While at the 2018 CSUN Assistive Technology Conference in San Diego, Content and Marketing Specialist Vivian Cullipher set out to interview folks on their involvement in CSUN. She also wanted to learn more about their passion for digital accessibility and share their insights and motivations with you.
In this :15 interview, Vivian talks with Amy Bernal, Vice President of Customer Experience for Aira. Aira uses augmented reality to connect people who are blind or low vision to a live, professional agent, providing instant access to information. In this discussion, Amy talks about the role CSUN played in product launch and testing. She also explains how their customers, or Explorers, impact feature development and how Aira CEO and cofounder Suman Kanuganti inspired her involvement in the company.
Our favorite part? Well, that’s when Amy describes her take on assistive technology (00:10:37).
Amy Bernal Interview on Aira, CSUN 2018
This CSUN accessibility interview was recorded Tuesday, March 20, 2018.
Amy Bernal CSUN Transcript
VIVIAN CULLIPHER: Hi, my name is Vivian Cullipher. I’m here with Microassist and one of the things I wanted to do while I was at CSUN this year, was interview a few personalities from different aspects of the conference. I’m here right now with Amy Bernal. She is with Aira, which is an assistive technology that enables those with blindness, or with vision impairments, to be able to navigate themselves around town more independently. Did I describe that fairly correctly?
AMY BERNAL: Yeah, I would say we provide instant access to information. Some people have said we’re a description of life. A lot of people see our website and think about navigation, but really, that’s only about a quarter of the sessions that our explorers use the service for. So really, think about us for describing anything that’s relevant to your life.
VIVIAN: I can see exactly what you’re talking about. So pulling something out of the kitchen cabinet and reading whatever is on the label, or a medicine cabinet, or something like that, that could be another aspect for Aira.
VIVIAN: Okay. Well, I think I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit because I’m just so excited. I know a little about Aira just from different advertisements and different interactions that we’ve had with the product. But I would like to get to know you a little bit. Tell me about yourself, what your role is with Aira and why you’re here at CSUN.
AMY: Sure. My name is Amy Bernal and I’m the VP of Customer Experience. And what that means is I am obsessed with our explorers, what we call our users. Our users are our explorers, and their interaction and experience with our service. And so that means, what it is like for them to get their pair of smart glasses and open them for the first time? What is it like interacting with the agent? How can we improve the efficiency and just the delight that agents provide for our explorers? And also, how do we build community and engage our explorers and to talk to each other, and share ideas about how to use the service? And also help us build a smart city, an Aira city really, in every location to facilitate a benefit to them as explorers. So, I really care about the whole end to end experience for our explorers.
And I’m here at CSUN because it’s our home town. We are a San Diego based company and we actually launched officially, three years ago, here at CSUN. And that was not meaning that we’re commercially available, but we set up a booth. Our CEO and co-founder Suman, brought a few of his intern staff and, really, had a prototype that he said, “Let’s bring this to CSUN and get actual real feedback to get a gut check. Are we going in the right direction? Are we really meeting a need that hasn’t been met before in the community?” So, it’s a really special place, not only ’cause it’s our backyard, but also because it’s the first place we put Aira in the hands of real people.
VIVIAN: Well, and this is the conference to do that at, right? I mean, this is where you would get really thorough engaged, both positive and negative, or helpful comments about a new assistive technology. You’ve got so many experts here at the conference that would be able to help you out with that What a wonderful place to launch, it is just ideal. Well, I heard you mentioned agents, I heard you mention smart glasses, I heard you mention smart cities, tell people what Aira is and how it works.
AMY: Absolutely. Aira is, really, a service that connects or users to a real person, and that real person is called an Aira agent. They are highly trained and a part of our team. And they’re also powered by some AI intelligence. We just announced Hey Chloe, which is our AI agent that will make a little bit of a debut here at CSUN, so we want folks to come check that out. But really, the experience of our product is the Aira agent. And so, we leverage smart glasses to connect our users to that agent. So when you put our glasses on and launch our app, you connect to an Aira agent. That Aira agent is able to see in real time with less than a two millisecond delay, that video stream. And they’re describing everything they can see based on your profile. What is the level of detail that you like in terms of your descriptions? Do you like clock face, do you like cardinal or left or right, if they’re helping you navigate somewhere. So that’s the service. We leverage technology to connect our users to real trained professional humans called Aira agents.
VIVIAN: And what has the reception been like so far?
AMY: Well, we launched commercially about a year and a half ago. And we did so because people, when they tried us at places like CSUN or different conferences across the country, they really said, “Oh my gosh, I want to buy this. I want to have this in my life.” And so they accelerated our go-to market, if you will. And one of the things that you brought up, CSUN being the perfect place to do that kind of testing. We’ve really relied on our explorer community to help co-innovate with us, in terms of future developments. Everything that we do at Aira is 100% based on what our explorers have taught us about what they want the product to do. Every feature is really led by their suggestions, by their creativity, the way that they’ve leveraged the service.
I’ll give one example, the photo feature, and agents able to take a snapshot on their dashboard. And that snapshot takes a picture basically from the camera on the glasses. And they use that often to zoom in to a super high resolution image and read very small text. You can imagine sometimes the ingredients on a small label or sometimes instructions. When you get something in a package, those instructions can be in very small type. But what we learned is that explorers said, “Well, can you take a picture of my dog? I wanna put that on Facebook.” Or, “Can you take a picture of me and my family, and we can do a selfie and put that on social media?” And so, explorers taught us that, that capability, that feature, was something that we really needed to refine and productize. And so, it’s just one small example of how our explorers have really helped us refine our product right now.
VIVIAN: That is wonderful. They’ve really been involved in the evolution.
VIVIAN: Of the product. That’s excellent. So, tell me, what was the catalyst for you get to involved in assistive technology? Or did you start off in assistive technology?
AMY: I did not. The catalyst for me was actually our CEO. Suman and I did our MBA together, here at UCSD. And he had this as a passion project. He was working full-time and developing Aira on the side. And I saw him take that leap and leave his full-time job to really grow Aira and launch it. And observing what he did and the passion that he had for the community and bringing technology to a place that does something to really give people what they deserve, which is instant access to information. Information that they can do whatever they want with. And a lot of times that means having something that is easier, faster or more enjoyable and perhaps, more independent than they would have otherwise. And so, seeing what he did and his journey, it was something that when he asked me to join, I thought, “I absolutely have to.” Because who doesn’t wanna be part of building something that really makes people’s lives better, and makes really our whole society better. Giving what is a human right of visual information, is something that feels like a really fun, good thing to be a part of.
VIVIAN: And so, have you been a part of the Aira, I don’t know if launch is the right word, I just see this network of Aira agents all over San Diego right now because of CSUN being here. Describe that in your words ’cause I know, obviously, you know that a lot better than I do.
AMY: One of the things we launched, the end of 2017, was this concept of what we call site access through our Aira partner networks. We have many different partner networks. We have the Aira Airport Network, we have the Aira Employer Network, the Aira Education Network, Aira Destination Network. It’s really the concept of, you can make your location, if that’s a business, if that’s a company, if that’s a park or a convention center, you can make that 100% instantly accessible through partnering with Aira. What we do is ask that destination to buy a brick of minutes, and when a user enters that location through geofencing, those minutes are free to them. In San Diego, this week at CSUN, almost anywhere you go is going to be free to use.
When you landed at San Diego Airport, those minutes are free. If you had downloaded our app and had never tried Aira before, you are able to sign in as an Aira guest and use the service for the first time free of cost. When you got to the CSUN location at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, same thing, all of your service is free here. If you got to dinner in the Gaslamp Quarter tonight, we’ve done a whole downtown free access. We also partnered with the city of San Diego, Balboa Park is a site access location as well as the Central Library, at a Convention Center, and really many other places. We really want to have this experience, showcase for other cities that they can do the very same thing. And they can do it without installing infrastructure or training people in any way. It’s really, join our network and we will do all of the work for you to make your city an Aira smart city.
VIVIAN: That just sounds absolutely fascinating, and it sounds a lot of fun. And I can tell that you have a real passion for the entire project. Now that you have become this deeply involved with this type of assistive technology, what would you tell other technologists, other businesses, about assistive technology and the value that it brings, in general?
AMY: I would say assistive technology is just technology. I think that’s the beauty of Suman as our CEO, is he is a technologist first. And it was the concept of augmented reality. And how is augmented reality going to help solve society’s problems. It’s either gonna solve problems or it’s gonna create them. And he was of the mindset that it was gonna solve some. And so, one of the ways that he found to solve them was through providing that access for visual information to people that are blind or low vision. And so, I think instead of thinking about it as assistive technology or “just normal regular technology” there’s not a really a difference. It’s really, how are you solving a customer problem with a technology that already exists?
And so, I know when we have brought on engineers for our apps on android or iPhone or AI, they come because they love doing something that really meets a customer need and they love solving a problem. But it doesn’t feel like they’re doing different or assistive technology. It’s just they love technology and they know that they’re using their skills to build something that solves a problem for people, that’s real. And it’s more than an online marketing bot, or a way to have people connect via social media in a different way. I’d say assistive technology is technology, and it’s just about how you’re meeting a new problem, or meeting and solving an unmet need for a certain population.
VIVIAN: It’s almost like where you’re pointing at.
AMY: Exactly, yeah. How are you using your technology?
VIVIAN: No, that makes a lot of sense. Well, the final question I want to ask, actually there’s two. One is, how does somebody learn more about Aira?
AMY: First, if you’re at CSUN, you can come. We have three presentations on Friday morning at 8 AM, 9 AM and 11 AM. We’re gonna be talking about Aira in an educational setting, Aira in an employment setting, and then we’re gonna be talking about Hey Chloe, which is our AI assistant in our new smart glasses. So, three did topics. Or you can go to our website, which is www.aira.io. The dot io is important, a lot of people have hit dot com.
VIVIAN: That’s good to know. We’ll keep that in mind and we’ll put that in the resources section too, when the blog is actually posted on the website as well. Amy, it was a pleasure meeting you. Is there anything else that I’ve left out or a passion project you wanna talk about? This sounds like your passion project.
AMY: Yeah. A few other exciting things at Aira, we’ll probably be going global in this next year and so that’s another exciting thing at CSUN. It’s just seeing people from so many different countries an opportunity to meet with them and see how we can bring Aira to new communities. What else is exciting? I think we’ve hit the big things. We have a new … Oh, new hardwares, Horizon Smart Glasses is another thing that we’ll be demoing here at CSUN. We have built our own smart glasses and we’ll be launching those this spring to some of our beta testers and then by fall, a general availability launch. So, lots of exciting things in this year.
VIVIAN: That is fantastic. Thank you so much for spending your time with me. I really do appreciate it.
AMY: Well, it was great to meet you and thanks for having me.
VIVIAN: Absolutely welcome.
- Using AR Technology to Bridge the Education Gap Among the Blind — Friday, March 23, 2018 – 8:00 AM PST
- Aira: Empowering Employment Success for the Blind Through AR Technology — Friday, March 23, 2018 – 9:00 AM PST
- Welcome to Chloe, Aira’s Autonomous Agent to Assist the Blind — Friday, March 23, 2018 – 11:00 AM PST
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Image Credit: Microphone by David Marioni from the Noun Project