mimms said it has long been a bother to go shopping and feel required to ask for help from a customer service employee.
“Sometimes you go to the store, you get some kid who’s started two days ago that’s going to be your helpmate. They don’t know where anything is, but that’s who they can spare because they’re busy.”
Mimms said it’s important to note that using the glasses with a remote agent peering through the lenses does not necessarily replace a cane or guide dog.
“Basically, it just greatly enhances one’s self-reliance or independence to do a wide variety of tasks,” he said. “I’m going to take a trip to Cancun here in the next couple of weeks.
“They’ll help me out with that.”