Here’s my honest, unbiased and real account of using the Aira service. I didn’t get any discounts or freebies before writing this so my review is unclouded.
However, I have been enthralled by the potential of Aira since I read the first review and heard the first videos on Youtube. So although I now come to this with a very level head, I opened the package with excitement and optimism when I received the Horizon kit almost a month ago.
The box is reasonably sized. About 13 inches diagonal and about two inches thick. Inside there are a few plastic air bags for padding, the Aira Horizon glasses case with the glasses inside, two tethering cables, a charging cable and a plug. There’s also a print booklet that probably has quick start instructions and a few Braille pages stapled together that also include the quick start instructions. It’s double sided Braille but it was fortunately easy to read.
The first thing I noticed was that the instructions were very clear but not dumbed down. I hate receiving a product created for people who are blind to find that the instructions are explaining what side is up, what buttons feel like and how to plug it in. The Aira manual assumed that you knew the basics and aside from explaining what direction the micro USB cable connected didn’t go into too much detail. I appreciated this as I’m not the fastest Braille reader and I just wanted to figure out how this worked as quickly as possible.
I was dismayed, frustrated and annoyed shortly after reading the instructions and turning on the device. I immediately found that the glasses had no audio output. Bone conduction would have been fantastic. Bose make a really stylish pair of sunglasses with bone conductive sound output in the arms of the glasses. Surely Aira could have done the same. In addition, the Bose sunglasses worked over Bluetooth where as the Aira Horizon glasses connect over a cable. At minimum, the tether cable could have another cable attached on to it with an earphone and a microphone. This could then connect into the 3.5mm audio port that sits right beside the micro USB port. Having a second cable isn’t ideal of course but it’s a lot better than supplying nothing at all. I ask you. What is the point in renting the Horizon kit that includes the glasses if by default you then need to hold the Horizon phone in your hand? It negates the main benefit of the glasses for the user. A cheap Bluetooth earpiece doesn’t cost all that much. Also, by pre-paring it, you would remove some of the complexity of using such a device. I’ll get to my horrific experience with Bluetooth later because although I feel very negatively about this particular part of the experience, overall, I’m very happy with Aira and I don’t want to come across as not liking what they do. Because it’s quite the opposite for the most part.
The first time I used Aira it was to look around a garden that I knew would have a lot of obstacles. The agent gave me a fantastic description of what was around me. There were a few toys in the garden for children, so the agent gave me descriptions of what they looked like, where they were and even how one of them worked. There was a toy with two holes, a ramp and a ball. I had no idea what this was for so the agent I spoke to googled it and gave me a description of the game. When my children came outside, I was able to give them pointers based on what I knew they would like. For example, I knew Méabh would love the game. I knew Rían would love the playhouse. So, although I had never been in that area before, I was able to encourage both children and join in with them when exploring the new activities without any in-person sighted assistance. This was incredibly empowering and marked the beginning of many great experiences with Aira. Let me go through a few of these very briefly because to detail each one would require separate blog posts but there are important points that are good and bad that I would really like you to be aware of.
- In the Arboretum in Dallas, the agent took pictures of the area and of my children, my wife and my mother in law. The agent also described the area in clear detail. At one point my wife and mother in law went to an area that I didn’t really want to walk through. So I connected to Aira again and the agent enabled me to take a walk independently around the grounds of this massive arboretum. The descriptions that were given were fantastic. At one point the agent described a tree as being rainbow shaped. I was guided over to it so that I could feel it. I got some landmarks off the agent so that when I met up with my family again I could independently bring them back to this weird rainbow shaped tree. Again, this was very empowering, but it was also quite special for my daughter in particular. Her daddy had found a rainbow tree while they were away. Méabh is a very caring child. She’s 6 now and especially when I don’t have my guide dog, she looks out for me. It’s not just me she looks out for of course. If a child falls in a playground she’s one of the first over to see if everything is okay. She just has that nature. So to be able to show her that I can be very independent even in completely new environments meant something to her.
- There were two times when just getting a coffee where Aira came in particularly handy. The first time, the agent found a suitable route and guided me right to the counter. It was very useful as the fastest route had no paths or side walks as they are called in America. So the agent found a route that would be safer. The second time was nice as well. The agent directed me to the counter then stayed really quiet. When the server came near, the agent told me where he was so I could point in that direction and place the order. When the coffee came out, the agent told me where to feel for it then offered to find a free table.
- I had the children on my own in a house that I wasn’t familiar with and as is commonly required, they needed food. I knew where the food was and I knew where the oven was as well. The Aira agent read out the cooking instructions on the packaging then even helped me to find the right temperature and setting on the oven.
- Now, here’s a bad experience. I was with my son and he needed a toilet. The Aira agent showed me where the toilet door was but really started to panic when I went to walk through the door. I understand now that this is because they are prohibited from recording but the agent handled this very badly. We had discussed where I needed to find. If the agent told me ahead of time of the rule, I would have explained what my requirement was and I’m sure we could have come to an agreement. I knew that the toilet that I was looking for was a single room where no one else could enter so my request was workable. The problem I have that I had hoped Aira could help me solve is as follows: When I bring my son to the toilet, I detest putting my hands down on anything and I cringe with dread with the thought’s of him putting his hands on anything Revolting either. Men’s toilets can be disgusting places. So, I spend some time before I let him do what he needs simply determining to a reasonable level that the place isn’t covered in pee. I would have greatly appreciated it if the agent could have taken a quick look at the toilet area and given me an indication as to if the place was filthy or not. Also, in what direction the toilet was in the room as well. These are simple things that people take for granted and when I’m on my own, I’m not particularly bothered with but when you have a very young child along as well, it’s prudent to be more aware and careful. The agent really didn’t handle this to the expected high standard.
- One of my favourite experiences with Aira was again related to my children. We were at a massive Lego exhibition, an expansive city scape stretched out in front of me behind glass walls. At intervals control panels were placed to enable interactive features. For example, buttons in front of a stadium turned on and off lights. Buttons at a construction site moved a crane around. Buttons at a train station turned on and off the lights and moved the trains. It was great to walk around this exhibit with my two children and be able to share in the excitement of this really impressive Lego city. All while an Aira agent discreetly gave me details. Well, reasonably discreetly, I couldn’t get the Bluetooth headset working but it was fine for that environment. This was especially great for my son. To bring him over and know that if he pressed particular buttons specific actions could be seen through the glass was great. He was amazed.
- At one point, an Aira agent was guiding me to a house. We took a side street that I had never walked on before when suddenly a dog came charging toward me. The Aira agent saw and heard the dog and calmly reassured me that the dog was actually behind a gate so couldn’t get out. This was a relief and again shows the value of this service.
Of course there are the other every day needs as well. Someone sent me an error message in an email that was included in a screen shot. Indeed , I could have used OCR to read this but it takes time and it’s not always accurate. Instead, I just held my phone in front of the screen, called Aira and the agent read the error. This agent also demonstrated the usefulness of Aira by going one step beyond. It was obvious from the error that more text in another part of the screen was necessary to make a decision so without prompting that text was provided as well.
There is something you should know about me before reading my next point. I’m terrible at accepting help. Even when I really need it. But I am happy to pay people to help. But when I pay people I expect high standards. I was comfortable using Aira for both mundane and interesting tasks. I was happy to keep the person on the line a little longer than strictly necessary to double check something or just give me a bit of extra information because I know I’m paying for this service. So I know I’m paying for the privilege of that persons time. For this reason, I think Aira is going to be a vital tool in my independence and mobility toolkit. But Aira has failings.
- Lack of integrated headset in the glasses. I’ve written about this earlier.
- Frequent signal drops. This doesn’t just happen when in large buildings. This made me not even bother trying to use Aira sometimes.
- Bugs in the Aira Horizon software. Sometimes if a connection is weak and you get cut off, it tries to reconnect you. But if that too fails, the software can get stuck in a loop where it says the user with this ID is already on a call. Therefore it doesn’t connect. Also, at times, I needed to bring the device to someone who could see as there was an error on the screen that asked to refresh or reload the Aira app. These alerts were not spoken.
- Bluetooth again. Aira is developed in a way to make it incredibly easy to use but with this ease of use you have some trade offs. This requires that Aira works absolutely perfectly as it is sometimes taking over from the default functionalities of the Android platform that it has been built on top of. Take this example. You try to connect a Bluetooth headset. You hold down the button on the Aira Horizon handset and say “Turn on Bluetooth” Then you say “Connect to Bluetooth device”. It tells you what device has been found / previously used and you say “Connect to it”. Every single time at this point I had a problem. The Bluetooth headset would be correctly connected but Aira still didn’t use it. I know it was connected because if I press and hold the call button on the headset, the Android assistant would start talking in my ears and I could access some basic https://www.android.com functionality. But Aira would continue talking through the phone speaker. This was absolutely infuriating. I gave up one day and threw the headset in my pocket. Then suddenly Aira just started speaking through the headset! But that only worked once. And I have no idea why. Every other time, Aira just would or could not work through Bluetooth. Unless they fix this problem, I would strongly discourage anyone from paying for Horizon. Because without a reliable Bluetooth headset, it’s really pointless.
- The earlier issue where the agent panicked when I was about to walk into a toilet. That made me feel bad for the agent that I put the person in that position but then I got mad at
Aira for making me feel bad. I don’t pay $99 per month to feel bad for someone. That agent should have made this rule known to me before I reached that door so that I could have explained my very reasonable request.
But I must stress again, the benefits far outweigh the problems. I will continue to use Aira. Now that I have returned from holiday, my use case will be different but I know that it will be useful and you can be assured that I will write about my day to day use of Aira in the coming weeks. I have sent the Horizon Horizon kit back and I am now just using my iPhone. At least with the iPhone I can use a Bluetooth headset and if I need to carry something in my hands anyway, it may as well be the iPhone with it’s better camera. It’s also one less thing to carry around.
There’s one more thing I want to say. The value in Aira isn’t it’s technology although that is certainly an impressive part. It’s the human at the end of the line acting as your eyes. They take this responsibility seriously and the strong training they have received is very obvious. Their directions, respect and awareness is very clear to see.