App translates voice to vision for visually impaired

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A new app is translating voice into a kind of vision for the visually impaired.

Aira is an app that helps the blind and visually impaired be independent. A St. Petersburg, Florida company is using the new technology to change the way its intrepid employees navigate their daily lives.

Aira is a lifeline for employees at Vispero, whose abilities to develop and test technology for the visually impaired is unmatched in the seeing world.

They're developing hardware and software that helps their community function and thrive. Braille keyboards and speech-reading software are two of the many projects Vispero employees are tasked with perfecting.

While technology is changing the world for the visually impaired and blind, sometimes there's little replacement for the human factor. Aria is combining the two.

"I am totally blind. I've been blind since birth," Vispero Vicky Cardona said as she tapped a cane in front of her.

As she made her way to the elevator, she pushed a Braille button before descending to the office cafeteria to get a soda from the vending machine.

A voice coming from Cardona's phone chimes in: "And a touch to the right, just a touch more to the right, and perfect," the stranger says as Cardona hovers her fingers over buttons on the soda machine.

"What is this one down here?" she asks the stranger, an Aira agent.

"That is Coca Cola Zero," the agent answers.

With the Aira app, a phone's camera or smart glasses connects users to certified, trained agents who talk them through their task, describing surroundings or reading information.

"It's the next best thing than actually being able to see. The fact that they can see that through these glasses, that they're basically able to see what I would see if I could see is just mind blowing to me," Cardona smiles wide.

Brian Carver, a fellow Vispero employee agrees with the app's life-changing potential.

"I personally can only see light if it's bright enough. I can't make out any details... I can't read. I can't see if something's in front of me. I can't see you," he says.

The first time he used Aira is a moment he'll never forget.

"I got very emotional. The first time was to go into a convenience store to get a few things, sodas and chips, and I was able to go right in without asking for any help. It was quite liberating," Carver said.

Cardona said she felt the same.

"I started crying," she remembered. "The first time I got the glasses I actually had the Aira agent help me take a selfie."

She's grinning against a bright sky in the selfie, and it's displayed prominently on her Facebook page.

Inspired to work in the field by his father, a blinded veteran, Vispera's vice president of software product management says while Vispera doesn't make Aira - Aira makes a big difference in what they're able to achieve.

"Everybody just feels like they did something good each day," Eric Damery said.

He still gets goosebumps talking about what they do every day.

Aira uses data like any other app - so the cost depends on the data plan. But several businesses, including Walgreens and AT&T, are offering free data usage when using Aira in their stores.

Uber and Lyft also are working with Aira to give users rides.

AT&T spokeswoman Karen Mcallister says she would like to see more companies offer free data in their retail locations.

"It really gives just great independece to people with low vision," she said.

Beyond daily life, Aira agents can help users experience special moments. One agent saying, "recently we got calls to describe a wedding. We get lots of calls about that and about Disney Land and Disney World or music fests or even watching a movie at home."

Cardona said it best: "You can just do just about anything you put your mind to with this technology. If you're creative, persistent, and enthusiastic you can do anything in life."