July 8, 2019

Sound And Vision: The Smithsonian Institution Is Rolling Out An App To Help The Visually-Impaired

By Maura Currie

Daniel Frye of Aira and Beth Ziebarth of Access Smithsonian during a demonstration of the Aira app at the Museum of American History. <i>Maura Currie/WAMU</i>

Daniel Frye of Aira and Beth Ziebarth of Access Smithsonian during a demonstration of the Aira app at the Museum of American History. Maura Currie/WAMU

“So we’re going to go down this hallway, Dan, and then there’ll be set of glass doors on your right. It’s a pull handle and it’ll open out.”

Daniel Frye is visually impaired. His guide dog Hawthorne helps out with navigation where he can, but there are some key elements, like vocal instructions, that he just can’t relay to his human companion.

Hawthorne is, presumably, also not of much help if Daniel wants to explore the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Not running into things or people is one issue, but knowing the significance of the exhibits around you, and learning from them, is beyond even the best of dogs.

Hawthorne, Frye’s service dog, looks on as his companion demonstrates the Aira app. Maura Currie/WAMU

Enter Aira.  Daniel Frye is also the Director of Public Sector Engagement and Strategy for a company that’s developed an app that can do what a guide dog can’t; via a smartphone or pair of smart glasses, Aira connects its visually-impaired users — or “explorers” –with a live interpreter who can see via a live video stream and relay the user’s surroundings.

The Smithsonian started their rollout of Aira earlier this year. The app is already available as a subscription service to users, and Aira Access, the version that’s free to use, is in several airports and retail locations. Their partnership with the Smithsonian Institution means that, like a Wi-Fi hotspot, Aira service is immediately available to anyone with the app once they enter a Smithsonian in D.C. or the National Zoo.

Frye uses his smartphone camera to transmit live video of his surroundings at the Museum of American History. Maura Currie/WAMU

The partnership also means that agents will eventually be able to go beyond simply reading placards and describing statues.  Smithsonian employees are working on creating a repository of background information on the most famous exhibits, so that Aira agents will be able to contextualize, say, the famous ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.

Aira is not designed to replace guide dogs or live tour guides. The crux of the project, according to Frye and Beth Ziebarth, Director of Access Smithsonian, charged with making the institution more accessible, is to make sure that visitors have options commensurate with how independent they want to be. If they’re in the mood to be social and move at a group’s pace, specialized tour groups are still available; but if they want to set their own pace, something like Aira might work for them.

Frye uses his smart glasses and Aira app to communicate with a sighted agent who’s based in San Diego. Maura Currie/WAMU

Access Smithsonian says that employees, volunteers and sighted guests at the museums are going to be critical in helping to spread the word about Aira. That the service is free inside museums will be a key selling point, but so will creating an environment where using Aira feels natural and welcome. “You may see a blind or low-vision person with their phone up, or wearing a pair of smart glasses, walking through the museum independently,” says a pamphlet given to Smithsonian workers. “That’s great! You can say ‘Hi, are you using Aira? Would you like additional assistance?'”

Again, the key is offering options but not making assumptios. For low-vision or blind individuals like Daniel Frye, the very option to go at one’s own pace and explore a museum is novel — and having that resource available, whether he chooses to use it or not, is a signal that he’s welcome.

For more on Aira and projects from Access Smithsonian, listen to our segment on accessibility and cultural attractions here.

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