Business & Tech

Remote guides linked by app will aid a visually impaired marathoner

April 14, 2017 | Littleton, MA Erich Manser is a legally blind athlete running the Boston Marathon using Aira technology, which serves as a visual interpreter for the blind. Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe.
Kieran Kesner for The Boston Glo
Erich Manser is a legally blind athlete running in the Boston Marathon using Aira’s technology to link him to visual interpreters who’ll guide him during the race.

In the hit TV thriller “24,” technology guru Chloe O’Brian is Jack Bauer’s second set of eyes, remotely providing him with vital information in real time. And in real life, San Diego-based Airahas developed a remote visual interpreter for the visually impaired that will be used Monday during the Boston Marathon.

Erich Manser, an IBM accessibility researcher and avid runner who was diagnosed as a child with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease causing blindness, will use the technology when he runs in Boston for the eighth time.

Manser, of Littleton, typically runs with two sighted guides.But this year, one of the guides will be an Aira agent, Jessica Jakeway, who will direct Manser through the grueling course from her home in Columbus, Ohio.

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“I’m also a runner, so we connected on that right away,” Jakeway said.

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The Aira smartphone application (available for iPhone and Android devices) is paired with tiny cameras mounted on wearable devices such as Google Glass or Vuzix. When the app is opened, Aira agents can access the blind user’s visual dashboard, which enables the remote agents to see and hear what the user is experiencing in real time. From there, Aira’s nationwide network of about 25 agents can guide users through a variety of activities through direct oral communication.

“This is probably the first application ever on the planet using augmented reality in the consumer space,” said Aira’s chief executive, Suman Kanuganti.

Jakeway has been guiding Manser on training runs for the past couple of months to prepare for the race.

“We had the ability to be very conversational and descriptive during training,” Manser said. “In Boston we’re going to be using shorter commands such as ‘move left,’ ‘move right,’ or ‘keep straight,’ just to communicate quickly.”

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Manser said that during the race he’ll be using Jakeway primarily to help him navigate the course without bumping into anything or anyone. Jakeway will have access to everything Manser sees and hears in real time through her Aira dashboard.

“It’s not a proven use for the technology yet,” Manser said. “For everyone’s safety we still plan to have a human guide around.”

Manser is running as a member of Team With A Vision, the marathon team of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Aira partnered with the American Foundation for the Blind in 2016.

“What’s neat about the dashboard is that we can tell what the temperature is where users are, look for restaurants, bus stops, and even call Ubers,” Jakeway said of potential uses outside of running marathons. “I can track where the car is located to ensure [users] get in the correct vehicle.”

Agents can also access users’ personal information, such as age, address, directional preferences, and if they use a guide dog or cane.

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Kanuganti said his company, incorporated in 2016, has received $2.2 million in funding. The CEO said his goal is to have the platform covered by most insurance plans, but as of now users are charged $89 to $329 a month.

Shelby Grebbin can be reached at shelby.grebbin@globe.com.