Back in my younger days it wasn’t “cool” to wear glasses. If you donned a pair in elementary school you were a “four eyes.” In middle school, glasses made you a dork. By the time high school came around, glasses conferred firm status as a nerd. If glasses removed the eye-straining friction of reading the chalkboard, they replaced it with friction of a more social sort.
Fortunately the status of glasses has improved, and glasses are even worn as a badge of hipsterism—more than a visual aid, eyeglasses are often a fashion statement. Just ask my seven-year-old niece who was in tears when the doctor said she had perfect eyesight and didn’t need to wear glasses.
But while our attitude towards glasses may have progressed, the technology of glasses hasn’t advanced much over the past century. They’re still made of curved glass (or plastic) lenses that bend the light so that we can read a little better, or drive a little safer. Then again, if glasses haven’t evolved, it’s probably because they don’t have to. For most of us, they work fine, and for those who don’t like the way the look or feel, there are contact lenses.
For those people with complete vision loss, however, glasses don’t help. Their eyesight is so compromised that there’s nothing to correct. What they need is a new set of eyes.
Getting a new set of eyes is not medically possible, but thanks to a San Diego startup, blind people can now get help from able-sighted but remotely situated human agents, whose assistance can be the difference between getting stuck and getting around.
It appears to be easy to use. A blind individual equipped with Aira’s technology can press a button on the video camera-enabled headset to virtually call an agent for remote assistance. The video camera allows the agent to see the wearer’s environments, while her physical coordinates are transmitted as well. The agent verbally guides the blind individual—describing what’s in front of her, pointing out obstacles and helping her to navigate around them, recommending routes and activities along the way, pointing out interesting aspects of the environment, and even suggesting places to eat when prompted (with an assist from Yelp, it seems). With Lyft and Google Maps integration, agents are able to help their customers go almost anywhere.
In addition to helping blind individuals find their way, the service also seems to address the social isolation and loneliness they experience, by providing much-needed human contact. In offering human assistance to blind people in difficult situations, Aira acts much like a virtual companion who’s always at the ready when called upon.
Of course, the daily issues experienced by the blind are hard to fathom, and probably even harder to appreciate in a way that doesn’t trivialize them—given that a recent survey found that going blind was the worst thing people thought could happen to them.
Nevertheless, it’s inspiring to think about how the same sort of digital transformation that’s remaking supply chains and rendering business processes more accessible is making the world more accessible to individuals in need as well.
The unique advantage of digitization is its capacity to accurately represent almost anything, from objects to text, from sound to images, as bits and bytes that can be shared instantaneously across vast distances. Global interconnectedness may be yesterday’s news, but for those who are most isolated, being able to connect with others and share their experiences is transformative and meaningful.
The problems that confront business and those that face individuals may be different, but their solutions increasingly rely on the same binary code. Because whether it’s the inaccessible data on a paper invoice or the construction barriers blocking a blind person’s path, digitizing a problem allows us to share it, and that is often the first step to solving it.