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AT&T & Aira Tackle the 'Time Tax' With Assistive Glasses

Kelsey Kusterer Ziser

While Google Glass initially bombed among consumers and its wearers were dubbed "Glassholes," the technology has inspired some practical IoT applications, including the development of Aira's assistive connected glasses for blind individuals, which are now available globally in partnership with AT&T.

Aira CEO Suman Kanuganti says he bought a pair of Google Glasses for himself when the technology first emerged. Inspired by conversations with a blind colleague, Kanuganti spotted a new opportunity for Google Glass -- to connect the blind to human agents that could assist them in everyday activities such as navigating city streets, selecting produce at the grocery store, reading signage and more.

Since the company's inception in 2015, Aira has developed its own connected glasses, which were made commercially available in April 2017. Kanuganti says Google Glass' focus on augmented reality wasn't the right long-term fit for Aira's purposes which emphasize voice assistance over visual.

"The industry is very focused on augmented reality with a visual display," says Kanuganti. "Our company takes a different approach… using voice augmentation rather than overlaying visual information on top of the physical world."

Aira's connected glasses
Aira's connected glasses

Customers of Aira glasses can either connect to a human agent who guides them by accessing a dashboard with visual and locational information, or speak with "Chloe," Aira's AI which can read aloud prescription bill bottle labels, for example. Kanuganti says Aira gathers data -- such as video feeds, location information and transcripts -- that feed into the AI agent, creating a "human in the loop" AI system.

"As we learn about the activities blind people are doing, we categorize them and use our own data sets to create an autonomous agent to deliver information based on the context," he explains. Kanuganti predicts usage of the AI features in Aira will increase exponentially, and sessions with human agents will increase linearly.

Aira CEO Suman Kanuganti says the biggest benefits the Aira glasses bring to its customers a reduction in "the time tax." Aira aims to reduce the wait time its customers often experience in a variety of work and shopping experiences -- making it easier to navigate the grocery store and self-select produce utilizing the connected glasses, versus waiting 20 minutes for the availability of a grocery store employee that can guide them through the store, for example.

"We are augmenting their existing life with superior sets of information for them to be more efficient at work, experience things like shopping or entertainment, and do things previously not thought possible because they were lacking that visual information," he adds. "It all comes down to saving time and thus saving money."

In partnership with AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), Aira is now taking the glasses globally, connecting the glasses via AT&T's global SIM and MiFi pucks, says Chris Penrose, president of IoT for AT&T. The operator has also applied dynamic traffic management to prioritize traffic for users of Aira glasses, and is working with Aira to eventually fully embed connectivity into the glasses. In addition, Penrose says AT&T supports Aira with its own visual analytics expertise to assist the startup in further developing its AI platform.

"The long-term vision is to get connectivity directly into the glasses themselves, so working with Aira... to get to the right design and having that connectivity embedded in the glasses so you don't have to carry a separate device to power the connectivity," says Penrose.

With collaboration from AT&T, Aira's glasses will now be available outside the US in Australia, Canada and the UK. Aira glasses are available in some AT&T stores and Penrose says the operator plans to expand retail presence for the glasses. (See AT&T & Aira Announce Global IoT Agreement .)

AT&T and Aira are also working together to expand "Aira Free Zones" which includes more than ten airports that provide free connectivity so users aren't dinged with a reduction on their monthly minutes while in the airport. Kanuganti says since Aira's commercial launch last April, it now has thousands of customers that have used 100,000 sessions and over 1 million minutes.

Venture capital firms Lux Capital and ARCH Venture Partners initially provided seed funding to Aira in 2015 -- since then the company has raised about $15 million via Series A and B funding from Lux Capital and ARCH, in addition to JAZZ Venture Partners, Arboretum Ventures and more.

— Kelsey Kusterer Ziser, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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