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UCSD First Campus to Offer Agent-Assisted Service to Low-Vision Students

For the past year, Jimmy Cong, a vision-impaired student at the University of California, San Diego, has been testing out a technology and agent-assisted service called Aira to navigate the campus and access computer screens and documents. "If I can't see a button on the computer screen, I can call Aira and either through my smartphone's camera or a pair of smart glasses, an agent can guide my mouse on the screen to where the button or dialog box is located," he said. "I can get something done much faster than trying to squint at the screen. It is basically like having a friend with you just a tap away."

Now UCSD has announced that it has become the first Aira-enabled university in the United States. It is offering free smartphone access to the accessibility technology for vision-impaired members of its entire campus community, including students, staff and faculty.

Here is how Aira works: Once a user has downloaded a smartphone app, he or she taps a button to be put in touch with an Aira agent who can serve as a visual interpreter, helping navigate around campus or read a blackboard. The technology can be accessed through any camera-enabled iOS or Android device using the app. For a hands-free experience, the service can be paired with smart glasses provided by Aira as part of a paid subscription. (UCSD is making three pairs of the smart glasses available for students to try out in its Office for Students With Disabilities.) Aira has 150 agents located across the country and the service is available around the clock.

Perhaps it is not surprising that UCSD is the first university to adopt Aira campuswide because the venture capital-backed startup is based in San Diego. Its CEO, Suman Kanuganti, came up with the idea in 2014 as an MBA student at UC San Diego's Rady School of Management. He was inspired by a close friend who lost his vision. "I saw this as an underserved and untapped market," he said. "We created a company with a mission of providing equal access to the visual world for all the blind people in the country and in the world."

After lots of research and technology development, the company launched a commercial subscription service in 2017. It then started categorizing the thousands of interactions between agents and users to understand what people like most about the service and which elements made them feel most independent. For instance, the chaotic environment of an airport was a very popular place to use the service. Several airports agreed to pay the company to offer the service on their premises. That Aira Airport Network has now grown to 20 airports worldwide. "Soon thereafter we started rolling out the same concept to the universities," Kanuganti explained. "We found that a number of students are using Aira in their day-to-day campus navigation or reading from a blackboard in their classroom. We knew people use it, so we wanted to talk to universities about providing this as an accommodation and improve the campus experience for people who are blind."

Because he is a UCSD alumnus, Kanuganti reached out to its chancellor, Pradeep Khosla. "He saw what a beneficial service this is," Kanuganti said. "It was a no-brainer for him to say UCSD would pioneer this technology in a university setting."

Although UCSD is the first, Kanuganti said other universities have joined its higher education network and will be announced soon. "UCSD set the example," he said. "We hope to roll it out on every UC campus."

A double major in both music composition and visual arts/digital media, Cong said he can't wait to see what other students do with the service. "I use it when I think it will do something really fast for me, but other students might depend on it more than I do."

When he graduates, Cong said he plans to pay for an Aira subscription because he has found it so valuable. He is looking at a plan that costs $89 per month for 100 minutes of access. "That is plenty for me," he said. "It gives me peace of mind. It makes my day-to-day tasks faster and easier."

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.

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